I have had numerous conversations with OM leaders in recent years regarding short-term teams (STTs) in light of our mission to see vibrant communities of Jesus followers (VCJFs) among the least reached. There at times seems to be tension between those on the resourcing side and those on the receiving side. Mobilisers deeply desire to send more STTs as part of a strategic effort to mobilise many more long-termers to the least reached.
However, a number of fields on the receiving side are less excited, as they don’t see how SSTs contribute effectively to seeing VCJFs among the least reached. Indeed, STTs are sometimes seen as a distraction, not a help. This is compounded when a field doesn’t actually see many (or any) long-term workers emerge from the effort they put into receiving STTs.
With frustration on both sides, this is a polarity: less a problem to be solved, but more a tension to be managed, and the aim should be for STTs to have a credible impact on the ministry and be effective in mobilising long-term workers.
The near/far culture dynamic is crucial to consider. A French team going to Spain, or an Algerian team going to Morocco may, in the space of two to three weeks, see people come to faith and groups of new believers start. For a Finnish team going to Jordan, or a Chinese team going to Turkey, it is far less likely (but not impossible) to witness this. In the first example, the STT may be predominantly ‘ministry’-focused, while in the second, it may be 20 per cent ‘ministry’ and 80 per cent vision casting and mobilisation focused. We need to recognise the reality of near and far culture dynamics and set things up accordingly.
It may be that many long-term workers have been on a STT at some point, but correlation is different from causation, and it is important that we don’t confuse the two. Would they have gone long-term anyway, or was participating in a STT causative in them going long-term? Perhaps, or it may be that the STT experience helped determine exactly where they ended up serving and with which organisation.
When a team is well prepared, and good follow up is done, the trip is more fruitful on every level: the impact of the team in country, the impact on the team that translates to changed attitudes and behaviours back in their home country, and the likelihood of some team members returning long-term. In that sense, high barriers to entry are good—not bureaucratic barriers but rather a commitment to study, pray and meet prior to the trip, and a similar commitment after the trip. When it is more about the journey that God is taking someone on and using them in, it becomes less about what they get out of it, and more about how they can serve—though they inevitably get a lot out of the experience, too. A low barrier to entry would be someone joining their church team because their friends are going and which, for that individual, involves little more than turning up at the airport on time.
Recently, I was talking to the former leader of one field that over the years has received many STTs. He explained that the key to handling this tension of receiving STTs and long-term ministry was to place their STT program under their training department. It eased the burden on many of the long-termers and also meant that the time in country was focused on equipping and building into the STT participants, with better results there and then as well as in the long-term.
A final word on prayer teams: I have seen prayer teams that are little more than tourists with a bit of extra prayer thrown in, but I have also seen some amazing prayer teams that are well prepared. Their sacrificial praying has started weeks or months before they come, not the day they arrive, and they come with a deep servant attitude leading to real impact on the ministry, local partners, the least reached and the long-term OMers. This has been true for near- and far-culture prayer teams.
Does it have to be an either/or? I don’t think so, though I do think that if we are more intentional in the way we set up STTs, the impact in every area—on the participants, the ministry and the least reached—can potentially be effective.
Stephan Bauer* presently serves as the Associate International Director for Field Ministries and says it is an exciting (and daunting) time to be involved in this kind of leadership.