Living on Mission
When I was in college, I went on a student-led mission trip to Nicaragua to partner with a local ministry that planted churches and trained pastors. We decided that we were going to take as many suitcases as our fundraising would pay for, and we filled them with gifts: toys, clothes, and candy. The house we used to stage our charitable efforts looked like Walmart exploded in it the night before we left, and all 20 of us had an extra suitcase or two in-tow as we rolled through George Bush Intercontinental Airport the next morning. Each day while in Nicaragua, we loaded up our backpacks full of goodies and got off the bus, ready to bond with some Nicaraguan children through poorly learned Spanish. The more toys we gave away, the more shallow and unbalanced our relationships with the kids became. On our last day, I pulled one little boy aside to give him a ball, and we were immediately bombarded by every kid in the neighborhood. My new friend was tackled in the rush, and my good intentions got the wind knocked out of them; I left discouraged. The more processing and research I did in the years after, the more discouraged I became. We had intended to do so much good. Where had we gone wrong?
With spring break comes several short-term mission trips, and many of you, like me, have experienced both successful and disappointing short-term mission trips. I want to challenge us to ask thoughtful questions of team leaders, church staff, local missionaries, and ourselves as trips are planned, executed, and debriefed.
There is always one more question that can be asked. If you are unsure of mission trips, I want to encourage you that there is a healthy, sustainable way for short term trips to support the Great Commission. Simply going with good intentions is not enough. God’s grace and sovereignty thankfully cover our human blunders both at home and abroad. However, we must give thought to preparation and strategy as to not fail to be obedient stewards of the gospel and our charge to deliver it to the nations. Particularly when going to impoverished nations or places with a history of colonialism (such as Africa or Central America), we must be aware of the perceived power we wield as Americans and westerners. Just as we have learned to be better stewards of the environment when we go enjoy the great outdoors, we must learn to be sensitive to the cultures we enter with the good news of Jesus.
When I recently got to sit down with three missionary couples currently attending FBC Starkville, I was greatly encouraged. Doug and Jan Houston served with Youth With a Mission for 23 years; 21 of those were spent in Honduras. Lew and Brandi Johnson have served long-term in Uganda, France, and Madagascar. They are currently staying in FBC’s missionary house before their next assignment in Kenya. Cliff and Melanie Story served with the International Mission Board for 1 year in Costa Rica doing language school and 1 year in Colombia doing medical missions. Their strategies and opinions vary, sometimes quite a bit, but their combined experience and wisdom can help us be even more thoughtful and strategic when we go on mission trips so that we don’t hamper or hinder the gospel.
Should you go?
The simple answer to that is yes! We all should actively be living out the Great Commission every day. However, the call is not to short-term or long-term missions. Rather it is to a life lived on mission making disciples wherever you are and wherever God is sending you to go. “Because,” the Johnsons ask, “if you aren’t doing it here, why do you expect to do it there?” Nathan Taylor reinforces that statement: “Nothing magical happens when we get on an airplane to go on a mission trip. What we are going to do on a mission trip, we should be pursuing in a similar fashion at home. When we are faithfully, obediently sharing the gospel and making disciples right here in Starkville, that will make our short-term missions presence much more valuable to our partners.”
There are numerous things to consider when you are thinking about going on a short-term or long-term trip but first, you have to ask, why do you want to go in the first place? Are you curious about missions? Do you feel sympathy for the people in the host culture? Do you want to check “go on a short-term mission trip” off your spiritual bucket list? Is God calling you to go?
A mission trip is not a vacation. It is not a way to jump-start your spiritual life or revitalize a stale walk with the Lord. Going should not be a response to feelings of pity, guilt, or obligation. Brandi Johnson explains, “A mission trip is not a spiritual retreat; it is the front-line battle assignment. You should go because you are excited about what God is doing in your life here at home.” It is vital that you pray and discern that you are motivated by an overflow of what the Lord is already doing in your life and not selfish ambitions.
It is also worth noting that not all mission trips are the same. Some short-term trips can be an experience that introduces you to missions. Nathan Taylor, FBC’s missions pastor, says, "For some people on our annual Canada trip, their main goal is to give a high five that encourages a kid at basketball camp. Through a highfive at camp, it could lead to an entire family attending church and coming to faith in Jesus." We are not all called to every mission trip, but if you are a believer in Jesus you should be leveraging your life to make disciples locally and abroad.
