Get Out

Egypt Team

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. 

FAITH:

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.

FRIENDS:

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.

FLEXIBILITY: 

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.

 

13 thoughts on “Get Out

  1. Great insight John.
    As a parent I know how difficult it is to take that first leap of faith and let your kids get out there and experience real LIFE on their own. I had so many friends that said they would NEVER let their kids go away, even to camp but especially on a missions trip. Letting Laurie go to “mini-camp” in third grade, Mexicali in Jr. High, tour the country with a much older than she group of young people singing and sharing their testimonies everywhere they went, all prepared me for what the Lord had in store for her life. Getting married at 18, we KNEW that it was God’s choice for her life so it was easy to let her go. When the Lord called you both to England for 6 months, I didn’t know if I could bare it, but I once again let go, God BLESSED, and you came back with Lucas on the way. Now that all ‘yall have been in Jackson, Mississippi for nearly four LONG years , the days
    of missing you all intensely do come, but I have such a peace because I know that you are living in His will.
    I am excited to see how the Lord has shaped each of you to be obedient to what ever He has for you, I can LET GO. XO, Mom R.

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    • Yeah, Laurie and I are already feeling the parental tug, knowing what Lucas is going to face as he heads off on missions then to college and who knows what. I know he can do it, and that it’s good for him, but at the same time no one wants their kids to suffer or be alone. I have a feeling our enthusiasm for these things are going to take a hit in the next year or two when our ideals become a reality.

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  2. Jesus told his disciples to take nothing on their mission trips; to depend on the hospitality of those they visit; and to leave where they are not welcome. God will call those He wants to save. He will allow us to witness when someone turns to God. God does not need us to do anything, but it is sweet to be able to see Him work… with them… with us.

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    • You’re right. Ultimately this is his work, and he is fully equipped to do it. What did he say in the Great Commission? All authority has been given to ME, therefore go…..and I am with you always.” HE is what we need.

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  3. Mother of five here. I encouraged all five to participate in the local church mission trips. I think they all went on at least one. Middle child? She, the younger daughter, went on, like 5 to Mexico, then another two to Europe. And another to Guatemala. She realized something about herself, alright. She realized she liked meeting people of different cultures, and being able to speak their language. Since she had already mastered enough Spanish to get along, when she started college, she enrolled in French and Italian simultaneously. She got an A in both but pursued French because it is spoken in more places. She spent a year in Paris. Sadly, she wandered far from the Lord she originally set out to proclaim, but she is slowly, inexorably, being drawn back to Him. All the while she is out there, I am at home, thinking of her, praying for her, trusting her to God’s hands, Who alone can be there for her when she is so far away from home and all that it means.
    And then there’s the son who, after a short term mission trip to Thailand, where he helped take medical supplies over the border to Myanmar, has studied guitar for ten years, and now, among other things, teaches inmates at a state prison. And his brothers, one Army one Air Force, each finding their own way, doing things I could not have dreamed of for them. And it all started with letting them go on those short term mission trips.

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    • That’s amazing! So great for them, but also hard for you. I wonder if there is a connection between a creative mind and travel? My wife and I are both creative types, and we love to travel, any chance we get. Most of my creative friends are the same. But there are some personality that resists such turbulence, preferring the security and normalcy of home.

      I think it’s healthy to send kids out (like you did), even if they never really take to it. The travel bug stuck with me. I ended up taking my wife to England with me for Bible School just a year into our marriage. Now, after 20 years, I’ve been to 15 countries and we’re planning to visit another in November with the kids.

      My sisters, however, went on their mission trips, but didn’t really catch the bug the same way. They enjoyed their trips, but tend to spend their money on other things. I like to save up for TRIPS. Even if it’s just around the country. Interesting how different people respond to different things.

      I hope your children appreciate what you did for them, encouraging them to get out and see the world!

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  4. Good thoughts, John (as expected)! There’s something in it for the locals, too, if we are sensitive and patient. Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood is a great guide to the possibilities of short and long-term missions. “A race to nowhere” is what I feel like I return to when I come to the States and see people obsessed with their stuff and other people’s stuff and stuff on TV. People without stuff taught me how to be content, joyful, patient. People without stuff taught me how to open my life up and share, making others richer. Friends from a Nigerian village with no money made me a richer person. Locals who feel they can trust you enough to be candid will tell you what they really think – what’s helpful and what’s not. Too often, we’re myopically focused on the project and have very superficial contact with the people – which is what other nations are. Very often, our visits enrich them in ways we don’t plan or realize, though. They feel more globally connected, they see they’re a part of something bigger, they know they’re valued, they have the opportunity and dignity to host, they may learn or get a boost in the economy, etc. All this, even if the group is terribly self-centered and does some project that’s basically worthless to their setting in every other way. I just hope we do things that are at least of some local value. It was tough on me when my sixteen year old decided not to go with me to Nigeria, but I’ll take him next year. He’ll be a student, and learning with an American as a peer (not a leader) will be a unique and possibly equipping experience for many, especially if they ever travel abroad.

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    • Thanks, Isaiah. I agree. I had the blessing of staying with a Ugandan friend in his remote village for a week. Just me and his family. I was literally living around mud huts, taking showers out of buckets, eating from his garden, and enjoying the day to day of a survival culture. No one was talking about education goals or life plans. Just living the day, enjoying the people. The church gave me a live chicken as a gift!

      Yes, their poverty was rich. And it made a lasting deposit in me. I hope the same for my children.

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    • Also, good thoughts about what a short term mission can accomplish, even with a bunch of poorly-trained, self-oriented American teens. It’s still worth it to go. Especially if it benefits the community and the missionaries that stay behind.

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  5. So well put John. I’m moving to Chile for a year in October and uncomfortability is one of my main reasons for going. I truly believe we find a deeper need, and a greater understanding of who God is, outside of our comfort zone. You put it very well above. As always thanks for sharing!

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    • What?! That’s crazy. And awesome. And you’re completely right. There is no better way to grow than to be challenged beyond your comfort zone. And, hey, you’ll learn another language. And you’ll be an experienced traveler. No one ever regrets decisions like this.

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