Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
The world is now over a year into the coronavirus pandemic. While much remains uncertain about the future of the pandemic, leaders are beginning to feel confident enough in the future to begin talking about the "new normal" or "next normal" that will emerge after the pandemic. Questions about the next normal affect all aspects of life and church, and in this post, I will explore some of those questions as they apply to short-term mission.
First, a quick recap: Travel restrictions because of COVID-19 meant that short-term mission trips, both domestically and internationally, were largely cancelled last year. In some cases, they were replaced by other forms of engagement: virtual mission trips and online partnership building. In other cases, probably the majority of cases, US churches did not replace their short term trips with anything. For many partner organizations, the cancellation of short term mission trips represented the loss of a significant revenue stream, though it also meant more staff time to focus elsewhere. For more on the impact of COVID-19 on short term mission, see this series of UM & Global posts from last year: , , , , , and .
Many churches in the United States and around the world are still not meeting because of the pandemic. Nevertheless, reviewing news from US annual conferences indicates that US churches are beginning to contemplate the return of short term mission trips, at least in some form. At this point, plans are most likely to involve relatively local trips (within a few hours' drive), for a limited day (often day trips), doing work that can be done outside and with other precautions (outdoor VBS, certain construction, repair, and gardening projects, etc.). Longer trips and long-distance trips, including international trips, are mostly still on hold.
As they begin to resume their short term mission trips, here are some questions that churches would do well to reflect on:
What have we learned from the pandemic?
Many Christian writers have described the pandemic as an "apocalypse," not necessarily in the sense that it is the end of the world, but in the sense that it has unveiled or uncovered many things about ourselves, our churches, our society, and our world community. What has the pandemic uncovered about your church's participation in short term mission? What has it revealed about the sorts of partnerships forged? What has it revealed about the role of short term mission in your congregants' spiritual lives and the financial model of your church?
What have our partners learned from the pandemic? What are their hopes for the resumption of short term mission?
Just as we have been learning from the pandemic, so have our partners and hosts. They, too, have been learning about themselves, their communities, and the world. US churches' first impulse might be to look for new needs among their partners, but there are also likely new strengths that partners have discovered in themselves. World War II was a great disruption to mission in some regions. But one of the things that younger churches learned during that experience was that they could stand on their own, without the constant support of their mission partners from the West, even amid very difficult times. Whatever our partners have learned, the new normal of short term mission that we create must incorporate their learnings and their hopes for the new normal.
Are there aspects of our short term mission trips that should not come back?
The question of how to resume short term mission work is not just a question of what to start doing again. It is also a question of what not to do anymore. Perhaps we or our partners have learned that some aspect of that short term mission arrangement no longer serves a point or perhaps it is even detrimental to one group involved. The advantage of a pause in activity is that it makes it easier to let that activity or parts of that activity go. Again, the goal is not to get back to the old normal. It is to collaboratively build a new and better normal.
How can we (continue to) incorporate alternate forms of connection in our mission work?
Whether or not we have used Zoom to connect with mission partners, just about all churches in the United States have experimented with new forms of technologically-mediated connection, even if just to connect members of the congregation while it was not meeting. Rather than seeing these practices of connection as temporary measures that can now be laid aside, churches can see them as new skills that they can use to strengthen our short term mission partnerships, which are usually characterized by not being about to meet together on a regular basis.
The pandemic has been a great tragedy around the world. The resumption of short term mission after the pandemic is an opportunity born out of tragedy. It is both an opportunity to resume mission and also an opportunity to use the break from mission activities as an impetus to change and improve those activities.