- June 5, 2008
Kevin and Naomi Scantlan of Columbia, Mo., feel called to international missions.
But as integrated technology services analysts at University of Missouri Health Care and church lay leaders, committing to years abroad really isn’t feasible.
That’s why they’re planning their second mission trip to Kenya, along with eight members of Memorial Baptist Church, to provide medical services and teach Vacation Bible School to orphans and at-risk children supported by Buckner International.
They are among the 2 million to 3 million Christians from the United States engaged in short-term missions work around the globe today, according to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global Missions Coordinator Rob Nash. Only 18,000 people were involved in 1984.
“This is a profound and revolutionary shift,” he said.
“For much of the 20th century, the only U.S. Christians engaged beyond the United States were missionaries, diplomats and military types. With jet planes and globalization, this reality (has) shifted dramatically.”
Call to missions redefined
Buckner International President Ken Hall remembers growing up in a Baptist family and struggling with the “call to missions.”
“For too long, we were led to believe that being called to missions meant 30 or 40 years in Africa,” he said. “That led to a lot of guilty feelings, but it also provided a good excuse for not becoming a missionary.”
Hall believes all Christians are called to be missionaries and that the Bible mandates it in Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus issued the Great Commission.
“First-century missionaries were not so much vocational missionaries as professionals with a vocation that went on missions,” he said.
“Paul was a tentmaker. … He didn’t stay in one place. The Book of Acts records Paul’s three missionary journeys. In reality, Paul was a short-term missionary.”
Wendy Norvelle, associate vice president in the office of mobilization at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, sees volunteers as involved not only in hands-on ministry, but also in strategic planning.
“We are seeing a new generation of volunteer missions, where churches are becoming strategically involved with particular teams or people groups overseas and in longer-term relationships. Churches and those who go on short-term mission trips are at the table in developing mission strategies. It’s a brand-new strategic environment,” Norvelle said.
“In a sense, we’re moving away from the word ‘volunteers,’ and instead are using ‘short-term mission teams.’ We really do see that the (local) church has a strategic role in fulfilling the Great Commission and in being a significant partner in reaching people groups.”
Many critics question the effectiveness of short-term missions, but Hall sees their impact on children and families every day.
Buckner International sends about 4,000 volunteers on short-term mission trips each year to minister to orphans, at-risk children and families in the United States and nine countries around the world.
These volunteer missionaries travel to support indigenous Christian staff employed by Buckner to provide follow-up evangelistic work in orphanages, distribute humanitarian aid, train and support foster families and network with Christian churches to provide sustainable ministries to aid children and families in need.
“Short-term missions workers can have an impact,” Hall said. “But that impact is far greater when we work with people inside the country, who prepare for our trips and help us work in a culturally sensitive and effective way.”
Norvelle agreed. “If (short-term and long-term mission workers) are together in developing strategy, it’s an asset. The key is that the strategy is one that everyone buys into,” she said. “The longer-term missionary perhaps has an insight into the culture and the beliefs and world views (of a region), which a church at the beginning would not have, though a church can learn it. But the energy and creativity of short-term mission teams can enhance” the work of long-term missionaries.
The Scantlans may be organizing their first church trip to Kenya, but they’ve already seen a huge response among members through fundraising and prayer support. Although future plans have not been made, Kevin Scantlan expects his church will continue to support the work they’ve started.
“One church cannot support a whole area,” he said. “But if you get a number of churches who do that and partner together … maybe not so much with each other, but through an organization like Buckner, you can make a bigger impact.”
Building relationships and making the missions experience personal “can be a life-changing thing for someone,” his wife said. “And not just for us, but for the whole church. If we don’t get involved ourselves, then it doesn’t change us.”
Personal involvement changed Dallas Baptist University student Chris Holloway’s life. He said he’s seen his passion for people and for international mission work grow since he took two short-term mission trips to Guatemala with Buckner in 2007.
“These trips really opened my eyes to see that God is not just the God of America, but the God of the whole world,” he said.
Though he currently works as resident director on DBU’s campus, Holloway said he’s entertained the idea of moving to Guatemala to pursue full-time mission work with orphans.
“These trips have given me a deeper heart for missions and for the need for missions,” he said. “So whether or not I end up as a businessman or a full-time missionary, I know that I will definitely be involved in missions for the rest of my life. … It’s a passion.”
Jeff Byrd, associate pastor for missions at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, has seen church members grow as leaders after participating in short-term missions.
“The church body is strengthened by this faithful obedience and by parti-cipating in God’s plan,” he said. “We have numerous examples of individuals that have experienced this transformational power in their lives and gone on to become church leaders, mission team leaders and missionaries. … They’ve become more active in every aspect of the church’s ministries because they went on a mission trip.”
Long-term missionaries still needed
Byrd stresses that while the impact of short-term missions is effective, it does not outweigh the importance of long-term missionaries.
“Short-term volunteers cannot be effective without a recipient infrastructure,” he said.
Victor Upton, vice president of missions resource for Buckner, said that employing in-country Christian personnel is the key to Buckner’s work abroad.
“Long after we’re gone, the indigenous personnel are the ones who will carry on the work,” Upton said. “Whether it be feeding programs, group homes, foster care, kinship care … they are the true missionaries. We’re just there to support.”
When violence broke out in Kenya early this year following its presidential election, Buckner staff remained in the field caring for children, working with churches and talking with public officials, he said. “Many of the long-term U.S. missionaries had to leave, but we were ... still able to sustain operations.”
Nash thinks the focus of any ministry efforts, in the United States or abroad, has to be sustainability.
“I’m glad that many short-term responders grasp the fact that a single mission trip that lasts a week can make a real difference in the lives of both the participants and the people to whom they minister,” he said.
“I’ve seen a short-term responder’s life absolutely revolutionized because of the experience. But the greatest transformation comes in a long-term engagement that is strategic and sustainable.”
Karen Hatley, a former missionary in the United Arab Emirates, agrees.
“The problem with short-term missions is that people often look at them as, ‘Oh, this is great for me,’ … but their work should definitely be part of a long-term goal or commitment, whether to a certain area or people group or ministry,” said Hatley, who works with WorldconneX, missions network of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Being the learner, helper and supporter
Using short-term mission volunteers, global Christians and long-term missionaries would be the ideal situation for maximum impact, she said.
“But it takes a lot of work to collaborate and work together and listen to each other,” she added. “It’s important for Americans to come in as the learner, helper and supporter.”
Nash thinks the global church will play the most critical role in missions in the 21st century.
“The global church has joined the U.S. church in a dramatic way,” he said. “In many instances it’s much more spiritually and missionally vital than the U.S. church.
“It is important that we connect these Christians who serve effectively around the world and that we bring them into partnerships with each other so that all of us are more strategic as we share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
With additional reporting by Robert Dilday, managing editor of the Virginia Religious Herald