Sex and the short-term missionary
August 2015

By Don Johnson — After short-term missionaries have been properly screened and trained, one might expect that they would have little difficulty maintaining their sexual purity during and after their mission trip. But research and experience show us that this isn’t always the case. 

In their article “Stressed Beyond Measure,” Dodds and Dodds, counselors who have worked with missionaries for many years, share a case study about a “single missionary who went to South America, met a national on the bus, and within two weeks of landing in the country was wooed into landing in bed with him.” 

two-year study of more than 100 short-term mission participants shows that most experienced a “significant decline in personal purity both during the mission program and the year following their return home.”

And one leader in the Child Safety and Protection Network—a collaborative network of mission agencies, faith-based NGOs and international Christian schools focused on issues of child protection—reported that short-term missionaries have proven to be a concern, as several have been caught smuggling child pornography back into the US on their laptops. What is going on here? 

Changing cultural norms

Today’s typical short-term missionary from North America comes from a more sexually saturated and permissive society than previous generations. The book unChristian includes studies showing that a significant number of evangelical Christians under the age of 40 consider certain sexually based behaviors to be morally acceptable—like cohabiting with members of the opposite sex, viewing pornography, having sex outside of marriage, and engaging in same-sex relationships. In fact, viewing internet pornography has become epidemic among young evangelicals, with 25-33% of Christian women and over 90% of young Christian men admitting to viewing online porn.

Coming from this cultural background in North America and entering the emotional and spiritual stresses of being on a short-term mission team in another culture—one that may be even more sexually permissive than North America—can leave short-term missionaries vulnerable to a decline in personal purity. 

Lack of accountability

Short-termers are away from “normal.” The accountability structures they have in North America, such as family, church, and schedule, are no longer in place. To make things worse, short-termers may find themselves reluctant to be transparent about their struggles and to ask for help, fearing that field leaders or team members might consider them bad Christians if they admit to having sexual struggles while on the field. 

Emotional intensity

There is the “pressure cooker” aspect of being part of a team with intense relationship dynamics that develop over a period of weeks or months and that culminate in an emotionally charged ministry in an exotic or possibly even frightening location.

Craving in a new culture

The new culture may offer increased opportunity for short-termers to engage in behaviors they wouldn’t consider doing “back home.” Also, working with nationals can lead to cultural miscues that result in short-termers engaging in relationships more quickly and more intensely than usual, as with the single missionary cited above who went to South America. 

Struggles with self-esteem 

The sudden change of status or self-identity that short-termers experience in a foreign culture sometimes leads them to seek reassurance in inappropriate relationships. This change in perceived status may manifest as low self-esteem because they can’t function as highly or contribute at the same level they could in their home country, or as inflated self-esteem because of their “rock star” status as Americans or because of the sudden increase in their attractiveness due to their possession of an American passport.

Ultimately, all these factors could be part of a spiritual attack. As Randy Friesen says, “There is a battle for the purity of young adults serving in short-term missions programs and most seem to be losing.”

So what can we do to help fight this battle? Is it enough to be forewarned and, therefore, to be forearmed? Significantly, Friesen reported that “the quantitative data related to personal purity indicated that, regardless of whether programs focused on this concept in their extensive pre-trip discipleship training or not, participants declined in their experience of personal purity.” This observation suggests that short-term team leaders and field leaders need to constantly reinforce their teaching on this topic throughout the entire short-term experience, including during the debrief and the follow-through period after the return home.

But how does a church, agency, or short-term team leader do that? Here are some suggestions:

  • Explore past issues before the trip: Encourage team members to deal with any past or current issues before going on the trip. During recruitment and preparation, give short-termers a safe environment to share whatever they are struggling with, and assist them in finding help. Past sexual abuse, involvement with pornography, illicit sexual activity, marital difficulties, or similar struggles should all be faced and dealt with prior to the short-term mission experience.
  • Don’t let short-termers be caught off-guard: Trainers should clearly present any specific cultural issues related to sexuality and gender relations that the short-termers might experience on the field: sexually explicit advertising, how nationals dress and how team members should dress, appropriate and inappropriate touch, differing perceptions of personal space, topics of discussion that may be considered appropriate or inappropriate in the new culture, emotional communication styles, and so on.
  • Keep the conversation going: The issues of sex and temptation need to be discussed openly—pre-field, on-field, and post-field—but especially during the on- and post- phases. It’s one thing to talk about personal purity before the trip and the onslaught of potential temptations; it’s another to talk about it when those temptations are actually being experienced.
  • Model transparency: Team leaders and field leaders should model transparency and encourage honesty. Frequent on-field debriefs can provide venues to discuss issues of temptation and purity. 
  • Set boundaries before it’s too late: Encourage wise personal boundaries. Help the short-termers to think through their own comfort level and to establish boundaries before the trip. It’s easier to make such decisions ahead of time than in the emotional heat of the moment.
  • Create and communicate team policies: And finally, set firm team or organizational boundaries. Such boundaries should provide safe parameters designed to help short-termers maintain their sexual purity. For example, some organizations have a no-dating policy for short-termers that can last up to two years on the field. There should be rules about being alone with members of the opposite sex; this can apply to married short-termers who aren’t married to each other, as well as to singles. Other team boundaries can be written and adopted by the team as appropriate for the culture or situation they will be working in.

If we know that our short-termers potentially come from a background of sexual temptation, and that issues stemming from such a background can be exacerbated by the stresses inherent in a short-term trip and exposure to another culture, we are being derelict in our responsibility if we fail to give them clear warning along with the necessary tools and support to help them navigate these dangerous waters.

A short mission trip can change how you view yourself, the world, and our God. Our missions coaches can connect you with a great opportunity to serve short-term!

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Don Johnson
Don Johnson serves on the board of the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission and teaches SEND's training for short-term trip leaders.