When I was 16, I went on a short-term mission to Nicaragua. Ten years later as a long-term missionary to Mexico, I was ready to tell the whole church world that short-term missions should be obsolete. They were taxing on the long-term missionaries, inconvenient for the local pastors, colonialistic and only fed our American pride. But then I saw a few teams who came down to serve. Really serve. And reluctantly, my husband, Andrew, and I began serving, really serving, the church plant that stemmed from our local Mexican church. That church plant is located in a place called Mission. It’s a neighborhood of about 10, 000 people who reside in makeshift concrete and plywood houses, many without running water. Children are often recruited at an early age into drug-related crime and violence largely due to the absence of affordable educational opportunities. Not knowing how to respond well to the poverty we saw, I signed up for graduate school through Eastern University to study international development in hopes of gaining insight into poverty and potential solutions.
Much of what Andrew and I experienced not just in Mission, but in our other areas of ministry—including our coffee shop ministry to the international rock climbers and serving as English teachers at our church’s middle and high schools—showed us the ugliness we didn’t want to admit was in our own hearts. We made many mistakes and learned a lot from the locals. We also saw the other side of short-term missions (STMs): when the church groups returned to the U.S. and we heard the locals’ reactions to their trip. There were a few examples of what can happen when STMs bridge sister churches, allow for partnerships within the body of Christ, and fertilize relationships between international brothers. I truly believe the Global Church can be stronger through short-term missions that are done well. It was around my first year of grad school that I was hit hard by a quote by Bono in one of his TED Talks. He said, “This is about justice. That’s right. And that’s too bad, because we’re very good at charity. … But justice is a tougher standard than charity.” So for the next few weeks I pondered those two words, and desired to know more.
It seems many of our international and domestic missional efforts stem from charity rather than justice. It’s true that justice is a tougher standard; in fact, it’s laborious, strenuous, demanding, and messy. It makes a much better hash tag than lifestyle. But sacrificial love was messy when it engulfed me, and it’s still messy as it sanctifies me. Instead of pouring out that same love on others, I often create a less messy version of it and tack on the label ‘unconditional love.’ This is the tricky thing about charity; it’s a less messy version of justice that has a similar appearance. As I scanned scripture to understand the difference between these two words, I found that charity, as we know it today, is not a word found in the scriptures. Justice, however, is spread throughout the Bible. But it’s not defined the way we typically think of justice. And I think the short-term missions paradigm shift has to first start with a theological shift. Understanding the difference between justice and charity is where it starts. Then we have to recognize that the Hebrew concept of shalom—the ideal state of community—and the Hebrew concept of justice—the ideal state of relationships—are inseparable.
So STMs can’t just be another add-on to church life, they need to stem from the local church seeking justice and shalom in its own neighborhood (Jerusalem). That shalom community (the church) then seeks justice in its own nation (Judea), and then it seeks it in the ends of the earth. Romans 14:17 says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace [shalom] and joy in the Holy Spirit.” When we begin to see justice as the Bible declares it to be, we are more equipped to take up Christ’s call to faithfully bring forth justice and to usher in the coming kingdom of God. We must encourage, admonish, and hold each other accountable, so that we do not grow faint or get discouraged till God has established justice in the earth (Isaiah 42).
Not everyone is going to do mission work the same way. However, the message behind the methods needs to be universal because the Gospel is universal. Strong, authentic relationships built through STMs between sending and receiving churches is a way of ushering in the Gospel by permeating the culture. When relationships supersede their natural paths, bystanders want to know more. STMs have the potential for international sister churches to sincerely carry each others’ burdens—not just one pretending it has it all together carrying the other’s burden. STMs can show the rest of the world a unity it covets, and fulfill the unity Jesus prays his disciples will have in John 17. STMs can bridge international shalom communities, bring encouragement and outside perspective for both communities, and pave the way for impactful admonishment.
In order for this to happen, right relationship (justice) must be weightier than productivity, partnership must be stronger than paternalism, and integrity must be more tenacious than manipulating numbers and sharing half-truths. We learn from each other by listening well, filtering emotions through the gospel, and by confronting each other in humilty and in boldness. We must stay connected to God, to others, to ourselves, and to the environemnt and recognize that poverty means brokeness in any of these relationships. The gospel offers the world—and us—something much better than silver and gold. It offers a radiant light that pierces our dark world; it offers unconditional love that is not afraid of our messy lives; it offers communal hope and brotherly love. I pray that we can look back on our lives as components of our shalom communities and say, “We are the church we wished to see in the world.”