As a missional movement, every year hundreds of Jesus followers join our short-term teams across the world in reaching out with the love of Jesus. Rather than referring to them as ‘short-term missions’ (STMs), we now talk about ‘short-term outreaches’ (STOs) whenever possible.

This may sound like an inconsequential change cooked up by pedantic Christians. But the reality is that this simple name change is a small step in beginning to address the fact that many of us misunderstand what mission really is.

The idea of mission is often limited to a specific time or person. You ‘do’ mission for a short stint and then get on with the rest of your life, or you are ‘called to the mission-field’.

Whilst it may be true that some have a specific calling to full-time ministry or overseas mission, the danger many of us fall into is to view mission as an exclusive and elevated activity for a very committed few.

But mission isn’t a unique calling, it is a command given to every Christian. Scripture clearly teaches that all disciples are called to make disciples. Speaking to his followers in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells them, “ will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As followers of Jesus, we are witnesses to the saving grace of God. We are commissioned to a life of mission.

So, if mission is about witnessing with your whole life, why bother running short-term outreaches?

It is true that STOs can be run badly. They can become Christian holidays to get some great photos. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that outreach by locals may be more effective, as they will not have to face the obstacles which overseas volunteers do, such as language barriers. But, if overseas outreach is co-ordinated well, they can, and do, impact local communities — and those that
go on them — in a positive way.

So here are my seven musts for an effective short-term outreach:

1. Preparation is key. Educate yourself on the cultural sensitivities and language.

2. Help host churches and teams understand who is coming. This includes making it clear that the visitors don’t come with any ‘elevated’ authority but are there to join the work the local church is already doing.

3. Always be facilitated by, and work in partnership with, the local church.

4. Humility is key. Teams are going to serve, not be served, and to learn, not to teach.

5. Short-term outreach must support long-term strategy and vision

6. Embed yourselves with the local believers. Remember we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to avoid judgementalism and embrace our cultural differences.

7. Local believers should be welcomed completely as team members. Locals are not translators or interpreters, but part of one big team using their gifts in different ways. 

When we are aware of these things, the potential impact of short-term outreach is huge. The first time I came to understand this was
when I experienced it myself. 

I registered to join an evangelistic outreach in Estonia back in my student days. We arrived in Parnu in the south of the country. Small groups of believers had started to meet together in villages, and we were sent to encourage them in their faith and help them reach out to others.

After the initial culture shock, I was beginning to get into my stride a few weeks in. Then I was asked one day to deliver the message. After much protestation on my part and insistence on the part of my local team leader, I found myself, legs shaking, mouth dry, standing up the front. I managed to say a few words about John 3:16 and how God loves us all and hastily invited the team back to the front.

But I had spoken in public about my faith. There was an increasing urgency in my heart. Many of these people had never heard this Good News and would perhaps never have the opportunity to again. God was not only working through our team, but He was also working in my heart. 

God used a short-term trip to take me and many others like me out of our comfort zones, shake us up and open our eyes to a missional life.

STOs continue to be an important part of what we do at OM. For the hosts, they can bring renewed energy to a local team and provide valuable resource in their mission. And for those that go, often they return with a renewed joy in what it means to know Jesus as their saviour and a new urgency and confidence in reaching out with the love of Jesus.

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