Over the years it’s been my pleasure to experience several short-term mission trips. My first was almost 30 years ago, when my wife and I joined up with another couple in our church to take a group of teens to Mexico for a couple of weeks. A few years later I was asked to teach for a month in a little Bible college near Cape Town—and quickly fell in love with the place. (It’s still my favorite city in the world.) The next year the request came from a ministry in Saipan, for another month. Then Hermosillo, Mexico; then Shanghai, China; and then St. Vincent in the Caribbean.
A couple of years after that, the faculty couple that had led a student mission team to Africa most summers asked me if I’d like to take over the operation, and with some trepidation I agreed. What followed was 10 teams in 9 summers over the span of 12 years, some of the most delightful experiences of my life. I still think of those students as special.
During those 12 years there were other overseas adventures sprinkled in: Haiti, Mexico, India. This past summer I taught in Ghana, at a school I had taken several teams to, and in Togo, a new one for me.
I love these trips, but they’re hard, for a great many reasons. I found myself committing most of the mistakes we Americans can make in cross-cultural work, and to my dismay, I often haven’t learned from those mistakes with just one boneheaded incident.
I know people who have a lot more experience than what’s listed here. One of my closest colleagues at my university oversees the missions programs there, and his wisdom—prompted, I’m sure, by the sheer number of astonishing stories he can tell—continually provokes my respect.
But I have learned a few things along the way—often by experiences that I’m ashamed of—and perhaps a few thoughts can be of service to other believers, particularly those who are planning short-term mission work in the future.
So let’s spend a few posts knocking some of these ideas around.
To start with, let me observe that
Missions Is for Everyone
As he was about to return to his Father, Christ gave his disciples an order that we have come to call “The Great Commission” (Mt 28.19-20; Mk 16.15; Lk 24.46-48; Ac 1.7-8). It’s simple enough: Go—everywhere—and make disciples. Tell the story.
Church history contains a great many inspiring stories of those who have obeyed their Master well—from the 12 disciples themselves (I’m thinking, obviously, of Matthias and Paul, not Judas Iscariot) to the many martyrs under intermittent eras of Roman persecution, and through the modern missions movement, starting with William Carey and including such lights as Adoniram Judson, John Paton, John Eliot, CT Studd, David Livingstone, Gladys Aylward, Amy Carmichael, and many, many others perhaps less famous but not at all less noteworthy.
Perhaps as a result of these stories, modern Christians have tended to think of “missions” as something that happens far away, in strange and perhaps dangerous cultures. Hence the passport photo at the top of this post.
But the commission was to go—surely, to the ends of the world, but starting in Jerusalem, which to the first hearers was home, the local neighborhood. Missions isn’t something we pay subcontractors to do; it’s something we all do, naturally, daily, as we live our lives. It’s living out grace and peace, and talking about it, wherever you are. Last week I had a chance to do that in the drive-through at a fast-food joint, prompted by a question the fellow in the window asked me. Just a couple of minutes, and I wish it had been more, but it’s the normal way a follower of Jesus lives.
At the same time, however, in other senses missions is most certainly not for everyone. We’ll look into that next time.