The financial aspect of a trip is also necessary to navigate. The Johnsons believe that just because you can afford the trip doesn’t mean you should go, and Doug Houston cautions against the church paying for the whole thing as a general practice. The financial burden of the trip should require sacrifice and prayer to help clarify if God is actually calling you to go. The bottom line is that if God wants you there, He will provide the way. If you are currently wrestling with how to fund an opportunity to go on a mission trip Nathan Taylor says, "start by seeing how much money you have available to you to go on a short-term mission trip through a job, then reach out to the church staff for ideas and ways to raise funds for a specific trip. And see what God does, because more often than not He provides a way."
Before You Go
Well before you make your packing list, you should prepare your heart. Rather, you should continue to, as the process of discerning God’s call and your local service, evangelism, and discipleship is part of that foundation. People going on short term trips are “so concerned with what [they] will take, but you must prepare spiritually. A well-prepared team can be kingdom impacting,” the Johnsons explain. This should include praying individually and as a team, as well as preparation for the new spiritual culture you are entering. Remember her comment about mission trips being a “front-line battle assignment”? The greater the spiritual darkness of a place, the greater the need for team members to be spiritually mature believers. Also important to cover are the expectations and communicated needs of the in-country missionaries. If they need you to prayer walk but your team wants to build houses, everyone will end up frustrated.
Cliff Story emphasized the importance of cultural preparation as well. Learn about the cultural differences and possible taboos your team could face. Prepare to accept the hospitality of your hosts by sharing their cuisine rather than pulling out your peanut butter and granola bars every meal. Understand that their differences aren’t wrong or less-than. Cliff instructs, “Remember that the things that test our faith and their faith are different. Here, we worry that if we lose all of our stuff we might not continue to follow Jesus. In more impoverished nations, believers worry that if they gain wealth their faith will be challenged.”
If, indeed, we are to be battle-ready and culturally sensitive, preparation must be a key part of our short-term mission trips.
Neil Tullos, FBC Starkville’s youth pastor, says, “For each of our [youth] trips we have multiple pre-trip meetings. Part of those meeting times are used to get to know the culture of the people we will be serving. We also intentionally don’t take a lot of pictures while we are there or only have one individual that is designated as a photographer. This stops us from trying to turn each interaction into a photo opportunity.”
As You Go
While you are serving in-country, there are plenty of important things to consider, even if you aren’t leading the team. Ashley Austin of Canvas Church in Victoria, British Columbia, said, “If we are going to bring peace to broken places, we must go as humble learners.” Jan Houston advises, “Pray through what you see and experience, and be careful about making quick judgements.” Humbly remember that it is possible to do damage to the long-term work of the local church and missionaries on behalf of the gospel; the Johnsons commented, “I’d rather people not come than people come and do harm.” Doug Houston encourages teams to be thoughtful about the results of what they are doing two years down the road for individuals, churches, and communities. This is why it is so important that you actively serve at home: it makes it easier to recognize healthy practices and unhealthy ones.
As your team partners with local missionaries and the local church, remember that one of the primary goals of your trip should be to encourage them because they will be there long after you leave. Listen to their ministry needs, not just what your team wants to do. Doug Houston joked that “it takes a lot of work for a short-term team to be a blessing” to long-term missionaries. They spend weeks, maybe months, planning for teams, so be respectful and supportive of the work they need you to do. Also, be aware that if they are financially dependent on your church or group, they may be hesitant to speak up about their needs and the strategies they deem important. Humility and good listening skills aren’t just important with the host culture; the missionaries you are serving need that, as well.
Remember also that you are not bringing God to the people you are serving. Even in the case of unreached people groups, God is already at work in those places. Go with the intent to connect with what God is already doing. Ashley Austin cautioned, “The world doesn’t need to see good people doing good things for God. It needs to see God doing things only He can do.”
Finally, Doug Houston warns against trying to even-up injustice. He says, “Pity is a great motivator but a lousy blueprint. Your primary goal should be to lead people to reconciliation with God. If you are driven by pity, you will not make wise decisions about relief, rehabilitation, and development.” Avoid the giving of gifts or cash. Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but Jesus.
To illustrate this, Doug Houston told a story of a chef who came with a team to serve in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. The teams had been instructed by the Houstons not to give gifts to the kids until the very end, thereby freeing them up to build relationships with people. The kids asked his name when he walked out into the community and he replied, "Tomás" (Thomas). The next couple of days when he walked out the kids yelled, "¡Tomás! ¡Tomás!" He enjoyed spending time with the kids, playing with them and learning Spanish with them. After two days Thomas thought, "There shouldn't be any harm in giving the kids some of these bags of candy that I brought." Thomas shared with the Houstons that from that point on the only thing he would hear as he walked out was "Candy! Candy!" He never heard his name called again, and the relationships with the kids became focused on what gifts he had for them.
