Since elder David Nakhla began his work as the OPC’s first short-term missions and disaster response coordinator in September 2010, he has helped the OPC respond to a devastating tsunami in Japan, unprecedented flooding in upstate New York, and ongoing needs in foreign fields like Haiti and Uruguay.
The OPC has been working to expand its reach in short-term missions. In this interview, David offers some thoughts on the value of short-term trips and how OP churches and members can become more involved with the joyful task of making disciples of Christ at home and abroad.
New Horizons: We regularly send full-time missionaries to conduct the long-term work of proclaiming Christ and planting churches around the world. What is the biblical basis for short-term trips?
Nakhla: Interestingly, it’s easier to find examples of short-term missions (STMs) in the Bible than long-term missions. In all his travels, the apostle Paul didn’t spend more than possibly a couple of years in one place. Also, the Great Commission is a command given to all believers. STMs provide one avenue for many more people to participate in bringing the gospel literally to “all the nations.”
New Horizons: What are the benefits of STMs for long-term missionaries?
Nakhla: STMs connect the missionary to the church. Although missionaries are an extension of the church, they can often feel like an island. STMs help bridge that gap. STMs also connect the church to the missionary. Those who serve on short-term trips bring home a renewed enthusiasm for that field and firsthand information about how their church can pray for, support, and communicate with missionaries on the field.
If used effectively by the missionary on the field, each STM trip can be one more building block in the church that he is trying to establish in that particular region. It’s all part of the sowing of the seed.
New Horizons: Which OP foreign fields currently host short-term trips?
Nakhla: Uganda, Uruguay, Haiti, and Quebec regularly host STMs. Ukraine hosted its first OP team last summer and will allow us to send a team every other summer. Japan may now have additional opportunities because of the changed spiritual landscape since the tsunami.
New Horizons: What kinds of projects are short-term teams tackling?
Nakhla: The main projects at this time would include VBS, construction, and English-language camps.
New Horizons: In their book, When Helping Hurts, Christian authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert warn against some of the potential pitfalls of short-term mission trips. How can our attempts to help sometimes actually hurt?
Nakhla: Usually by unintended consequences. People on short-term missions trips don’t intentionally try to hurt, but when we go into a situation with our own agenda, proudly thinking that we have all the answers, and not having a true appreciation for the culture or the circumstances, we can do a lot of harm without even realizing it.
New Horizons: How can groups avoid these pitfalls?
Nakhla: The key, I believe, is to do STMs under the guidance and oversight of the local missionary or local church leadership. Those close to the situation who know the culture, language, and circumstances, can help us put together a project that avoids doing short-term missions with long-term harm.
New Horizons: The book also discusses the difference between relief work and rehabilitation/development. How should those considerations inform short-term trips?
Nakhla: The authors define relief work as “stop the bleeding.” In contrast, rehabilitation/development work is characterized more by coming alongside and working with those whom we come to serve. The common analogy is teaching people to fish versus giving them a fish. Relief work is much easier to do. Rehabilitation/development work is very tough! It’s relational. It takes great patience and endurance. Relief work is often applied to situations that really need rehabilitation/development work instead.
So a short-term worker should be more concerned about how he relates to those he’s going to work with than just getting the job done. That’s not to say that we don’t want to worry about completing things. But the real impact has to do with the relationships developed during our time there.
New Horizons: Some people raise the concern that we can spend as much money on a week of service as some of the local population earn in several weeks or more. How do we balance this consideration with the need to serve and help?
Nakhla: We have to be honest with the fact that STMs are—more than anything—an investment in the life of the one who goes. If STMs were only about getting some work done on the field, I don’t think that we could justify the cost, for the most part. So, knowing that a trip is going to place an indelible mark on the one who goes, we need to be sure that person spends plenty of time preparing—not just physically, but most importantly spiritually. And when the individual comes back, he needs to take time to reflect on what the Lord would have him learn through this rich and costly endeavor. This is an area that we need to focus on developing more.
New Horizons: Why is the OPC expanding its involvement with short-term missions now?
Nakhla: First, the church is asking for it. The program committees of the OPC see that many OP churches have come to appreciate the role that STMs can play in shaping their members and the mission-mindedness of their whole church. These churches are going to get involved in STMs, with or without the OPC. If we can provide those opportunities within the OPC, why wouldn’t we want that help to come to our fields? As I mentioned previously, prayer and financial support also follow STMs. So it makes sense that we direct all that toward our own missionaries, if we can.
