It’s that time of year again.
Yesterday our church commissioned the youth summer mission trip team. Nine teenagers, three adult leaders, headed to Atlanta for a few days of work. Good kids, good sponsors, and a really good project practicing dirty faith among the kind of people Jesus loved.
They will join thousands of other churches on the ubiquitous Mission Trip that is standard summer fare for church youth groups throughout North America.
If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, read Dirty Faith, or heard any of my radio interviews, you know I’m kind of on the fence about short-term mission trips. Far too often they are little more than a baptized youth vacation that tries to squeeze in a little public service between days spent rafting the Nantahala or at the Magic Kingdom. (Isn’t it amazing how much mission need there is in the Orlando area?)
So, how do we get to real mission? How do we actually act like the Church?
Five essentials for being the hands and feet of Christ to those in need
1. Understand what it means to be on mission
When you read the stories of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels, he is always looking to have a positive, long-term impact on those he meets. For him, every encounter is about transforming a life. Unfortunately, our mission trips are often more focused on what we get out of them rather than recreating the ministry of Christ.
Remember, you are the face of God for those you encounter.
When we walk in with a “one and done” mission encounter—and leave those we meet in the same situation in which we found them—what we communicate to them is “God leaves”… and that is not the message we want to communicate.
2. Talk about it—early and often
Help your church understand what you are doing and why. (“This is what we do every summer” is not the answer here.) Make video and slide presentations to the church about the need, the place, who is going, and what you hope to accomplish. Include those not going as part of your team.
But don’t stop there. If you are on mission during a regular church service back home, Skype with your church. Letting them see you during the service, surrounded by those you—and they—are serving, can be incredibly meaningful.
3. Get a clue: this is their world, not yours
Understand that the people you are serving probably will not think like you do, your priorities will not be theirs, and their way of doing things won’t be yours. But you’re on their turf; you are the one who needs to adjust. The focus of your trip is to serve, to share the love of Christ. What is not on the agenda is making those you meet look and act more like middle-class Americans. When your prejudices bubble up, and they probably will, recognize them for what they are—and then you be the one to make the adjustment.
My trigger point is always the clock. I want things to start and end on time, and I can get really frustrated when things are not ticking the way I want them to. But I have come to learn: this is my problem, not theirs.
4. Get ready ahead of time
Simple, but almost everyone misses it. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have received a late night phone call:
“We are supposed to leave tomorrow and Steve‘s visa hasn’t gotten here.”
“When did he send in the application?”
“He couldn’t find his passport, so he didn’t apply until last week.”
Guess what? Steve’s staying home.
Besides physically preparing for your trip, you need time to mentally prepare for your trip, to focus on what you will be doing, to hear God speak to your heart. A last-minute rush to get everything done thwarts that necessary downtime before you leave.
5. Learn the House Rules before you go
You are going to be a guest, so act like it. At Hope Unlimited for Children, we call our expectations The House Rules. (Read them on pages 14-15 of our Visitor Guide; most really apply just about anywhere.) While not all will be in printed form like ours, almost everyone has certain expectations of those who are visiting. They may be common sense (like always have a staff member with you when you enter one of our homes), or they may be a bit quirky (like the aunt who made you take off your shoes before you went in her house). Either way, it’s their house—and their rules.
Let’s do mission
… not communicate to our youth that central to the idea of extending God’s grace to those in need is that we have a very good time while doing it. If true service becomes an afterthought, true servanthood rarely enters the equation. Our mission trips cannot amount to little more than social tourism, having virtually nothing to do with the Good News of transformation Jesus brought to every encounter.
Instead, let’s take our direction from the prophet Isaiah who said, “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
Spend yourselves. I like that.
Let me hear from you: How will you be spending yourself this summer?