balancing short term and long term mission

I am just back from a good 10 days in Tanzania leading a team of Wycliffe students.  We spent two days teaching in a remote Maasai tribe outside of Morogoro and were pleased at the warm welcome we received.  They killed the “fatted sheep” for us and hungrily consumed the bible teaching.  We prayed the missionary prayer “Lord I can eat it if you can keep it down” (a prayer to which he granted a 60% positive response!)  We led a two day teaching event for Pastor’s and congregation members further south in Mangula, and were each in different churches on the Sunday.  We also saw mating Lions in Makumi wildlife park and had a quick dip in the Indian Ocean.  A great trip!

It is undeniable that we – the team – got a lot out of this short term mission trip: we were challenged by the strength and commitment of Christian believers and humbled by the extreme poverty in which many of them live.  But I am always concerned that we don’t make work for our hosts nor undermine the long term work being done by mission partners.  So, we might well ask, how do short term and long term mission projects relate to each other?

In preparing to preach in the English congregation in Morogoro on Sunday I felt challenged by Paul’s response to King Agrippa in Acts 26: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”  Paul replied, “Short time or long — I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:28-29).

Paul, you might say, always preached for a verdict.  He had a sense of urgency in seeking to persuade Agrippa to become a Christian.  But he was also realistic that it could, and more often than not does, take time for someone to come to saving faith.  In Acts 26 Paul recounts one of several summaries of his conversion emphasising how he had been arrested by the voice from heaven, and had his life dramatically turned around by meeting the resurrected Jesus.  It is not hard to see why he was urgent in seeking to explain the Gospel to others.

Short termers, such as our Wycliffe mission team, come with a sense of freshness and urgency.  We are hopeful that we can also boost the great work being done by local pastors, church planters, bible translators etc.  But of course we make work, we can easily put our foot in it, we don’t know the language and can not do the necessary enculteration of the Gospel message. 

Long termers have many advantages: they can take time to build good relationships, the can build trust partner with locals and they can speak in a language that really communicates.  But there is a cost: there is loneliness in the long haul and always a danger that goals stretch out in the far distant future with slow visible results. 

This tension – between long term and short term work –  is not so dissimilar to the relationship between the itinerant evangelist and the local church Pastor.  The Pastor thinks that mission is a long term thing, building slowly; the evangelist is “out there” with the zeal to win someone TODAY!

Acts 26:29 seems to me is a model response to the need to keep fresh and urgent whilst at the same time being realistic that mission work is long term investment.

This seems to be Paul’s consistent response to life circumstances.  In 2 Tim 4 he clearly expects death to be imminent but nevertheless he is making plans for mission.  Indeed for Paul “to live is Christ; to die is gain” – but while he lives it will mean fruitful labour.

Paul provokes good questions for each us I think: do I retain urgency in the short term?  Will I use every opportunity to make Jesus known? Do I still retain the energy and enthusiasm I had when I first believed?  Do I keep looking for results, preach for a verdict, and am I always ready to give a reason for my hope (1 Peter 3:15)?  But at the same time, do I have a sense of realism to keep at the hard slog of long term work.  It does seem that God in his mercy allows us to see glimpses of fruit (otherwise we would give up) but hides most of the results from our sight (to keep us from pride and presumption).

I do hope that we were an encouragement to the long termers in Tanzania.  But I hope too that we have been reminded about the relational nature of enculturated mission work.  Let’s partner together in the job of persuading people about Jesus Christ: “Short time or long — I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

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