Short-Term Mission Voluntarism and the Postsecular Imaginary

  • Mary HancockEmail author
Part of the Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies book series (NCSS)


This chapter examines the spiritual motivations and impacts of voluntarism in the USA through an investigation of international short-term mission (STM), a paradigm involving 1–2-week trips that amalgamate leisure tourism, evangelism, and voluntary development work and are carried out among Christian and non-Christian communities. Mainline and nondenominational bodies sponsor STM, but it is most popular among evangelical Christians. I argue that STM’s effects, while partially explicable in terms of the social capital that it may (or may not) engender at home and in mission fields, include challenges to secular norms and institutions. STM, especially as carried out among non-Christian communities, provides (1) experiential contexts for imagining a world in which divinity is reckoned as immanently and sensorially present, and (2) communicative tools for enacting that world. It thus may rework the categorical boundaries between secular and religious practices and spaces at home, as well as on mission sites. As such, STM can be understood as an artifact of an emergent postsecular imaginary—a characterization that signals the limits of the secularization thesis and the recognition of significance of plural religiosities, spiritual orientations, and faith commitments in social action and institutions. This chapter is based on ethnographic research in southern California conducted from 2009 to 2012.


Short-term missions Evangelical Christianity Secularism 



Research was supported by grants from the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research and the Academic Senate of the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and assistance provided by Audra Kosh, Steve Hu, Kerry San Chirico, Kristy Slominski, and Lindsay Vogt. Versions of this chapter were presented to audiences at UCSIA, the University of California Santa Barbara, the Society for Anthropology of Religion, the American Anthropological Association, and the UCHRI Working Group on Religion and Urban Place-Making.


