Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions | Forrest Inslee & Angel Burns

Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions

The following is an excerpt from Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions by Forrest Inslee & Angel Burns. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

This is a time of great change in short-term missions. The models that have become dominant in the past few decades—along with the sometimes-problematic assumptions that inform them—are being called into question. Not only are most short-term mission (STM) efforts being exposed as ineffective—they are also being shown to cause damage to those they are meant to help. As a result, calls for a more collaborative, just, and thoughtful STM ethos are being sounded through missions-focused conferences, books, journals, and social media. Increasingly (and very importantly) a mounting number of those voices are advocating for reformation from places conventionally referred to as “host” contexts. And yet, while new ideas about re-imagining short-term missions are emerging, far too many practitioners—in churches and other “sending” organizations—remain detached from, and often unaware of, this shift in the global conversation. This must change. Real, practical, systemic transformation will happen only when STM practitioners at the grass roots level—both senders and hosts—have the courage to design entirely new approaches that fundamentally challenge the status quo. This book is a call to action for such reformers  . . . and a challenge to those who love the church enough to devote themselves to what must become a revolution in short-term missions.

Our goal in this book is in part to examine current STM practices through a critical, evaluative lens. While STMs were born out of good intentions, certain biases and assumptions about culture and mission have shaped them into often harmful experiences for those hosting and for those being sent. Yet, while this book does offer critical insight, it is important to note that it is not primarily a critique of short-term mission trips. Those books have already been written. While the problematic nature of STM is assumed by our contributors, it is only a starting point—and that is because the authors in this book are convinced and compelled by the challenge of reimagining what short-term missions must become. We refuse to turn a blind eye to the harm that STMs cause; at the same time, we refuse to give up hope that there are better ways for churches from all cultures and contexts—the global church—to work together to achieve God’s missional purposes.

The authors in this book use “short-term mission,” or STM, because it is the term that is commonly used to describe the various forms of service or learning-based travel practiced today. Nevertheless, we argue that it is a problematic term that needs to be critically evaluated, and even replaced with other more nuanced, more accurate descriptors. The use of the term “mission”, for example, assumes that those being “sent” are the first to bring the good news of the gospel to a new place. That is rarely true of STM trips, and more often groups are sent out to visit and assist existing organizations or churches (which is arguably the healthiest way to practice short-term trips—but why call it “mission”?). Many of this book’s authors also reject the notion that “mission”—the call of God to his people to bring the love of Jesus to all—can even be accomplished in a short-term timeframe without becoming objectifying and essentially transactional (as is sadly the case with so many short-term trips). Many of the practitioner-authors in this book believe that renaming STMs is essential groundwork for the larger project of re-imagination that must take place.

Readers will come to this book from a diversity of perspectives. For many people, short-term mission trips have yielded good, even transformative experiences (both of the book’s editors, for example, found their way into long-term mission commitments through short-term mission experiences). There are also many who believe that, in general, all STM activity must produce positive outcomes simply because they are initiated with good intentions. Of such readers, we simply ask that you consider these essays with an open heart, and with humility to hear the sometimes-difficult truths about the downsides of current STM practices.
On the other hand, if you are someone who already has a good sense of the financial waste, the shallow theology, and the unjust power dynamics that typify much of STM praxis, we would urge you as well to read with humility and openness to the perspectives of those who still have hope for a reformed approach to STM. Many contributors to this book seek to re-imagine new and better ways for churches to engage the needs of the world, and offer some element of vision for a new way forward.

While some of the authors here suggest critical adaptations of existing STM models, others call for approaches that are so radically different that it is better to understand them as displacements or replacements of the old STM paradigm altogether. In the spirit of disruptive creativity then, our contributors offer a diversity of views that complement and sometimes contradict one another. Such is the nature of innovative conversation: fundamental change will happen only when we find the courage to speak alternatives—to give voice to new ways of thinking and doing that challenge the status quo, resist the power dynamics that keep us locked into unhelpful practices, and confront the idols of tradition and false orthodoxy.

Praise for Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions

“I have a love-hate relationship with short-term mission trips that too often are more about collecting Instagram fodder than anything related to the Kingdom of God. These essays offer insightful ways forward to something more beautiful–even while unapologetically naming the things that undermine the Ways of Jesus. Here are some practical pathways to follow, and practiced theological perspectives from a global community of voices that can help us reimagine the future.”
Ruth Hubbard, InterVarsity VP, Director of the Urbana Student Missions Conference

“This very honest book reflects well the views of those of us in Latin America who work with visiting teams. What a difference it would make if everyone believed (as these authors do) that the primary purpose of short-term missions is to foster relationships between brothers and sisters for the sake of a truly global church! This book casts vision for a new way forward that is more contextually relevant, effective, and dignifying.”
Mizraim Tovar, Director del Campus, Karla Mendoza, Directora Estudiantil, El Centro Liderazgo, Honduras

“Once upon a time, a small American church decided that, rather than spend thousands of dollars sending a team overseas, they would ask a young man from Africa to travel to them,so they could help him get education in medicine and community development. When he returned to Burkina, he started a Christian school and a medical clinic that continue to bear witness to God’s love even today. That young man was me—and I stand with these authors when they contend: With imagination and courage we can discover better ways to love and serve the world.”
Dr. Caleb Tindano, Clinique Médicale Shalom, Burkina Faso

“From my experiences hosting short-term teams in Thailand, I can affirm the message of many of the authors in this book: If foreigners want to be part of impactful work that is sustainable for the long term, they must form authentic relationships with the local people and to work alongside them as coequals. This book helps us to understand why this must become the new normal for short-term missions, and shows us where to begin.”
Supunnee Pargul, Program Director, Shared Space for All, Thailand

“Re-Imagining Short-term Missions is a tremendous achievement. For decades short-term missions have had a noteworthy impact on communities and ministry organizations around the world. Sometimes with great value and sometimes with disastrous outcomes, but usually somewhere in between. This work pulls together diverse voices with well-informed perspectives. It asks critical questions and offers fresh perspectives. It will undoubtedly shape the vision and practice of STM for years to come! It is a must-read for anyone involved in overseas ministry.”
Myal Greene, CEO, World Relief

About the Authors

Forrest Inslee was born and raised in Seattle. After a number of years living in Chicago, British Columbia, and Istanbul, he returned to Pacific Northwest with his adopted daughter to start a graduate program in International Community Development at Northwest University. He currently serves as the editor of Christ & Cascadia, a journal focused on innovative faith praxis in the Pacific Northwest. His other responsibilities at The Seattle School include curriculum development and teaching for the Center for Transforming Engagement. Additionally, in his role as Associate Director of Circlewood, a faith-based environmental advocacy nonprofit, he hosts the Earthkeepers podcast, and helps to develop creation care education initiatives.

Angel Burns is passionate about consulting with organizations and churches to reframe their short-term programs. She earned her MA in international community development from Northwest University and works as a CASA and as the Director of Parish Life at Advent Anglican Church. She lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband.


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