In the 1960’s my mother was a missionary in Nigeria. In many ways things are the same now as they were then, but in other ways it’s a different world now. One of the stories she used to tell was of hearing the talking drums at night. To her it was a disconcerting sound, because it frequently meant bad news. There were few telephones in Africa at the time, and villagers would communicate by code through the beats of drums from place to place. This practice has largely disappeared, though you will still find that in rural villages, gatherings will be called together by banging the drum. In Bor, South Sudan, for instance, this is the way they announce that church will start soon.
The cell phone has now become ubiquitous in Africa, and it makes sense. It requires very little infrastructure to put a network together, and it’s relatively inexpensive to use. You can also get internet without an expensive computer. I’ve been to many places that have no electricity, but have cell phone service with data. This was incredibly helpful when our friends had to flee into the bush when running from tribal fighting last year. Even while hiding from enemies with no food or shelter, we were still able to communicate. When my mother was a missionary, there was no telephone service. If you wanted to communicate, you had to either send a telegram or write a letter, which would take weeks to show up. She traveled with her husband and children to Nigeria by ship.
The opportunity for short-term missions, at least to places like Nigeria, were non-existent in those days. In order for missions to truly be effective, you need to build relationships with people. This is why people uprooted and left for years at a time. Building relationships is still of the utmost importance, even in short-term missions. This is where many missions programs fail. People feel that if they show up to a place once and build a church building, everything is good. We feel good about it. Missions is about building relationships though, and about reconciliation between people and other people, and between people and God. You can’t do that if you only show up once and have no further contact. It’s important to understand that missions is often more about building processes than about building concrete structures. This is hard for western, type-A, goal oriented people to grasp, but it is nonetheless the truth. Fortunately, it is infinitely easier to keep in contact now with people in the most remote parts of the world. Facebook, though a curse in many ways, has also been a blessing for building relationships. A book I’m reading about short-term missions that was written just about ten years ago still states that hardly anyone has contact with people they meet on short-term missions trips when they get back home. This is not the case anymore. If I’m at work, I have to be very careful about getting on Facebook, because I will frequently end up messaging with three different people in three different African countries at the same time. This isn’t great for getting work done, but the ability to continue and build relationships is priceless. Short-term missions is no longer months or years of silence punctuated by short visits. That was not effective, any more than a dating relationship would be effective using this method. The end of this era is why short-term missions is now a viable plan if done right. If you’ve thought about doing missions before, but didn’t want to sell your home and all your belongings and leave for several years, you now have that opportunity. That’s not to say you won’t end up doing that. If God calls you to do it, don’t argue. But for many people who have had talents they wanted to use but couldn’t because of family or other obligations, it’s no longer a limiting factor. This is a fantastic development, and I’m glad I’m living in a time when it is happening.