Will your short-term mission trip actually help anyone?

I never thought one day I would be sitting in a living room in Mongolia, interviewing a missionary couple who had been working there for 24 years. As I sat across from these pioneers and veterans, I found myself questioning short-term missions. Is short-term mission worth it? It was, as I would learn, simply the wrong question.

How shall they believe?
Just as Mongolia faces rapid development and has experienced many dramatic changes, Bill and Kwai Lin have seen God change their roles and responsibilities over the years.

What hasn’t changed in the 24 years in Mongolia is the call on their lives that first led them to enter the country as pioneers. Their calling was less about responding to a specific country and more about responding to the need of those who have never heard. It was the call of Romans 10:13-15, “how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?”, that propelled them on a journey of endurance.

What they have done in Mongolia could not have been accomplished by short-term workers.

Bill, who is working on his Doctorate of Intercultural Studies at Biola, expressed the complexities of Mongolia culture.

“Learning Mongolian culture and language, it’s an Everest. It takes a long, long time to teach Mongolian, to understand people’s mindsets… Just their overall worldview. Understanding that is important for ministry here. You can’t do that on the short-term. It takes years of being around people.”

A blessing or a burden?
Bill and Kwai Lin have witnessed first-hand the need for workers. Yet, they also shared how time-consuming it can be to have people come for only 2-3 weeks at a time. It requires a huge investment of energy and time to keep short-term workers busy and content. At times that means taking the long-term workers away from their work.

As a short-term worker, I found myself wondering if I’d raised money and flown across the world just to be a burden. If short-term workers take so much, is it really worth it? Yet, as we talked, I found my picture of mission and short-term work shifting.

At least in Mongolia, the question of short-term workers has a lot to do with skill. Kwai Lin shared her desire to see highly skilled workers coming for at least a month. “We would love to see long-term people, but also short-term, if they have very special qualifications. You sometimes know 3 weeks or 1 month can do a lot. Like doctors and nurses.

Other times if they can be here as teachers and things like that for at least a year. We love to have people who come for at least a month if they are very qualified, otherwise 3 months or a year is better for us.”

Bill and Kwai Lin shared the greatest needs in Mongolia are for “highly skilled things that they need training” for. Yet, Bill said, “We welcome even the people who don’t have skills. We aren’t saying, ‘don’t come’, but we have seen that it’s very beneficial to have short-term missionaries with specific skills.”

He shared about a sanitation engineer who comes each year and passes on new specialized skills to the Mongolians. Each time he comes, he works with the same Mongolians, sharing not just skills but also developing relationships.

“He teaches them new skills, and then he goes back to his life, his job back in Britain. So, it’s wonderful to have long-term short-termers.”

Long-term short-termers. It was a beautiful concept, and one that has opened my eyes to a bigger reality. What if the question isn’t, “is short-term mission worth it?”. Instead, what if the question is, “what should short-term mission look like?”

Kwai Lin shared how it’s not just the Mongolians who need to be trained, but at times it’s the workers also.

“It’s like how do you upskill those who are already here? It’s not just the Mongols. Sometimes even mission workers.”

 

What would you say to a potential Serve Asia Worker?
It was the question I was most interested in, and I knew they wouldn’t give me a thoughtless answer. What Bill said absolutely arrested me.

“We like it when short-termers ask many questions and also when people are flexible. That they at least consider long-term service. If not here, some other place. At least being open to God wrecking your life to go somewhere else to what you had planned back home.”

Be open to God wrecking your life. Words backed by years of first-hand experience and completely lacking any of the bitterness that might have accompanied such a statement.

Kwai Lin went on to share the need to be open-minded.

“There are so many ways to serve God. There is no such thing as just one way. As long as you are willing to learn. Many people say they don’t know how to teach. But if you are willing to learn, there is a way to acquire the skill. But your heart needs to be in the right place. So much of what we have done are not things we had planned to do. I never planned to lead. Right?

In that sense it’s not something that you set up to do. But you do what God calls you to do. With that, God equips you along the way. We don’t come as knowing everything. We come to find out what needs to be done. With that attitude God’s kingdom can be built through what needs to be done. I think that is a very needed attitude for short-termers.”

Bill placed an emphasis on “lifelong learning” and gave advice for younger and older people who would like to come. He encouraged young people not to be afraid to pursue non-traditional missionary work. To those who are older he encouraged them to come and transfer their skills in management, finance, etc. to others.

“Automatically when you think missionary, it has to be a Master of Divinity or Pastor of Theology at a Bible school. Maybe. As God needs that. It’s needed to. But for some people who study some field that you might call secular, it’s not really secular because God works through all skills. Those skills can glorify God. Whether it’s marketing or agriculture.”

 

A wrecked life
As I consider the wisdom and advice Bill and Kwai Lin shared with me, I realize we cannot simply dismiss short-term mission as a waste of time. But, neither can we enter into it thoughtlessly and selfishly. Who are we serving when we go on our short-term or even long-term mission trips? It is too easily self. We can even be motivated by a desire for acceptance and approval by others. But the call of short-term mission can only be worthwhile when done as a life surrendered to the Lord.

Are you open to God wrecking your life? If you are, then as Os Guiness said, “Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.”

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