In the summer of 2010, my wife, our two children, and I traveled to the African continent for the first time and spent eleven weeks in the countries of Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. For more than six of those weeks, we lived with a missionary couple, Bob and Pam Brownfield, who had served for fifteen years among the Lomwe people of Malawi. These veteran missionaries were in a time of major transition, both in their family and their ministry. First, they were about to become “empty-nesters” as their youngest son prepared to leave Africa and move to Auburn, Alabama, where he would pursue his college degree. Also, after a long and fruitful ministry in Malawi, the Brownfields had sensed God leading them to relocate east to Mozambique, where they would engage the Lomwe people in that country with the gospel. During our time with Bob and Pam, we traveled back and forth between Malawi and Mozambique as they said their “goodbyes” to the Malawian churches and then explored the people and the area they would serve in the coming years. While these major changes were taking place in their lives, this missionary couple had the Vickerys (first-timers in Africa who brought with them a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy) tagging along with them everywhere they went… for more than six weeks. More than once I wondered, “What were they thinking when they agreed to have us come out to be with them?”
When I returned from Africa, I would enter my final year in seminary. God had revealed his call on me to pastor a local church in the United States and to lead that church to faithfully pray, give, and go for the spread of his glorious gospel to all nations. With that call in mind and as our month and a half with Bob and Pam Brownfield drew to its end, I asked them a question that had been bouncing around in my head for some time. What I wanted to hear, from a veteran long-term missionary, was this: “What are the benefits to churches sending short-term mission teams?” After carrying us around with them for weeks, I wondered if the answer might be, “I can’t think of any…” But that was not their answer at all.
Why send short-term mission teams? These are the answers from a veteran long-term missionary:
1) God uses short-term trips to expand the worldview of American church members. The worldview of those who go on the trips are obviously expanded as they experience cultures so different from their own and minister the gospel among other people groups. But this worldview expansion also spreads throughout the entire local church as team members come back and report on the work. This increased and direct exposure motivates more faithful praying and sacrificial giving for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
2) God uses short-term teams to reinforce and supplement the long-term missionary’s teaching. Bob and Pam compared this benefit to that of Sunday School teachers for children in a local church. Parents faithfully teach their children and then, when a Sunday School teacher teaches the same truths, it reinforces the teaching in the children’s lives. In the same way, a long-term missionary labors day in and day out among a people group, and when a short-term team comes and teaches the same truths, it helps to solidify the teaching in the lives of the people. Also, the short-term team may be brought in to teach on topics that the long-term missionary simply has not yet addressed.
3) When a church is committed to sending teams repeatedly to a particular people group and place, it shows the steadfast love of Christ. This investment in that people group communicates a dedicated affection for them. When short-term teams come and work alongside the long-term missionary and simply love the people, the missionary’s reputation among the people is strengthened. The people will say, “Bob and Pam bring people here who love us and teach us. They come back again and again.” This investment strengthens the long-term missionary’s ministry.
4) God uses short-term teams to encourage the long-term missionary. Even if for a short time, the companionship and fellowship that short-term teams bring to the missionary on the field is like rocket fuel for their ministry tank. In this way also, the investment strengthens the long-term missionary’s ministry.
I must admit that when I heard Bob and Pam voice that fourth benefit, I wondered how much of an encouragement I and my family had been to them for those six-plus weeks. But then, they spoke of how our being with them had helped them to navigate that transition time of their “nest” being emptied and their leaving the Malawi churches they loved so dearly. It turns out that having two first-timers in Africa with their two small children running crazily about for those weeks had been less of a burden and more of an encouragement than I thought. I was reminded that God moves his people about in this world for his mission, for his glory, and for the good of his people. We are to simply follow where he leads.
There are likely more benefits to short-term teams, but these are four that were given to me by two veteran long-term missionaries in the summer of 2010.