Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Short-Term Missions and the Priorities of the Evangelical Church

April 19th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I was perusing Jeremy Pierce's site and I saw the plug for the latest Christian Carnival.

I've not yet entered any of my posts in the Christian Carnival, but as churches around the country are warming up the vans and buses and opening up the wallets to send out short-term mission teams, I thought I would issue my complaint against short-term missions to the broader Christian blogosphere. That's right--I have a complaint about short-term missions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been on a short-term missions trip. I have never been on a long term missions trip. I am sure that after going on one my views will change radically. Until then, though, I'll keep my arguments.

My major argument is simply that the overwhelming emphasis on short-term missions drains the church of resources that would be better spent elsewhere, particularly (and here comes my bias) in the education of the parishoners and the students that are being sent. This year I have been approached by several students with "support letters" for their trips to China, Brazil, and other foreign lands. However, I have yet to be approached by a student with a "support letter" for their college tuition. For some reason, we are expected to support a student spending two weeks in the middle of Papua New Guinea and leave the student who wants to attend Biola--a very expensive venture, mind you!--to the willing arms of the banks and lenders. Students must forge their own way to Christian colleges (or secular colleges, for that matter!). Why?

Fundamentally, the emphasis on short-term missions (which may not, in themselves, be bad, though I have my doubts!) neglects the proper care and feeding of the Church at home. Ultimately, it rests on whether a University education (and a specifically Christian University education) is more fruitful than a two-week missions trip to Zimbabwe. For some reason, two-weeks in Mexico building houses doesn't seem nearly as formative as 4 years in a Christian environment learning Christian truths from Christian professors. If I am investing in the Kingdom and if the goal is long term results, my money is going to go to the college, 10 times out of 10.

Just to be clear, the argument is not against missions per se, but against a misplaced priority. Short term missions (I'm sure) are changing lives and communities around the world, but does indoor plumbing for another tribe in Latin America really justify ignoring the continuing education of the Church? Why should my students have to sink themselves financially just to get a Christian education? The argument may become more severe if the Federal and State governments ever limit use of Federal funding to wholly secular and state institutions (which, I think is possible). California has proposed reducing their substantial Cal-grant program, which would make it significantly more difficult for students to attend private universities. The problem is further compounded for those of our high-schoolers who wish to enter full-time ministry as a profession after they are trained (yes, any vocation is a ministry, but we sure pay Bible translators a whole lot less than bankers!). The catch-22 is that most pastors end up being paid very little relative to the amount of debt they have to accrue so they can become a pastor. By over-emphasizing short-term missions, evangelical churches (and I think they are primarily guilty of this!) are cutting off their heads to save their hearts and hands--but that's a fairly boring critique by now, isn't it?

Something really should be done. We all know by now that evangelicals need to value the life of the mind (see Mark Knoll, JP Moreland, et. al.) but it seems time to put our money where our mouth is.

The above complaint is just the kind my brother likes: intuitive, lacking empirical evidence or hard research, and controversial. I have developed it after watching church after church unreflectively endorse short term missions and pour millions of dollars in to sending teams all around the world. My finger may be way off the pulse of the evangelical world, but I doubt it.

Update: Removed the blurb about the missions focus. I guess I'm a week late (and still several million short for my cause!).

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.