  1. Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Balmer, R. (1989). Mine eyes have seen the glory: A journey into evangelical subculture in ­America. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Barrett, D., Johnson, T., & Crossing, P. (2007). Missiometrics 2007: Creating your own analysis of global data. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 31(1), 25–32.Google Scholar
  4. Barth, K. (1962). Church dogmatics IV.3b. Edinburgh: T. & T. Publishers.Google Scholar
  5. Beaumont, J. (2010). Transcending the particular in postsecular cities. In A. Molendijk, J. Beaumont, & C. Jedan (Eds.), Exploring the postsecular: The religious, the political and the urban (pp. 3–17). Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  6. Bebbington, D. (1989). Evangelicalism in modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin and Hyman.Google Scholar
  7. Bender, C., & McRoberts, O. (2012). Mapping a field: Why and how to study spirituality. Paper of the Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement and Public Life. Social Science Research Council. Accessed 15 May 2013.
  8. Bornstein, E. (2003). The spirit of development: Protestant NGOs, morality and economics in Zimbabwe. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Bosch, D. (1991). Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in the theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.Google Scholar
  10. Bramadat, P. (2000). The church on the world’s turf. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Casanova, J. (1994). Public religions in the modern world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  12. Clarke, G. (2006). Faith matters: Faith-based organizations, civil society and international development. Journal of International Development, 18, 835–848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clarke, G. (2007). Agents of transformation? Donors, faith-based organizations and international development. Third World Quarterly, 28(1), 77–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Connelly, W. (1999). Why I am not a secularist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dearborn, T. (2003). Short-term missions workbook: From mission tourists to global citizens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.Google Scholar
  16. Elisha, O. (2011). Moral ambition: Mobilization and social outreach in evangelical ­megachurches. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  17. Engelke, M. (2012). Angels in Swindon: Public religion and ambient faith in England. American Ethnologist, 39(1), 155–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fickert, B., & Corbett, S. (2009). When helping hurts. Chicago: Moody Publishing.Google Scholar
  19. Gallaher, C. (2010). Between Armageddon and hope: Dispensational premillennialism and evangelical missions in the Middle East. In J. Dittmer & T. Sturm (Eds.), Mapping the end times: American evangelical geopolitics and apocalyptic visions (pp. 209–232). London: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  20. Gorski, P., Kim, D., Torpey, J., & Van Antwerpen, J. (Eds.). (2012). The postsecular in question: Religion in contemporary society. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Guder, D., & Barrett, L. (1998). Missional church: A vision for the sending of the church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.Google Scholar
  22. Habermas, J. (2008). Notes on post-secular society. New Perspectives Quarterly, 25(4), 17–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Han, J. H. J. (2010). Reaching the unreached in the 10/40 window: The missionary geoscience of race, difference and distance. In J. Dittmer & T. Sturm (Eds.), Mapping the end times: ­American evangelical geopolitics and apocalyptic visions (pp. 183–207). London: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  24. Hancock, M. (2013). New mission paradigms and the encounter with Islam: Fusing voluntarism, tourism and evangelism in short-term missions in the USA. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal. doi:1:10,1080/1475560.2012.758160.Google Scholar
  25. Hancock, M. (in press). Short-term youth mission practice and the visualization of global Christianity. Material Religion. Google Scholar
  26. Hearn, J. (2002). The ‘invisible NGO’: US evangelical mission in Kenya. Journal of Religion in Africa, 32(1), 32–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hoke, S., & Taylor, B. (2009). Global mission handbook: A guide for crosscultural service (­Revised edition). Downers Grove: IVP.Google Scholar
  28. Howell, B. (2009). Mission to nowhere: Putting short term missions into context. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 33(4), 206–111.Google Scholar
  29. Howell, B. (2012). Short-term mission: An ethnography of Christian travel narrative and experience. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.Google Scholar
  30. Ingram, L. (1989). Evangelism as frame intrusion: Observations on witnessing in public places. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28(1), 17–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Koll, K. (2010). Taking wolves among lambs: Some thoughts on training for short-term mission facilitation. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 34(2), 93–96.Google Scholar
  32. Lichterman, P. (2005). Elusive togetherness: Church groups trying to bridge America’s divisions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Luhr, E. (2009). Witnessing suburbia: Conservatives and Christian youth culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Mandryk, J. (2010). Operation world (7th revised edition). Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing.Google Scholar
  35. Mazzarella, W. (2004). Culture, globalization, mediation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 345–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. McGirr, L. (2001). Suburban warriors: The origins of the new American right. Princeton: ­Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  37. McRoberts, O. (2003). Streets of glory: Church and community in a black urban neighborhood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  38. Milbank, J. (2006). Theology and social theory: Beyond secular reason. New York: Wiley Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Newbigin, L. (1989). The gospel in a pluralist society. London: SPCK.Google Scholar
  40. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2008). U.S. religious landscape survey. Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.Google Scholar
  41. Priest, R. (Ed.). (2006). Short-term missions. Missiology (Special Theme Issue), 34(4).Google Scholar
  42. Priest, R. (Ed.). (2008). Effective engagement in short-term mission: Doing it right!. Pasadena: William Carey Library.Google Scholar
  43. Priest, R., Dischinger, T., Rasmussen, S., & Brown, C. (2006). Researching the short-term mission movement. Missiology (Special Theme Issue), 34(4), 431–450.Google Scholar
  44. Priest, R., Wilson, D., & Johnson, A. (2010). U.S. megachurches and new patterns of global mission. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 34(2), 97–103.Google Scholar
  45. Putnam, R. (1994). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  46. Shah, R., & Grigsby, C. (2011). 2011 VolAg: Report of voluntary agencies. Washington, DC: U.S. Agency for International Development. PDF File downloaded from Accessed 30 Oct 2011.
  47. Stiles, J. M., & Stiles, L. (2000). Mack and Leeann’s guide to short-term missions. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.Google Scholar
  48. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Thomas, S. (2005). The global resurgence of religion and the transformation of international relations. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Velho, O. (2009). Missionization in the postcolonial world: A view from Brazil and elsewhere. (trans: D. Rodgers). In T. Csordas (Ed.), Transnational transcendence: Essays on religion and globalization (pp. 31–54). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  52. Wuthnow, R. (2009). Boundless faith: The global outreach of American churches. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Websites Consulted

  1. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (
  2. Cru (formerly the Campus Crusade for Christ International) (
  3. The Joshua Project (
  4. The Jesus Film Project (
  5. IMPACT Missions Organization of the Santa Barbara Presbytery (
  6. Access dates for above sites were from 1 December, 2011 to 30 January, 2013.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Anthropology and HistoryUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraCalifornia

Personalised recommendations