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Have you heard the starfish story? I have heard several versions, in general it goes something like this…

One day, an old man was walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked him what he was doing.

Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir.”

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish and gently tossed it into the water. Turning to the man, he said, “I made a difference to that one!”

This story is similar to the way that we can see short-term missions.

Short-term Missions Needs

When people think of short-term mission trips, they often think of going and serving in a remote location. Whether it be a medical mission trip to set up a clinic where there are no doctors, or drilling a well in a place with no access to clean water, having compassion on those in need is proof of the love of God within us (1 John 3:17). We are saving starfish, helping those in need.

There is no shortage of needs around the world and as followers of Christ, we often look at short-term missions as a way to meet these needs. With so many opportunities, it can be overwhelming. We often err on the side of action. We buy shoes for people without shoes. We support children on a monthly basis. We send money to places that are in crisis.

Filled with hearts of compassion and the love of Christ, teams travel all over the world to meet the needs of people for the sake of the Gospel. After all, with so many in need, a logical solution for every church would be to offer short-term mission opportunities as an outlet to serve.

We are striving to make a difference. We are trying to save the starfish, right? But what if we are actually causing harm along the way?

Development on Short-term Trip?

One of the complexities of short-term missions is the need to see past the immediate need for relief and focus more on development. What happens when the clinics pack up and the medical professionals return home? What about when the wells malfunction and there is no one that knows how to repair them? What happens to the person who sells shoes in the community when everyone in the area just received a new pair for free? These complexities in our charitable work have to be considered. When relief does not transition to development, our compassion can become toxic.

In The Great Omission, Steve Saint challenges that our approach to missions and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) has sidelined the indigenous church. Oftentimes, the local church plays a background role, or no role at all, in the work being done on short-term trips. Our great omission has been overlooking our national brothers and sisters in Christ’s Great Commission.

Is it possible to offer development on a short-term trip? This question goes right to the heart of ITEC. Our goal is to equip and empower the local church on short-term trips. We develop tools and training to equip indigenous/national Christ-followers to meet the needs of their community. This approach can make a long-term impact on a short-term trip.

Encouraging Others to do the Same

ITEC continues to proof the concept of training and equipping. Our goal is not to become a sending agency in this work, but to encourage others to think about training and sustainability in their own mission strategy.

There is no shortage of needs around the world. Like you, we are in the business of saving the starfish. We want to love others the way Jesus did. He met physical needs as well as spiritual. Every time we train someone to minister in their community, we empower a difference maker to both share and show the love of Christ. That way, the work of saving the starfish can continue long after we leave.



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  • Roseann says:

    In obeying God’s peculiar call upon our lives towards the remarkable people of Sierra Leone, my husband and I have often felt odd when our church leadership and missions leaders in our community did not validate our ministry because we did not form short-term teams but rather, we focused on “Bringing people and resources and people together for the empowerment of the people of West Africa for the sake of the Gospel”. Now the mission statement of our nonprofit, we see the hand of God and the Holy Spirit powerfully at work in and through our dear brothers and sisters in S/L. Your organization and ministry model has been a sustaining influence and source of great encouragement! Now we are under the leadership of a supportive body and pray that this next step is welcomed. We too, see the need to equip local believers with the approach of fulfilling the Great Commission by empowering indigenous believers to do the work of the ministry among their own communities. Perhaps the “starfish” is also ourselves…praying we each find our part in fulfilling the mandate so we can all go HOME!

  • Susan says:

    This approach is very practical and provides good stewardship. How is this approach being shared with ministries and missions who do the work without providing training? I can think of so many well known organizations that need this message. How can I help share this with these organizations?