I read an article a few years back that downplayed the effectiveness of short-term missions. It claimed that any lasting ministry must be done by the missionaries that stay, the ones who actually know the culture and challenges of the people they’re working with day after day after day. Not these hordes of travel-hungry teens that spend most of their time complaining, bickering, screwing around on the worksite, and taking selfies with non-white children to update their Profile Pictures. Sure, they can sing Jesus Loves Me in another language, and they can put together an inspiring slideshow for their churches, but did they really make a difference?
Teens come back from mission trips feeling like world changers. They got dirty. They were tired. They handed out food. They gave their testimonies. But was the world really changed?
I’ve been on my share of short-term missions. Was it really necessary that my team fly halfway around the world to paint one floor of a building? Would any of the orphans from my trip to Egypt in 1991 remember my name? I’m sure there were some locals that could do it better, and could actually speak Arabic with the kids.
Obviously the puppet shows were important. Especially the one about Ticklish Reuben. I mean, that guy was a hoot and a holler.
What about my years at Azusa doing summer ministry tours? I played over a hundred concerts, and counseled dozens of kids at summer camps. A few of those kids found the Lord. Some rededicated their lives. Are they still on track? Would they remember me from that one week? Maybe. What about the concerts? Did a single song make an impact on a single life? A single testimony? Who knows?
I’ve done a few short-term missions as an adult—two weeks in Africa, two weeks in Spain. Sure, I helped train ministers for a few days, and spent some money on peoples’ needs, but would any of them claim that I made a significant impact on their lives? Was my short visit just a fun sideshow for the locals, just a way to mix things up until the next mission group arrived?
I want to be optimistic about the impact I had as a short-term missionary, but now that I’ve been a parent and a teacher and recognize what it takes to make a real impact on a human life, I have come to realize something—while I was trying to make an impact on others, God was making a significant impact on me.
Most people want to see the Giza Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. That’s why I signed up with Teen Missions. But once I got to boot camp in Florida, eating bad food in moldy clothes with minimal sleep, I started to regret my decision. Sure, I eventually saw some incredible things overseas, but inside I obsessed with thoughts of home—Taco Bell, soda with ice, movies, music, family and friends. It was in this uncomfortable, homesick place that God met with me.
My prayer and devotional time in Egypt was so much more personal than it had ever been. Probably because I felt desperate and disjointed and had nowhere else to go. God was not some concept bound up a confession and baptism, sustained by rituals on a trajectory toward the afterlife. He was with me. In me. Holding me together. That’s something I never lost.
Living outside the borders of my comfort zone not only deepened my relationship with God, but it forced me to bond with people that I would usually avoid—people from other countries, other states, other personality types. Most of my best and lasting friendships were forged outside my home state. Foreign environments invite all sorts of struggles, and when people struggle together, they learn what love is all about.
Laurie and I attended a Bible School in England for six months. In the first couple of months we would say the British drove on the wrong side of the street. By the end, we would say they drove on the left, and so did we.
It took months of international travel to shake my ethnocentrism. I’m not talking about bouncing around between hotels and tourist attractions. I’m talking about living with the locals for extended periods of time, especially in third world countries. My American mind couldn’t understand how impoverished people could actually be happy. What did they have to make them happy? I had to think twice about my cultural values, wondering if I was a part of a culture that was on an insane race to nowhere. Or was it just different and equally valid?
I’m sending all of my kids on short-term mission trips. The farther the better. They’re going to be nervous and uncomfortable, and probably get into trouble, but in the long run I want them to encounter God like I encountered God. I want them to suffer long enough to shed their cultural biases, opening their minds to new thoughts and ideas. I want them to be capable in situations where people struggle to communicate, or need to get from here to there. I want them to learn wisdom from experience, not fortune cookies. I want them to be adventurous, bold, flexible and diverse. And I want them to lead their spouses and children on the same adventures.
So go. See something. Do something. Help somebody. Take risks. Spend some money. Sure, it may not make a lifelong impression on the person you bump against, but it will absolutely change your life, if you let it.