When I first started to go on short term mission trips it was important for me to settle any negative thoughts I had In my mind about spending all that money and the value of doing that opposed to just sending money. Am I really helping? Is this really God’s will? Am I just after a feel good time and a photo op?
I think everyone has had these feelings, either about their own upcoming experience or the planned experiences of others. I also know people who had a bad experience and felt it was a waste of time. I also know Christian nationals on the field both home and abroad that hosted missions teams and wondered if it was a waste of time, so these questions are certainly valid. Certainly there is a need for people who go, people who pray, people who support, and those whose mission field never leaves the neighborhood.
But more often I have seen something amazing in short term mission trips, and it comes in lots of different forms styles and the blessings come equally for the travelers and the hosts when God is at the center of the trip.
FOR THE HOSTS
Hosting a team is a huge amount of work. Think of having a huge group of relatives staying in your home for long periods of time and having lots of demands that you weren’t expecting. It can be like your worst Christmas Holiday family nightmare. But also think about the times when a visit from someone who genuinely cares has blessed you and those around you. Mission work, which combines things like pastoral career with meeting physical needs is no small task, and particularly if you feel isolated it is great to have the encouragement and support ofothers who gave of their time talents and treasures to be with you. Even some family Christmas gatherings that start out like nightmares can end in unbelievable blessing.
In the context of my friendships with “local” Christian workers (in their own countries) over the past seven years, I often ask about the value of foreigners who stumble through the cultural differences or don’t speak the language. I hear the same responses over and over: “It means something that you came all this way to be with us.” “Your visit gives our ministry a new energy in the face of discouragements.” “We do not feel so isolated as we once did.”
If I had heard those statements on my first trip I might have dismissed it as politeness of the hosts, but as the relationships have grown, I am happy to get honest feedback from my friends. This is critical we need our hosts to feel comfortable enough to share the truth with us. Visits can be short term, but missions are long term – it’s not a temporary vacation. And God didn’t send His son to the world so Jesus could create an awesome video for His church report. After Christ’s death we have His Word, the Holy Spirit and an invitation to a long term relationship with Him. Nothing short term about that. But even in our every day lives at work or school or in the neighborhood, people are put in our paths for any random amount of time, short term to long term. What we do with that’s time is the primary way God chooses to touch lives. We need to see our actions on the mission field of life as part of His long term plan for the people He loves. That includes us of course.
FOR THE TEAM MEMBERS
One of the most rewarding experiences for me as a missions team leader has been to see the growth, spiritual and otherwise of team members. Once the light goes on and they realize that while there is nothing wrong about finishing a specific task (very transactional and easy to declare a success when the last brick is laid) God does not actually need us to set up a building, pour a slab of concrete, lead some singing, do a craft or even part the seas. What He needs is our obedience to the call He makes on our lives. This action is more relational in nature. It focuses on our relationship with God and with His people, making it much more nuanced to declare success or failure. How do we know when we are finished? Wait a minute… if we are building relationships, do we ever declare them finished?
The enlightened team member (or leader) learns that it’s not about our preconceived outcome-driven agenda. The obedience is our choice, the outcome is the Lord’s. God’s work is long-term and He is at work in our lives just as in the lives of people we hope to serve. Suddenly, in this unfamiliar territory, the Gospel emerges as much less about me and more about Him.
My favorite passage to ponder before I make a trip is found in Romans 12. In verse three we are told “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” – NIV Hmmm…. we are a team and God has distributed something different in each of us… The first part of the verse seems to suggest we tend to be a bit selfish or self-aggrandizing, but in reality, thinking of ourself with sober judgement might also mean that we also need to see our value to God in this big picture. My first missions trip was all about searching for God. I needed to be able to see Him in new ways.
My favorite paraphrase of this is in the Message Bible (my apologies to those theologians who don’t like the paraphrase – my suggestion is to get outside once in a while):
“…it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.”
Bingo! what I hope for every team member and what I hope for me to. We aren’t doing great things for God. He doesn’t need us for that. God is doing something for us!
FOR THE PEOPLE BEING SERVED, OUR HOSTS AND FOR US:
This part is simple. God values everyone: it doesn’t matter how smart you are, where you were born, your race, your experience, your flowery spiritual speech, your level of education, or your level in Angry Birds… It’s clear God values us all. Now the trick is to learn to value each other, especially when we don’t really think the same way.
My first trip to Romania was an overwhelming yet exhilarating experience. I arrived with no plan for what to do except for knowing I had some technical skills. At first I felt foolish– I didn’t know the language, I had done zero homework on what I was getting myself into, and yet I felt this call to go and serve in the summer of 2004. What amazed me immediately were the relationships with caring Romanians. They were very different from me, but they had this wild sense of humor and a sort of grittiness that opened me up and begin to see mission outside by previous notion. No one was perfect. Some of the programs were successful with children and some were not. There was an organized chaos to it all from my point of view. But the relationships were rich and deep, and affected my walk with God in ways that permanently changed me.
My first trip to India was overwhelming as well, but in another way. The numbers of people, the smells, the food, the traffic and the mixture of so many religions and cultures disoriented me at first. I had been all around the world, but everything seemed so different. My first reaction in this situation is to make too may comparisons with the way “we” do things and think of a thousand ways “they” could do it better. As I began to get beyond that and learn to know people, I started to see so many things in them that pointed out what was lacking in me. A respect for all things spiritual, evident even in non-Christians. A dependence on God for miracles when there do not seem to be any other options amazed me. I was so used to being in control and showing what I could do for God…. What if there really is nothing I can do for God? How humbling is that?
So, I would like to wrap up this little essay with a neat conclusion that would fit perfectly onto my church’s presentation screen, but the conclusion hasn’t been written: It’s a work in perpetual progress. If I was a better at this maybe I could wax eloquently with a hard-hitting point or two. I would encourage everyone to have the experience of a mission trip, no matter what the duration. But I know it really isn’t for everyone. For some there is a calling. For others they respond to a nudge. Most of us though will not feel a call and will not go ourselves. So I don’t have a conclusion. Instead, I will close with another paraphrase, again from Romans 12, this time from the first two verses. . . .
“Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”
Now that’s hope and change I can believe in 😉