Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Working with Short-term Outreach Teams (1)

Since 1985, when I first arrived in Swaziland, I’ve been working with short-term outreach teams. Usually things worked out fairly well, but at other times it was terrible. A certain university in South Africa had a long-lasting relationship with Swaziland and up to 1996 we received four teams from the university during their annual winter break. Each year, after the team left, my wife and I tried to analyse the visit, trying to find out what was good and what was bad and more especially why certain teams worked well and others not.
One of the amazing discoveries we made after all the teams that we had received, was that the team leader played a fairly insignificant role when it came to the success of the group. This does not mean that the team leader is not important. Obviously, someone has to take responsibility. What we did find was that the team leader had a much greater role to play when it came to creating a feeling of unity among the group than in real leadership. The best leader we ever had (two years running) was a student who had virtually no typical leadership characteristics. When problems occurred within the team, he would go around, give each member a bear hug and tell them that he loves and cares for them, and afterwards everyone smiled and apologised for saying bad things about others and then they went on with their work.
The worst leader we ever had was a student with exceptionally strong leadership capabilities, even being one of the elect few among almost 20,000 students who served on their university’s Student Representative Council. However, in spite of his exceptional leadership qualities, he wasn’t able to create a feeling of unity among his team and because he himself was not willing to accept authority, it became one of the worst teams we ever had in Swaziland. The day they left, we breathed a sigh of relief and said: Hallelujah! 😉
Much more thought needs to go into the issue of short-term outreaches. After 1996 I had a discussion with representatives from the university from which the students came and my advice to them was that they needed to rethink these outreaches and perhaps, after more than twenty years, they had to ask themselves the question why they are coming to Swaziland. Was it because of the traditional bond between the university and Swaziland, or was it because they were really making (or undergoing) a difference?
Eventually a decision was made to stop these visits.
Looking back at those times I often wonder how we could have done things differently. Our biggest problem was that many of the students created the impression that they had come to Swaziland on a fairly inexpensive vacation. Anyone willing to come, was accepted gladly on the team. Their costs were minimal. However, when they arrived in Swaziland they expected expensive meals. In fact, they ate food that we would rarely if ever eat in our own home. (This changed later after we had a long and deep discussion with the students about this.) Their work consisted mostly of visiting schools (which I had to arrange beforehand), meeting children before school during assembly, introducing themselves, singing a few songs, perhaps doing a short skit or a puppet show, selling Bibles and then driving off to the next school. During the afternoons they would go to the local market and mix with people.
I also had the impression that they mostly considered the children standing in front of them to be unbelievers. During the skits and the puppet shows they were always sharing the news about Jesus who had died for their sins (granted, this is amazingly good news) but the next year they would visit the same school and bring the same message as if they had never spoken to these children before. This also got me thinking about the purpose of a short-term outreach.
I’ll continue with the topic tomorrow, but I would be glad to get some feed-back from people who had possibly been on a short-term outreach or who had received such teams and how you feel about them.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008 - Posted by | Building relations, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelism, Mission, Partnership, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland


  1. This is certainly one of the biggest issues in missions today. It seems like it’s almost a necessary ‘evil’. People need a low-impact way to connect with international ministry, as they aren’t typically willing or ready for a immediate long-term commitment. The short-term trend has arisen out of need, but there is much debate about how well it meets that need.

    It seems that some of these issues would be alleviated if there was some long-term consistency somewhere. For example, if the university had one rep that helped generate expectations and content of the team’s efforts each year, and worked to liaise with the host missionaries too, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as much needless overlap, and more ministry value. The concern I have with STTs is that their impact and their own memory is too-often also short-term.

    I love the story of the bear-hugging leader — humility and love go so much further than intelligence and gifting! If I was going to pick someone to help with year-by-year consistency, it would be a leader like him. 🙂

    Comment by brad | Wednesday, May 28, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi Brad. Good to hear from you again. Short-term mission trips have become a muti-million dollar enterprise. I am fully aware of the negative feelings towards this, for example in an article written in Christianity Today with the title: Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? I’m struggling with the issue, but I think there can be a tremendous advantage in having a team like this. Not all of them will be changed, but I believe that some of them will be changed for life. Some of the students who had been to me during the past few weeks told me how their parents had been involved in mission (some long-term and others short-term) and this definitely seemed to have played some role in convincing them to come to Swaziland. The success rate will never be 100%. But how would things change if 20% or even 10% of those going on short-term outreaches really make a decision to become actively involved in mission?

