Missions: The Long & Short of It

40 years ... or two weeks. Can both be effective "missions"? (from Issue #471).

Forty years … or two weeks. Can both be effective “missions”? Can a missionary stay too long? Can they leave too soon?

These questions do require ongoing consideration, but right now we’d like you to meet some special people. We believe that their experiences, in fact, help provide answers.

We’ll begin with the short ones because we’ve just completed a busy summer of ministry and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of short-term Bible camp workers. Also still fresh on our minds are the reports of those who spent several weeks doing hands-on missions in First Nations communities.

Short-Termers with Attitudes

…and it’s hard not to notice their enthusiasm! …”It was a wonderful, challenging, stretching … experience. I loved it!” “I could really feel God’s presence!” “The Lord answered prayer in several ways!” “I led a Bible study for the first time!” “When you find an opportunity to share the Bible with them … what a joy that is!” “Some of [the young people] learned 20 Bible verses … and they understood them too!” That’s just a sample of what the short-term summer missionaries shared.

Of course it takes more than just enthusiasm to be an effective missionary, but when it disappears, everyone notices. Recently, after meeting an enthusiastic young worker, one of our longer-serving missionaries said to her husband in a wishful tone, “Remember when we used to be like that?” Yes, enthusiasm is contagious. Short-termers often take it back to their home churches and motivate others to get involved.

It’s not all fun, of course. Short-termers also experience the heartache of seeing people lost without Christ:”…So many people not knowing of God’s love”; “My eyes were opened to the needs of other people”; “I saw people in my own country [who] lack so many opportunities.” One team told of hearing a gun shot in the night, and finding out the next morning that one of their neighbors had taken his life.

A Wide Range of Experience

Joy, sorrow, and everything in between — in fact, much of what a long-term missionary experiences. Some told about swimming and fishing in beautiful lakes (and wondering about “suffering” for the Lord!) Others told of receiving beautifully handcrafted gifts from local people. But it all begins with the big decision, “Will I go?” One trainee admitted, “I knew God was tugging at my heart calling me … but there were so many things that were holding me back.”

Short-termers also get a taste of seeing God supply their financial and practical needs. One knew it had to be the Lord’s doing when he found himself stuck for a ride to the airport and was offered a lift by someone going to Edmonton just to get a haircut … a two and-a-half hour trip! Others told of God’s protection while driving on rough roads, canoeing, and sleeping and hiking “with the bears.” Even the short-termer who reported, “The flies are the size of a quarter … and the mosquitoes have a half-inch needle serving the Blood Bank of the North,” learned to deal with them.

To be sure, there are cultural adjustments and not much time in which to make them. One fellow arrived from Hong Kong to be stationed in an isolated community of only 60 people. He said that the much slower pace of life was a bit of a shock, but he learned to enjoy living where he knew everyone’s name. Some short-termers admitted a general fear of Native people prior to their summer. Of course, these unfounded fears quickly vanished. One said, “By end of the day, I forgot I was with Native people!”

In NCEM, even short-termers learn about strategizing: about seeking the best ways to reach out. One was able to participate in a community “Reading Program.” She said that it was a tremendous way to get to know adults and to invite kids to Bible clubs, and that she was given complete freedom to share about Christ. Another team reported: “We had plans, but God overruled.” Some experienced frustration not finding many openings to talk about spiritual things.

Touching Lives

These experiences are all part of long-term missions, too, as are relationships … about getting along with co-workers, and realizing that God may need to do some changing in our own lives. Many short-termers have the privilege of working with Native Christians. One told of the privilege of receiving advice from an experienced Native pastor. One team witnessed to a Native woman who began stopping daily at their house. A couple of days later the woman confessed that she was a missionary who had been asked to check up on them!

Of course, the goal of missions must be to reach people, to touch lives. And it’s happening in short-term, too. One summer worker, who was invited out on a fishing excursion by the local chief, took the opportunity to tell him about his Saviour. Long-term missionaries have noticed less animosity from the chief, quite likely the result of contact with short-termers. No, not all will see someone accept Christ, but they can sow the Seed and others can build on those initial efforts.

The Long of It

Many more experiences from past summers could be told. How do you sum it up when it’s been over four decades of service? That’s what Ron and Marge Knightly wondered a few years ago when they shared with the NCEM family after receiving “honourary” membership. Naturally their thoughts went back to the beginning.

