Let's get a few things out of the way... "Mission(s)" is not site-seeing. It's not tourism. It's not seeking out the most (or least) photogenic street child you can find in order to populate your social feed. And it most definitely isn't #TotesAwesome. I don't mean to be harsh; honestly. Yet, in a me-centered-world of filters and veneer we fall prey to a loss of depth and empathy. My Christian upbringing was such that I understood Mission as mission trips, mission fund-raisers, mission Sundays, and the hosting of guest missionaries. We sang about it, we prayed for it, and we financially supported it; but it was always something "out there" - distant and disconnected. It wasn't until several years ago that my assumptions of mission were challenged for the better. J. Andrew Kirk writes, “Mission is so much at the heart of the Church's life that, rather than think of it as one aspect of its existence, it is better to think of it as its essence." I love how Kirk (re)locates mission as the essence of the Church. If we take time to read through the Gospel narrative with lenses attuned to mission we'll see that when the people of God don't participate in mission they don't merely fail at a task but cease to be the Church at an intrinsic level.
Caveat lector. Over the next few months I'll dedicate a number of posts towards unpacking key missiological ideas for those who seek to develop short-term missions programs that generate long-term impact.
“Mission is so much at the heart of the Church's life that, rather than think of it as one aspect of its existence, it is better to think of it as its essence." - J. Andrew Kirk
Twelve years ago I left the comforts (and oh there were many) of my Southern Californian home to be a self-supported missionary with the purpose of helping to establish and international church community in South Korea. I was fortunate to receive critical financial, emotional, and spiritual support during that first year while I gathered my bearings and learned the lay of the land. I made many, many, many (how many times can one type that?) mistakes along the way. Now, over the past 9 years working @ GSIS I've developed a short-term mission program, with a ministry partner, that has facilitated over 40 teams (totaling well over 600 participants) in short-term oversees mission trips. Along the way I've acquired a MA in Global Leadership; with an emphasis in missiology. And only now, do I feel like I have something to say that's somewhat worth listening to... and yes I still make mistakes. If we're going to talk "missions" we need to begin at ground zero and ask "What is Mission" (with capital "M")?
Put simply, Mission is what the Church does in response to what Christ has done. We err when we view "missions" or "mission programs" as an appendage to, rather than the heart of, Church life. When mission is rightly seen as the essence of who we are, instead of just a thing we do, an entirely new vista of opportunity presents itself to us. A vista that is not bound by any geographical constraint. Mission can be done in one's neighborhood, one's workplace, a nearby state, or a far away country. Insomuch as we are actively furthering the Kingdom of God through biblically sound and culturally relevant engagement we are doing Mission. If you volunteer at a soup kitchen feeding children of drug addicts, if you serve at a convalescent home so that the lonely might pass on from this life with dignity, if you advocate on behalf of society's marginalized, if you have opened your home to a displaced family, if you do any of these things and countless others in the name of Christ, in response to Christ, for the cause of Christ; you are doing Mission. It's important we understand this so that we can rightly place short-term mission work within its proper sphere: neither unfairly trivializing or unduly glorifying it.
Why Short-Term Missions?
Allow me to unpack why I believe short-term missions programs, when approached correctly, have a suitable role in what we now understand to be Mission. I'll make my case along three lines of thought.
1) Is an invitation to be a participant in God's redemptive story.
2) Can realign our values and priorities.
3) Enables us to become more compassionate.
An invitation to be a participant in God's redemptive story.
There's a common experience of finding a distinct passion for something when we move beyond being a spectator to being a practitioner. The past three years I've been the assistant coach for our boys varsity basketball team. Basketball isn't typically something a 5 foot nothing hispanic kid would naturally gravitate towards and I'm no exception. Other than the odd game of pick-up ball and one season of youth basketball in the fourth grade I've had little vested interest in this particular. However, after moving from the bleachers to the backboard all that has changed. I watch the game. I follow stats. I research drills. I get emotional during the NBA Finals; especially this year's Game 7!