Also, the missionaries are welcoming it. Some of our missionaries are building greater portions of their ministries around the help that short-termers bring. I think that is good for the whole church.
New Horizons: How should a church pick a field and a project?
Nakhla: They should ask themselves: What are our gifts and skills? What are our interests? Do we already have a natural connection to any of the fields? What is our budget?
New Horizons: How can churches choose good candidates for short-term trips?
Nakhla: They should consider gifts, experience, maturity, and team makeup. If it’s a costly venture, prudence dictates that they look for individuals who are mature in their faith, exemplify service locally, and have a great interest in missions. If it’s a local disaster response, where the team is simply piling into a van with a cooler and sleeping bags, we don’t have to be as selective. That said, I would look for those who are team players, flexible, servants, humble, and eager to learn.
New Horizons: What’s the ideal size for a short-term team?
Nakhla: Depending on the project, teams can range anywhere from three to twenty members.
New Horizons: How should churches prepare for a trip?
Nakhla: They should pray that the Lord would open their eyes to the opportunities around them, and that he’ll give wisdom in choosing the right one for them. They should provide opportunities for individuals to exercise service in the church locally. They could also connect with other churches in their presbytery. The typical OP church has seventy members—possibly not enough to field a team. Connect with the regional church! Finally, explore the opportunities that do arise. We’ve built the website www.opcstm.org to publicize opportunities, as well as the Facebook page, OPC Short-Term Missions.
New Horizons: How much do trips typically cost?
Nakhla: Domestically, they could cost as little as a few hundred dollars per person. Internationally, they could cost anywhere from $1,300 to $3,500, depending on the destination.
New Horizons: Is this something that sessions should consider thinking about in their budgeting process?
Nakhla: That would be great. Some churches have a “Short-Term Missions” line item in their budget. Others create a “Short-Term Missions Fund” that people can contribute to. Others may take up a special offering when they have the opportunity to send off a team or an individual.
New Horizons: Are there opportunities for individuals to join groups from other churches if their own church isn’t planning a trip?
New Horizons: Are there opportunities for domestic short-term trips?
Nakhla: I hope to see domestic short-term missions developed within the presbyteries. I would be so encouraged to see local churches mobilize to work with their sister churches, helping with outreach projects, building and grounds projects, or ministry projects to folks with needs within the church.
New Horizons: Speaking of domestic fields, how can churches prepare in advance for local disasters and be ready to serve?
Nakhla: Churches should figure out their resources, strengths, and abilities, but also their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They can explore various forms of training given by groups like the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, or Mission to North America (the PCA’s domestic missions branch). Ultimately, our denomination’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries would love to see each presbytery’s diaconal committee create a network of contacts and responders within their presbytery, so that churches within the regional church could minister to one another better when a disaster strikes.
New Horizons: Looking ahead, how can we continue to cultivate a service-oriented mind-set in our churches?
Nakhla: We live in a very me-centered culture, don’t we? I think a service-oriented mind-set begins to be formed when parents expect more from their children. (And I’m talking to myself here!) This is difficult in a culture that is so comfortable and geared toward comfort. Yet we can rob ourselves of the satisfaction that’s found when we serve others. Our Lord taught us, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We need to be willing to give others the opportunity to serve. And we need to be willing to have things done in a fashion that may not be perfect since people will make mistakes in the process of learning how to serve well.
New Horizons: What can sessions and diaconates do to help?
Nakhla: Create opportunities. Recruit for those opportunities. Lead, not only by example, but also by coming alongside and encouraging others.
New Horizons: Could this be a means of raising up future missionaries?
Nakhla: I believe that the main justification for STMs is that they do just that: plant seeds for future missionaries!
New Horizons: What do you hope that increasing numbers of short-term trips will accomplish in the OPC and the larger kingdom of Christ?
Nakhla: I hope STMs will become a tool to invigorate God’s people to serve Christ and his church in all of their lives, so that being a Christian would not just be a part of who they are, but would define them in all that they think, do, and say.
I have been saddened to see many of the next generation drift off, having grown up without a passion for the church and for the OPC in particular. May the Lord do powerful things through the work of short-term missions in the lives of many, even as it has done for me personally over the years!
Note: This article was published in the April 2012 issue of New Horizons