Ten Emerging Trends in Short-Term Missions
What a difference a few years makes. In 1970 you could count on one hand the number of youth groups doing short-term missions. Now it has become a standard feature for thousands of youth groups across the country. Many youth leaders affirm that their summer missions projects have greater impact than any other single event they schedule.
As the short-term missions movement matures, so the trends shaping it change. Those interested in short-term missions will want to stay abreast of such changes. What follows is a short list of those trends which I believe will have the most profound impact on the field in the years leading up to 2000 AD. In most cases, evidence for these trends is beginning to accumulate, but in other cases, I am simply making a forecast based on factors which are at work in the field. So here they are:
1. From Youth Event to Missions Program
Youth pastors tend to be event-oriented. As a consequence, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing the summer project as just another event. As the idea of doing a summer missions trip becomes more institutionalized, I believe that the momentum will be in the direction of more thoughtfully developed programs which will produce continuity of vision and effort from one year to the next.
In practical terms, this would be a program which maps out a stair-step progression of projects which offer increasing spiritual challenge for those participating in the program. A typical youth missions program may begin with a local project in the first year. The second year may entail an overseas project, and the third year may involve cross-cultural evangelism. By mapping it out well in advance, you give students something more to shoot for in each successive year. You set them on a track which results in increased spiritual growth year after year.
The question to ask is not whether all this activity will wither away, but how big will it get?
2. Greater Accountability for Funds
Stewardship has always been an issue. But accountability for funds increases as understanding of where those funds are going grows. As Keith Missel of Faith Bible Church in Cincinnati says, "Our accountability to our home church is vital. They contribute much of our support, and have a real sense of ownership of the project."
Accountability requires a certain minimal knowledge base. Accountability languishes where ignorance flourishes. As missions committees and church laity become more familiar with what can reasonably be accomplished on missions trips, and as they develop a greater understanding of what the reasonable cost should be, accountability will inevitably increase.
3. From Work Camps to Short-Term Missions
It used to be as summer approached and youth groups got around to designing a really special summer experience, they would book a week at a nearby camp. They could count on fun in the pool, at the lake, and on the trail. In recent years, however, work camps have displaced camps as the "thing to do" among youth groups. Youth leaders are sensing that more entertainment is not what this generation needs. The prescription is a heavy dose of service and teamwork. Yet, as good as work camps are, an experience which fosters even greater spiritual challenge can produce more profound changes in the lives of students.
A step beyond the typical work camp is a short-term missions project which challenges youth to not only humble themselves through service, but to share their faith while doing so. A work camp without testimonies and evangelism is mute Christianity. Increasingly, we will see teenagers come out of their shells and more boldly proclaim a radical faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
4. From Fad to Phenomenon
You still hear this in some circles: "Maybe short-term missions are just a fad." Yet one does not have to look far to see that if it's a fad, it sure has some enduring qualities. Here's a comment you'll hardly ever hear: "This short-term missions thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. I'm going back to a steady diet of fun retreats." Au contraire, the positive word-of-mouth continues to build as youth leaders discover that here, at last, is something which really does impact their students. Each year, more and more people go on short-term missions.
Typical is the youth group at First Presbyterian, Houston. When parents worried about terrorism, their youth leader was called to seminary, and their church went through a time of difficult transition, did plans for a summer missions trip to Costa Rica die? No. In fact, because of past successes, support for the trip is now stronger than ever. The bottom line is that we should ask not whether all this activity will wither away, but how big will it get?
5. Increased Emphasis on Preparation
One knock against short-term missions project is that students often have little appreciation for the complex issues they face when they go overseas. The best way to beat this rap is by enhancing the calibre of the preparation which they go through prior to leaving home. It is unfortunate that many youth pastors are relatively green and may have little in the way of experience or materials on which to fall back. Yet those who do have experience note the high degree of correlation between prefield preparation and successful missions projects.
As youth leaders begin to discover good materials and design more thorough preparation processes, the overall effectiveness of student missions will be enhanced. Some years ago Paul Borthwick began touting the idea of "missions preparation as discipleship." It has taken awhile for the idea of emphasizing missions preparation to take hold, but in the years to come, an emphasis on prefield preparation will become the norm, not the exception. Youth groups will go to the field better prepared.
6. From Summer Experience to Ongoing Ministry
To really reap the dividends of a changed lifestyle, youth groups must carry forward the momentum which a summer project can generate. In order for the principles of sharing Christ's love and helping others selflessly to become a foundational part of students' lives, they must be reinforced through a regular program of ministry back home. As Faith Bible's Missel notes, "We're selling our students short if we don't give them continuity. For us this takes the form of evangelism training, evangelism outreach to students, and support of local projects."
Ongoing ministry is the antidote to the flash-in-the-pan experience which afflicts many groups returning from a summer experience. The tough lessons learned can't be allowed to lie fallow. Only by seeking out and ministering to the needy in the immediate community can one guard against slipping into fam-iliar, old, and selfish behavior patterns.
7. Greater Denominational Emphasis
A number of the larger denominations already have a well-established program of summer missions projects for their own youth groups. As the number of groups going on missions trips swell, two factors will lead to greater denominational involvement:
a) Denominations will begin paying attention to the savings they can offer their churches by sponsoring their own projects; and
b) they will also want to exert greater denominational control over the kind of projects which their churches choose.
A counterweight to these forces exists: Many denominations tend to respond slowly to outside forces. They are like barges being turned in the water. Those with the foresight to recognize opportunity have the chance to build a new generation of missionaries. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, under the leadership of Dan Bergstrom, is an example of one denomination which has sought to create more opportunities for member churches. Denominations which are able to find strong advocates like Bergstrom will make significant strides in the coming decade.
8. Increased Networking
The numbers make increased networking among churches seem obvious: Youth groups working independently to sponsor their own projects have a certain number of fixed costs which they must cover: setup expenses, staff time, camp and bus rentals, and preparation materials. By linking up with other groups, an individual church can spread out its costs over greater numbers.
One way networking is accomplished is through missions agencies. Another means of exchanging missions opportunities is through informal networks. A number of Philadelphia churches combined both of these by sponsoring a cooperative project under the auspices of The Pittsburgh Project. Nearby in Philadelphia, a group of churches are sponsoring an inner city-based project called "Network."
9. Internationalization of the Movement
Sometimes we like to think that America is the center of the universe. We talk about missions in terms of American missionaries. Yet strong indigenous churches have been established in most countries around the world. The church is growing most rapidly in Africa and South America. South Korea is home to a tremendous missionary movement. In the future, missions networks will extend increasingly throughout the world.
Already a number of missions agencies have taken steps to capitalize on the phenomenon. Teen Missions has for years sponsored projects which are geared primarily towards local youth. They have offered scholarships to encourage indigenous missions among foreign students. Teen Mania is another organization which intends to greatly expand its outreach to include foreign students.
10. Junior High Involvement
Almost any parent will tell you that students are maturing earlier. In the last three years greater numbers of middle schoolers have been getting involved in missions work. What we've seen is that if an effective program of discipleship exists and youth group members have been thoroughly trained, they have all the maturity they need to be smashing successes on the missions field. The youth of Christ Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska, are a shining example of this truth. Their missions project to Mexico produced more than three converts to Christ for every junior high participant.
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