Short-term missions can have the same affect upon us. It provides an opportunity to move from passivity to activity. All of Christ's disciples started somewhere. For Peter it began with offering his boat to Jesus as a pulpit (Luke 5:3). For Matthew it began with walking away from a lucrative, and corrupt, career of exploiting his own people (Matthew 9:9). One would be forgiven if they went so far as to say that the entire Christ-following life is one big, continual, and ever deepening invitation. Short-term missions invites anyone and everyone to move beyond themselves to love and serve others outside of their own cultural homestead. It provides us an opportunity to see God already at work in ways beyond our own comprehension. I still recall the day a student approached me with absolute clarity for what would become his college major. After participating in two of our trips to India and having first hand experience with impoverished children in tea plantations, David was now certain he wanted to become a registered nurse so that he can tend to the health needs of individuals in developing nations. He is currently completing his studies and is well on his way to stepping into his "dream".
Realigns our values and priorities.
There's a measure of joy I feel when students must thoughtfully choose between participating in a short-term mission trip or some other cost and time intensive opportunity. Life teaches us that we can't do everything and most of the things we wish to do aren't free. Learning to make choices is essential. Those who commit to: financial realities, multiple training sessions, a shared team ethos, and generally responsible behavior have already begun the early phases of realigning their values and priorities. They are choosing to give of themselves. This realignment, when properly nurtured, becomes even more substantial during the actual trip and can have a lasting impact upon the individual once he or she has returned. To be fair much of this has to do with how the trip itself is framed by those leading it and the overarching goals and expectations that are being articulated.
At GSIS we've chosen the name VASE for how our trips are framed. There is a two-fold meaning behind the name. First, it's an acronym: Vision • Action • Service • Evangelism. We gain a larger vision of God's world, we act by raising awareness, we provide loving and relevant service to our partners, and we do all things in the name of Christ to share the love of Christ (evangelism). Second, and perhaps more profoundly, VASE, harkens back to the story of Mark 14 with the woman and her jar. This precious, costly jar is broken and poured out in loving devotion to Christ. In the same way I challenge our students to pour themselves out on behalf of the people we've traveled to serve. In fact the maxim I've coined for the trips I lead is "Leave Empty. Return Filled."
Enables us to be more compassionate.
Most of us would agree that building a more compassionate world is a good thing. There's enough hate, spite, and vitriol to circle the drain for years on end. It's easy to be judgmental, it's common to be cynical; but it darn sure is hard to be compassionate - truly compassionate. Reading that 4,000 Nepalese children die every year before the age of 5 may or may not affect you; we see stats like these quite often. But when you enter a villager's home, when you see the languishing of entire communities that lack basic sanitation and medical care - WITH YOUR OWN EYES - it smacks you on the face. It's the best kind of smack you can ask for; it's one that wakes you up. I can tell you of Burmese orphans we work with who've been displaced by local warfare and still shutter when they hear the sound of school bells (because they remind them of the warning bells they heard when soldiers invaded). I can try to describe the plight of the Ati people in the Philippines who've been completely displaced from their rightful homes because of their skin color. But when you sit with them, laugh with them, play with them, when one of them hand-writes you a letter the night before you leave on one of the few pieces of paper they have in their possession it becomes real - very real.
We read that "pure and undefiled religion" is to serve the marginalized; those who can't repay (James 1:27). Mission trips, even short ones, give us the opportunity to see the Other in a completely new and vivid way. It's as if we move from a world of grayscale to one of technicolor. We learn the compassion of Christ by participating in the mission of Christ; one cold cup of water at a time (Matthew 10:42).
In future posts we'll wade through the weeds on how we might begin to develop truly impacting short-term mission programs that fit our community's profile, leverage our resources, and effectively partner in places where God is already at work.
Comments, questions, thoughts? Let me know and as always please pass this along if it had meaning for you.
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