Ron told about a visit from NCEMer Marshall Calverley to New Brunswick Bible Institute in 1960 and his plans to use a boat to visit Cree communities on James Bay. Instantly thrilled about the opportunity to go along, Ron committed himself for the summer. (Ron says he claimed four years U.S. Navy experience, but didn’t admit till later that he hadn’t once been on board a ship!)

Ron was excited … “I was in God’s business and going north with a real missionary!” That summer wasn’t all easy, though, Ron recalled. Strong winds kept them stormbound on islands in the Bay for days at a time, sometimes without food. Ron’s wallet and some of his clothes washed overboard. Yet the opportunities for front-line missionary work in the villages gave him great fulfilment.

“I’m Ready to Go”

Ron returned home inspired to serve with NCEM. He and Marge were married later that year and moved west to Saskatchewan. The following spring, when they were asked to consider serving among the Dene (Slavey) people of the Northwest Territories, Marge’s response to Ron was, “Where you go, I’m ready to go.” They lived at Nahanni the first winter, then moved to Wrigley where they stayed for eight years. Travel was often by dogsled, and each summer they brought their boat 700 miles down river loaded with supplies.

Ministry-wise, those years were “a struggle,” they admit. “It seemed that the Gospel message wasn’t being heard, though there was one Native Christian lady there who remained a great encouragement to us.” Ron says that even though he tried, he never did learn to speak the Slavey language well. But he found many opportunities to read the Slavey scriptures, and people always said that they could understand. The Knightly’s saw more encouraging results at their next assignment, Ft. Liard, where they baptized five believers, to their knowledge the first Slaveys to take that step.

Their next move was to British Columbia, where Ron’s aviation skills were further put to use as he provided leadership to the 50-some missionaries in NCEM’s widespread Western-Field. Even when Ron was away, Marge was always busy with ladies Bible studies and children’s clubs.

Single-Minded Service

Like the Knightlys, Agatha (Harder) Dyck’s missionary service has included several locations. She joined NCEM in 1964, on staff at the Montreal Lake Children’s Home (SK). That was followed by ministry in the northern Manitoba villages of Thicket Portage and Shamattawa. She then served on staff at La Ronge Indian Bible School (SK) and as Dean of Women at Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute (AB). A licensed nurse, Agatha was often called upon for medical help on all these assignments. She also served as hostess at NCEM’s Headquarters.

As a single worker on isolated stations, Agatha had learned firsthand the value of visits from fellow missionaries. Those lessons helped during her years as Ministries Coordinator for Single Ladies. Agatha’s last northern station was in northeastern Saskatchewan where she found “wide open doors” into peoples’ homes. She ran a Sunday school in her home, a craft night, and encouraged believers to worship and fellowship together.

Years later Agatha says, “I’d do it all over again, even knowing all the hardships … To be instrumental in leading someone to Christ, to see them grow and live for God and serve Him … it’s worth it.”

Did You Say “Short-Term”?

Both Agatha and the Knightlys say that when they chose missionary service, it was for the long-haul. In fact, none of them remember even hearing the word “short-term” in connection with missions. They acknowledge the disadvantages of short-term missions — the lack of time necessary to learn a culture and language, and to establish rapport — and they definitely don’t believe that short-term can be a substitute for long-term commitment. They explain that, in most cases, it’s the long-term missionaries who make short-term work possible and effective.

In spite of these drawbacks, Agatha and the Knightlys talk very positively about short-term. “The Native people, especially the Christians, really look forward to short-termers coming,” notes Marge. And short-termers have been effective in reaching people, they point out. Agatha mentions a Manitoba community where summer missionaries in the 1970’s opened the way for year-round Gospel outreach, resulting in a church being established.

Questions About Short-Term?

Other veteran missionaries, as well, will tell of short-term’s strengths. Short-termers usually relate better to Native youth. And without short-term opportunities, college students would have to wait till graduation to get involved in cross-cultural missions. Afterwards, they are far more aware of the needs, far more understanding of the difficulties, and far more prepared to give themselves to a lifetime of ministry. They gain a real understanding of what it means to minister cross-culturally.

Yes, some questions about short-term missions do remain unanswered. And recent short-termers left with a few of their own: “I want to stay longer to see why ‘J’ doesn’t want to accept the Lord” … “I just started to get to know these people. Why do I have to leave?”

Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #471). Note: Some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.