The Storys caution not to bring wealth in with you, even to give to the local church, because it will be unsustainable. Lew Johnson told a story about how he worked with a local Ugandan pastor to build a church in a previously unchurched area. The congregation was healthy and growing when a short-term American team came in and gave away untold amounts of cash to church members and the church itself. When Lew returned to the church, its congregation was gone. It had been destroyed by infighting about how to handle the money.
When we attach the giving of material possessions to the sharing of the gospel out of pity, incredible damage can be done to local bodies of believers. We Americanize Christianity in a way that hurts the progress of the gospel and weighs it down with our own broken theology. Cliff Story illustrated by explaining that after so many groups came with printed curriculum and VBS materials, local churches thought they couldn’t do ministry because they didn’t have the same resources. From how ministry is done to how buildings are built, we must be careful to only leave Jesus and allow local believers to develop the rest themselves.
After You Go
Many missionaries and churches claim that another primary goal of short-term missions is to change the hearts of the go-ers themselves. If we believe this to be an important objective, the debriefing process must be the thorough, final piece of the trip. Melanie Story advises a debrief two weeks to one month after the return of the team to process what happens next.
When sharing about your trip, Jan Houston says, “Do not draw attention to yourself. It’s about God, so talk about God” rather than focusing so much on the physical hardships you might have endured. Brandi Johnson reminds us that “service should be unseen. However, do allow yourself to be an example” to encourage others to serve and remind them what God is capable of.
As you evaluate the success of the trip, be careful when summarizing with simply the number of houses built, rooms painted, people who attended the event, or even how many converts there were. Not having any numbers to bring back does not necessarily mean that a trip was a failure. Jan Houston provided a list of other questions to consider as you debrief individually and as a team:
Did I remember He was at work BEFORE we arrived and will be after we leave? What are some of the ways I can look back and see what He was doing all along, quite apart from our team’s participation?
Did I build a relationship that counts for the kingdom even in the brief time I was there?
Did I encourage those who are there for the long haul?
Did I learn something new about God? What makes me love Jesus even more as a result of this trip? What did I learn about His character?
What did I learn from the people He sent me to? From their culture?
Did I allow GOD to pinpoint an area He wants to change in me? Am I giving Him permission to follow up on that after the trip? Is there someone to hold me accountable?
Did my actions leave a deposit, positive or negative, to be built on after I am no longer there? Why or why not?
What will I do differently here as a result of what I learned there?
Will this brief trip be a “quick high” (like the one-pot meal you cook on high and then it is over), or will I allow it to simmer, blending all the sights and sounds and lessons learned and changing me long after I return? How can I make sure it doesn’t end abruptly with no long-term effect on me?
Did I see God do something only He could do? Did I ask for that? What did I see?
Finally, keeping results in perspective, what did Jesus say to the 70 who returned after seeing miracles worked during their “short-term mission trip?” He reminded them to not rejoice over these impressive “results” but instead to rejoice that their names were written in the Book of Life (Luke 10:17-20). Timothy Keller refers to this when talking about our “results-oriented” evangelistic tendencies.
Melanie summarized that a short-term team’s goal should be to help an established group of Christians in whatever way they need in whatever manner the church is already reaching the community. She illustrated with a story from Exodus 17. Israel was at war with the Amalekites, and “as long as Moses held up his arms, the Israelites won, but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites started winning” (17:11, ESV). When Moses’ arms got tired, his brother and a buddy held them up, and that is how Israel won. Do our short term trips have the long-term impact of lifting up the arms of the on-the-ground missionaries and local churches? Are we being good stewards of our wealth, influence, and most importantly, the gospel?
One or two-week trips to support international missionaries can be healthy ways to share the good news, but we can’t expect missionaries, missions pastors, or even trip leaders to do all the hard work. We must be involved in the process of asking questions, listening well, praying fervently, and practicing discipleship. If we treat short-term trips as gospel efforts without guaranteed positive results, we will learn to be better stewards of all that we have, and together, we can do the hard work of furthering the gospel to the ends of the earth.
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence, by David A. Livermore
Mack and Leeann's Guide to Short-Term Missions, J. Mack and Leeann Stiles
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It, by Robert D. Lupton
Darren Carlson's three-part series on thegospelcoalition.org
Celebrating the Short-Term Missions Boom
Toward Better Short-Term Missions
Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips
RightNow Media Video Resources
The Missions Table Season 1
Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions with Brian Fikkert