Imagine if I wrote this letter to my local dentist:
Dear Sir, I’d like to come and be a dentist for two weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short-term dentists. We have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.
P.S. Can you drive us around, translate for us and help take cool photos for our Facebook pages?
I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the dentist received that letter. We don’t have short-term social workers, or short-term bio-scientists. We don’t have short-term gastro-enterologists or short-term politicians. So why do we have short-term missionaries in ever-increasing numbers?
Here’s the problem. We’ve created in our minds a false continuum. At one end of the continuum is “short-term missions” and at the other end is something we call “long-term missions.” We think of them as pretty much the same thing, but with differing lengths of service. But they’re not the same thing. Not at all. And by naming them both “missions,” we’re missing the point.
It might help at this point to situate “long-term missions” properly. Let’s just agree right up front that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God.
As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a vocation.
That’s the term we need to embrace. It will put everything else in its proper place. Our vocation—whether in butchering, baking or candlestick-making—is the primary means by which we serve God.
So, some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in cross-cultural service among the poor. Humanitarian work, Bible translation, social entrepreneurship—these have all been labeled “long-term missions.” But they are just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God and His upside-down Kingdom.
When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work that works.
Now we can better understand why “short-term missions” is such a misleading term—and find a better place for it in our journey to serving God.
Truly, these short-term missions trips are generally not “mission”—they are not part of a vocation to serve cross-culturally, because a vocation does not take place in two weeks or two years.
When correctly framed, these trips can be important and even life-changing seasons of engagement with the poor. Here are three suggestions for renaming short-term mission trips:
1. Vision (or Exposure) Trips. A focused, intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor.
What the eye has not seen, the heart cannot grieve over. So it’s natural that when people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. The rest of our lives are irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed. We gain vision.
2. Learning Exchanges. Times when our theology and understanding of the world is rocked to the core and deconstructed.
When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation—as a builder, surgeon or dentist, for example—but are open to learning from God while they are passing on expertise to others in another country.
3. Discernment Retreats. Where we discern our vocation more deeply on the margins.
To pursue a vocation in any field without the perspective of the world’s poor (where God’s heart and good news is centered) is folly. How can we be a banker for God if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the homeless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students?
These trips could spark a new vocation—or even be a partial outworking of our current vocation (e.g., who serves overseas from time to time).
Let’s get our labels right, and hopefully our practice and understanding will follow.
This article was originally published on craiggreenfield.com. Used here with permission.
Craig Greenfield is the author of Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world. He is also the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement for vulnerable children in Asia and Africa.