Short-term Missions: A Christianized Vacation or Mission-minded Training Ground?

More college students are participating in global mission projects with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, partly due to the increasing popularity of short-term missions, according to InterVarsity’s Global Mission Projects director. However, Scott Bessenecker believes short-term missions aren’t always a good thing.

“The trend toward short term missions is both the best and worse advent,” said Bessenecker.

According to Bessenecker, short-term missions have become “less altruistic.” Some students perceive it as a “form of spiritual bungee jumping, exotic vacationing … a Christianized version of tourism,” said Bessenecker. He suggested that other students feel that if they are going to take time off then they may as well do so while contributing to a good cause.

Short-term missions usually engage students in doing mission-related work in either foreign countries or their own for a short period as little as one week to a few years. Although students are usually willing to be entirely devoted to their mission for the time period chosen, most don’t start off expressing interest in making a life-long commitment to working at their mission destination.

But going off to some distant place in the globe to help the less fortunate has had an appeal to college students. When InterVarsity first began organizing the Global Urban Trek (a series of projects serving the urban poor) in 2001 around 80 people went to six cities. This summer that number has nearly doubled to 175 people traveling to 8 different cities.

Bessenecker, who trains leaders of the mission teams, noted some negative by-products of short-term missions.

“Some of our weakest theology and pluralist values are being exported through short-term missions,” he said.

However, despite seeing the downside of the trend, Bessenecker believes short-term mission can make an impact. “I do think serious missions could be accomplished if you’re careful,” he said.

A positive trend Bessenecker has noticed is “a rise in evangelical students who have a passionate concern for the poor and maginalized.”

In some cases, shared Bessenecker, some students participate in short-term missions during their college years and “choose to live among the slum community” even after graduating from ivy-league schools such as MIT.

“I think that is incredible and attributed to the Holy Spirit,” he commented.

Bessenecker said his ministry “works with staff in creating opportunities that will call these students in life-long service to establish to Kingdom of God.”

“For some [students], it will mean vocational careers; others it will mean concern for the establishment of the Kingdom of God,” he said.