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Short Term Missions and Its Critics

One of the criticisms of American evangelical short term missionary work is that it doesn’t focus enough on Jesus, but instead is too heavy on the provision of aid and services. Such a critic might argue that American Christians invade a small and poor part of the world only to drop off a bunch of money and material, then leave without ever giving the people who live there either a thorough understanding of who Christ is and why they need him, or a cohesive challenge for them to model his life through how they live their own. I felt the sting of this criticism originating out of my own mind and aimed at my own short term missionary work several years ago during a mission trip I took to a remote and economically impoverished island in the South Pacific Ocean. Language barriers hindered my preaching, cultural barriers frustrated my understanding, and most importantly, time constraints prohibited the development of real individual relationships. One day I found myself surveying a very large multitude attending one of our open air meetings in which the bible was taught, but in which we also provided food to a lot of hungry people. Although many claimed salvation on that day, a part of me whispered that they were really only there to eat. That was likely true for some of them, but certainly could not have been true for all of them. Honestly, though, that whisper was irrelevant. 

Jesus commands us in the Great Commission to go out into the world and to make disciples, baptize people, and to teach them to observe all that he has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Well, one of the things that he has commanded is that we prepare feasts in which we invite people to dine with us who can never repay us for what we gave them (Luke 14:12-14). When we do this, we are modeling for those people through our own lives the life of the one who saved us, and to whom we can never provide adequate repayment. Those people on that island in the South Pacific Ocean will never be able to repay me for even the little that I brought.  They won’t even remember me. And although I was beset with language problems, cultural problems, and time problems, the missionary who had staked out his life there was not. Instead, he was beset with material, financial and service needs along with a need to see that his work was not in vain or ignored by his brothers and sisters back home. My trip provided that, and he’ll never be able to repay me for my meager provisions financially or otherwise. But our contribution to his daily, monthly and yearly grind provided the people of that island a direct link to the gospel that he faithfully preached, and that they might never get if people like us never obey the great commission. 

The critics are right if what they mean is that all of us can improve our direct communication of the gospel both at home and abroad, because we are sorely lacking in our ability, both individually and collectively, to do that task to its fullest. But if their critique is simply a condemnation of the efforts of people to do what they can in the system that exists, then they’ve missed Paul’s point that we function as a body that is supernaturally inhabited by Christ which has different parts and purposes (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Ephesians 4:16). 

What function are you performing in the great commission?

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