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Looking at the Value of STMscomment (0)

December 15, 2011

By Bob Terry

Fifty years ago, STMs were unheard of; today they are commonplace. STM is the abbreviation for “short-term missions.” Most STMs are two weeks in duration or shorter, but they can last up to one year. Churches of every size and description regularly sponsor STMs to the most distant parts of the globe.

A report released earlier this year by Dennis Horton, associate professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found that in 1965, only 540 U.S. Christians took part in a missions trip lasting a year or less. Now that number has swelled to more than 1.5 million.

Horton’s finding is consistent with a study done by Kurt Ver Beek, assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Ver Beek’s study charted the rise in STM participants from 120,000 in 1989 to 450,000 in 1998 to 1 million in 2003 and a high of 2.2 million in 2006.

With STMs’ growing popularity and the elapsed time over which they have been held, it was inevitable that they would be scrutinized to evaluate their effectiveness as well as their impact on participants. Horton and Ver Beek both offer important findings that Alabama Baptists should note.

Horton concluded, for example, that with proper follow-up, students who participate in STMs tend to have lower levels of materialism, greater appreciation for other cultures and a better understanding of missions as a lifestyle.

Simply participating in a STM does not produce these outcomes, Horton emphasized. Long-term involvement is where transformation takes place. He said sponsoring groups must do follow-up to help missions team members incorporate what they have learned and experienced on their trips into patterns of daily living.

Follow-up must be coupled with appropriate preplanning and on-site mentoring to interpret what participants experience if STMs are to be anything more than “spiritual tourism” in which participants travel to an exotic place, take a myriad of photos and return to their home environments as well as pre-trip behaviors and routines.

Preplanning includes selecting volunteers who are already involved in local ministries where they learn about helping others. As one writer put it, “Simply wanting to go and coming up with the money is not sufficient to qualify somebody to join a (short-term missions) team.”

Most Baptists have heard reports of the “mountaintop spiritual experiences” from those who participated in STMs. But without proper preplanning, on-site mentoring and yearlong follow-up to translate the experience into a life-changing event, Horton said, “Studies show little difference between those who have participated in short-term missions trips and Christians who have not.”

That conclusion challenges the oft-repeated statements that STMs result in more missions giving by participants and sending churches, serve as a recruitment tool for career missionaries and produce profound cross-cultural relationships.

Ver Beek’s study challenges all three assertions. His study found no significant increase in long-term missions giving for either the team members or the sending churches. While acknowledging anecdotal accounts of God’s call to missions service during a STM, he pointed to the stable number of career missionaries despite the explosion in STM volunteers as evidence challenging the important role of STM as a precursor for a missions calling.

As for cross-cultural relationships, Ver Beek found, “The reality is that only a small percentage of STM team members ever have any contact — at all — with their new ‘friends’ after the trip ends.”

None of this lessens STMs’ importance. It is important for people to touch, taste and experience missions firsthand. The findings simply affirm that visiting a place, even doing a project in that place, is not sufficient to change one’s life. A church must do much more than sponsor a trip if the value of STMs is to be realized by the volunteers and those they serve.

Both Ver Beek and Horton agree on STMs’ financial impact. Ver Beek reported Americans spent $1.6 billion in 2006 on STMs. Horton placed the number for 2010 at $2 billion. That is a lot of money. It is 10 times the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program (CP) receipts for 2010–11. It is almost six times the money spent by the International Mission Board for the last year of record.

Some argue this is all new missions money, that those who paid for participation in STMs would not have given the money through regular giving channels to support denominational missions and ministries. Perhaps. But a growing number of churches are cutting back CP giving in order to provide scholarships to some members who want to participate in a STM.

If the $2 billion is all new missions money, then, certainly, Southern Baptists and others are investing much more than what their denominations report as funds to support international missions.

The huge investment in STMs is causing some people to ask if funds could be better spent. An example cited in the book “When Helping Hurts” compared the cost of a STM to Africa with the cost of supporting a national evangelist who traveled the continent sharing Christ. The African received a $1,200 salary, a mountain bike ($250) and a backpack, team shirt and bedroll ($90). The $1,540 supported a national evangelist who spoke the languages and knew the cultures for a full year while the cost of a STM volunteer for two weeks was far more than $1,540.

It is true that with improved communications, partnerships between churches in the United States and other parts of the world will take on different characteristics in the future. There will be more collaboration between partners, more emphasis on providing resources and more exchange of information. But there will always be going.

STMs are not just about the national partner’s needs. STMs are also about helping U.S. Christians touch, taste and experience missions, and there is no substitute for that. Recognizing Western Christians need for STMs changes the dynamics from an over-under relationship where the Westerners are doing something for the nationals to an equal partnership where each learns from the other.

Neither Horton’s nor Ver Beek’s study was solely about Southern Baptists. Both were about Christians in the United States including Southern Baptists. But both have much to say to us and demonstrate that when done correctly, STMs can help lower commitment to materialism, create a more sensitive appreciation of others and spur participants to a lifestyle of missional living.

If only for what they can do for us, then STMs are a worthwhile part of any church’s missions program. 

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