    I appreciate your comment. Please help me think about this issue. Short-term outreaches are here to stay. How can we make them work better?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, May 28, 2008 | Reply

  3. I had the privilege of going on a numerous amounts of short-term outreaches.

    I just want to raise some of the positive aspects that I have experienced during these short term outreaches, in terms of the permanent Kingdom work that have to be done in these certain places. I understand that you can think that short-term outreaches are a waste of money but all the gold and silver belongs to God. And He can give it to whoever he wants to.

    Short term outreaches is a very good “training school” of faith for the members that are going on the outreach. Yes sometimes the team members can afford to go on the outreaches but most of the times the outreach is to expense. In the most cases short term missions are undertaken by students who can not afford to go on the outreach. The only way then is to trust 100% in the Lord that he will provide the money. It also teaches the team members to listen to the voice of the Lord that calls us all to work in His kingdom in different specific places. Because if a team member wants to go on a certain short term mission trip for the wrong reasons he will not receive the money to go and the door for that specific mission trip will be closed for him. This team member will then have to search and evaluates his heart in the presence of the Lord to realise why he couldn’t go on the outreach.

    Further during the preparation for a short term mission trip where a lot of prayer and money have to be raised in a short time. The mission teams go to a lot of different churches to raise prayer for the outreach. This in its own is a good enough reason to justify short term mission trips. There are a few of all the churches of all the different denominations today that can stand together. All the denominations are like a “Christian Island” on their own and do not want to work with other churches from different denominations. Is the body of Christ divided? By going to the churches of different denominations to raise prayer, a type of unity is created under the churches in the sense that they will all pray for the same outreach and area where the outreach will be held.

    A short term outreach team is also like a vitamin injection for the permanent missionaries and the church of that specific area. All of us are called to a certain place. And every Christian is a missionary in his own place where the Lord places him. If it is in your School, work, house, community, Swaziland, Amazon etc. The main thing is that Christ will be preached and live out no matter who or where we are. A short term missionary is like a volunteer that are willingly going into a battle that are not his. He says well the people here are doing okay but I have heard there are brothers and sisters of mine that are struggling in another place so I will go to that place and take supplies of which the biggest supply are usually all the prayer that are going into a specifically place in the preparation of the short term mission team.

    The main thing that I want to say is that you must please never underestimate the power of a short term mission trip. Don’t discourage people who are willing to work in God’s Kingdom! In order to spread the Word of God in this world it is necessary for us Christians to work together and not divide the body of Christ by rising unnecessary topics like “Are short-term missionary trips really necessary etc.” Rather discuss topics of strategy like how to take the Word of God to all the unreached people and how to get all the Christians involved in the great commission!

    It is time for us Christians to humble ourselves. Whe must realise that we all have a certain calling and that one is not better than the other. Is a missionary in a far of land better than a person who is called by the Lord in the corparate world? Or is the hand more important than the eye etc.?

    If you receive help from a short-term mission group. Just learn to say thank you! If the mission group is not up to scratch it is the work of the missionary to help them on the right way.

    God bless!

    Comment by Yvotte | Saturday, November 1, 2008 | Reply

  4. Hi Yvotte,

    You make a few interesting remarks. Thanks for this. I’m positive about short-term outreaches. Do a search on my blog and you will see how often I’ve written about this topic, mostly in a positive way. You also mention the advantage this has for the team going on the outreach. Which was the one point I also tried to make: That we must never underestimate the positive influence on those going on the outreach. Really bad teams haven’t been to us in a long time. The problems which I mentioned mostly came forth because many of the students saw this as a cheap holiday in Swaziland, rather than coming to serve the local people.
    The one thing which I do not agree with you is that it is the missionaries task to help the team if they’re not up to scratch. Of course the missionary has a role to play and I do it with joy and appreciate it when I can see how the team members grow. But sometimes you have teams without discipline. who disregard cultural beliefs and taboos. At some point the team leader will have to take up that responsibility to discipline the team. I for one do not have time to spend two or three weeks living with an outreach team. Most missionaries are in the same position. Outreach teams need to be focussed on serving and learning before they come, and if that is not their focus (which is what happened to the team I wrote about), then they should rather not come, because it can take years to repair the damage that one team can create in a week’s time.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Sunday, November 2, 2008 | Reply

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