This is an article from the January-February 2000 issue: Short-Term Missions

Not an End in Itself

Not an End in Itself

Bethany School of World Mission integrates short-term into its Bachelor's training.

Like many missionaries of my (and of a previous) gener-ation, I arrived on the field in 1981 filled with excitement and enthusiasm. I had my bachelor's degree in theology and missions in hand (four years of hard work). But I had never spent more than a few days outside of my home country. I did all right, I think primarily because my training had underscored yieldedness and flexibility, and because I was young and adventurous. On the other hand, after my first eight months spent in language study on one side of the island I was glad our targeted ministry area was on the other side. I had made enough cultural blunders, been just insensitive enough, and offended enough people that I thought a new start might not be a bad thing.

Making such blunders is normal. The problem was, I was a fully trained, fully credentialed, officially commissioned missionary. I didn't really feel I had the room for failure. It was a somewhat humiliating experience. What if I had been allowed to make those blunders in some sort of safe environment? where the people knew I was there to learn, and where "professionals" were there to bail me out and smooth things over?

I have never flown an airplane, but I do know that pilots-in-training don't just sit through lectures and tests until one day someone hands them the key and says "go fly." The ground school is rigorous and includes a number of things seemingly unrelated to pulling back a stick and feeling the rush of the wind, but one thing it does include flying. Pilots in training get to fly with professionals who create a safe environment and are there to bail them out (so they don't have to bail out!) and to smooth things over.

My experience with preparing missionaries says that this generation of servants understands the importance of the classroom experience, but while students sit patiently in the fourth seat in the third row of the Theology 201 class, they are asking, "When do I get to be out there--in ministry?" It would be tragic if the passion that God has built into their lives was depleted, before they even reached the field, through sheer boredom. Not only is it likely that a ministry preparation devoid of significant ministry experience is a contributor to missionary attrition, but it is also frustrating to those who want to go. We cannot allow for the many men and women with a passion for God and His purposes being drawn into missions today to be left with the feeling that they have been "sidelined" during a Bible school education. And we cannot allow them to reach the field feeling they have been set up to fail.

It is up to those who are preparing this harvest generation for ministry to come up with ways to integrate real ministry into the preparation. To me, that is what short-term missions is all about. It is a significant part of the process for preparing men and women to serve God in cross-cultural ministry. There are many ways to get practical ministry experience in your own neighborhood--through your local church, or somewhere in your city--but if you desire to serve God specifically in a cross-cultural context, you need practical ministry experience in a cross-cultural setting.

Bethany College of Missions is one example of the growing trend to integrate short-term service into missionary preparation. Here is how we do it:

When potential students apply to Bethany, we look to see what they have already done to demonstrate a commitment to cross-cultural ministry. As a result, nearly all of our students have been out for at least a two-week short term. Many have already served for much longer periods of time. We also look to see what local ministries they have been involved in. We have seen that those who have already been involved are more likely to continue on through the program and into ministry. Those who have already crossed into other cultures, even for a very short time, are more likely to approach mission studies with a need-to-know attitude. They tend to be more self-directive in their studies and are ready to ask more significant questions.

Because we have observed this, we have built several types of cross-cultural ministry into our program. As a matter of fact, more than a fourth of the overall training program at Bethany is spent in ministry. This occurs at various levels through various activities, including:

  1. Evangelism. New Bethany students hit the streets during orientation week. They are taken into one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the Midwest where they begin to minister immediately through the contacts already developed by our sister organization, Bethany Urban Development. Students are pushed to try different ministries with different groups and are then asked to commit to a specific team led by upper-classmen already ministering locally. During their second year, they may branch out and assist in leadership and in the development of new ministry teams. We currently have teams ministering weekly to groups like Tibetans, Somalis and Cambodians, as well as urban counterculture. Ministry opportunities range from coffee shop evangelism to English tutoring and even to assisting in establishing new churches.
  2. Trek. All students participate in a three-week short term during the summer after their freshman year. These teams led by college staff and faculty fan out around the world to places like Pakistan, Turkey, China, Philippines, Slovenia, Romania, Brazil, Mexico and Quebec. Students are given opportunities to apply what they have learned in the first year. They learn to work together as a team (a critical aspect of missionary service!) and have opportunities to learn from each other and the staff leader through daily interaction. In many ways, Trek is seen as a test of a student's call. Many students realize how unprepared they are and dig in deeper the following year.
  3. Internship. From the beginning of the sophomore year through the end of the senior year, the three-year internship is the focus of Bethany's preparation of world-changers. Sophomores begin in September to consider the options for internship. A weekly integrative seminar called "Logistics for Ministry" walks them through the process of choosing a destination, applying to a mission, raising support, preparing a budget, and getting ready to go. Students are given several pre-approved options for internship, but are free to look into other options based on life goals. We also encourage students to look into opportunities that relate to their home church and its mission goals. Once a field and mission are approved, we work with leaders of that mission on that field to develop a learning contract for the internship.

The entire junior year is spent on the internship. Students work in a variety of ministries all over the world. Currently we have students in places like Paraguay, Ireland, Ghana, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, the Netherlands, and Israel. They are involved in street evangelism, church planting, and development work. They are mentored in ministry by field supervisors who provide a regular assessment to the college. They also keep two journals, a cultural observations journal and a personal journal. At the end of the year they submit their journals along with an ethnographic survey describing their observations of the culture. E-mail allows us to keep in regular contact with most interns.

During the senior year, courses are structured to "debrief" the interns. Both the joy and the disillusionment of cross-cultural ministry emerge in class discussions. Papers for senior level courses often require the students to reflect on the internship. Staff and faculty make themselves available to seniors to talk through the experience.

Two-year short-term options after graduation are also available through Bethany Fellowship Missions. Graduates of Bethany are allowed a shortened candidacy process and may join one of our field teams on a limited two-year commitment immediately after graduation. If all goes well, they may join the mission as full members of those teams.

The value of a short-term experience, whether for two weeks or two years, goes much farther than the ministry done. When accompanied by a solid pre-field preparation and a re-entry debriefing, those who go on short-term missions find themselves transformed by the experience. They are far more aware of the needs, far more understanding of the difficulties, and far more prepared to give themselves to a lifetime of ministry. They have traded romantic notions of ministry in exotic places for a real understanding of what it means to minister cross-culturally. Even those who may never return to the mission field are transformed. Their ability to minister cross-culturally within their own neighborhood grows, or they find themselves eagerly ministering to others who minister around the world.

Short-term ministry is not simply an end. It is part of a process that God can use to prepare His people for a lifetime of ministry involvement. It would be sad if the thousands of young people going on short-term mission trips this next summer ended their time feeling no different than if they had gone to Disneyland! We need to develop more ways of turning the short-term experience into part of a long-range commitment. We need to see short-term ministry as a valuable part of any ministry preparation, allowing men and women to prepare for service beyond the classroom, in the context of "real ministry."


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