Christians of all ages are fueling a growing trend in U.S. missions where families and individuals use their vacation time to go on short-term mission trips, which some dub "vacations with a purpose."
Many of the participants are young adult students who make the trip during spring break or summer vacation. Another large segment of volunteers are retirees who offer their professional skills to support missionaries overseas.
It is estimated that millions of American Christians participate in short-term mission trips each year, with some 1.6 million believers contributing in labor worth about $6 billion, according to Wycliffe Associates, a mission group that organizes volunteers to support the work of Bible translators.
Bruce Smith, president and chief executive officer of Wycliffe Associates, in a recent update said the ministry is completing a new Volunteer Mobilization Center in Orlando that will be used to prepare thousands of volunteers heading out on short-term missions.
"Designed and built primarily by volunteers, the center will service a growing tide of American's seeking to use their free time more productively," Smith said in a statement.
The ministry devotes $10 million a year in recruiting, training and sending volunteers overseas to help Bible translators associated with its sister ministry, Wycliffe Bible Translators. The ministry sends about 1,500 Wycliffe Associate short-term volunteers to mission fields each year.
By no means is short-term mission a new concept, but it has gained great attention in recent years because of its phenomenal growth in popularity.
Studies show that in 1965 there were only about 540 individuals from North America involved in short-term mission, according to Roger Peterson, president of STEM International (Short Term Evangelical Missions), in his essay "What's Happening in Short-term Mission?"
In 1989, the number was estimated at 120,000 by a Fuller School of World Mission doctoral student. Three years later, it more than doubled to 250,000. In 2003, the number was estimated to be at least one million and by 2004 data suggest the number had ballooned to as high as four million.
Doug Cutchins, co-author of the book Volunteer Vacations: Short-term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, explained that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought greater interest to this type of short-term, purpose-driven vacation.
In 2004, it was the tsunami disaster that devastated parts of Indonesia and Thailand that sparked huge participation in this type of service-oriented tourism.
But some mission leaders have raised concerns about the effectiveness of short-term missions to the purpose of advancing God's kingdom.
Preeminent missiologist Dr. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, said short-termers do not have much impact on missions, but can benefit personally in faith from the experience.
Last year, Winter listed short-term missions as one of the 12 past mistakes made by Western mission agencies that Asian missiologists should avoid during a presentation at the Asian Society of Missiology conference in Bangkok.
He specifically criticized churches that send every family in the congregation overseas for a two-week project. Winter called it a "marvelous idea" to educate people about foreign lands, but "incredibly expensive" and "very questionable" in its contribution to the cause of missions.
Nearly 2 million short-termers leave the United States each year compared to 35,000 long-term missionaries. It costs at least five times more overall to send a short-termer than a long-term missionary – financial support that Winter suggested would be better invested in a long-term missionary.
Winter resisted calling short-term mission a bad thing, but rather urged balance.
One couple in their 60s, however, praised the experiences they had on their short-term mission trips.
"These trips are exhausting, and can be emotionally and physically taxing. But the rewards are incredible," reflected Gerry Powell, a volunteer who together with his wife have been on more than 30 short-term volunteer trips with Wycliffe Associates. "We literally have met and worked with hundreds of people, from Peru to Nigeria."
His wife Sylvia added, "My children have learned that when we plan for an 'educational experience,' it will be to help build cabinets in Nigeria or a roof in the Ivory Coast."
The Powell's have seven adult children.
Roger Peterson, president of STEM International, estimates that 50,000 churches in the United States are sending members out on mission trips each year.