When I came back to the States after a year-long, nation-hopping mission trip in 2011, I had a problem. In a nutshell, I was back in the States. As a disciple of Jesus who was now aware of the rest of the world, home was suddenly a place I didn’t feel like I belonged in anymore. I wrestled with the feeling that my mission was somewhere out there— in a different culture I had never belonged to. At least, not yet. I had departed and no longer fit into American culture, so I needed to land somewhere, right? Surely that meant I was supposed to go somewhere else in the world now.
Even when I moved to Texas to accept an associate pastor position almost four years ago, I felt as if my work was only meant to prepare me for something else– somewhere else. This was partly why I quickly volunteered to become the missions pastor in addition to my actual job description of small groups pastor.
The plot recently took an interesting (and awesome) turn when I married a Dominican missionary who translated for our team while we served in her country as part of that world-wrecking trip six years ago. Our love story started with adventure and we naturally want that to continue. We’ve gone through periods where we’ve been especially torn about where we “should” be. Scenarios have played out in our heads about moving to somewhere exotic and dangerous, and the conversations we’ve had would probably appall most of you.
Interwoven throughout these conversations and notions, however, was one subtle and simple message from the Lord: If you don’t want to accept being “on mission” where I’ve already placed you, how can I trust you to be “on mission” anywhere else?
It was an interpretation of “he who is faithful with little will be faithful with much” from Luke 16 I really didn’t want to consider. I was so eager to be on mission somewhere else that the concept of treating home as if it was my mission had often escaped me. I was convicted to think what would happen, if I did move away, once my new and exciting adventure inevitably became home. Would I consider my mission to always be in the next destination or in some far-off place?
This perspective of mission being out there is something I believe is plaguing the American church. And the reason I think this has happened is pretty unsettling. In essence, it’s just easier.
We like to compartmentalize things in the U.S. The pressure to succeed and be productive leads us to treat being “on mission” as a couple weeks out of the year. We fundraise, schedule vacation days off work, and off we go to the airport for our mission trip. But if we’re honest, this approach of being on mission operates on a theory of future relationships, which are always rosy and exciting, rather than the reality of day-to-day relationships, which are messy and require that thing none of us seem to have: time. This compartmentalized approach to mission allows us to applaud our willingness to do something hard often without having to actually do it.
Is this a concrete, generalized statement of the entire Church? Absolutely not. But is this a very real problem that is often left unacknowledged? I truly believe it is.
It’s embarrassing to say this, but I think I’ve only recently come to grips with the implications of being “in the world and not of it” (John 17). I’ve had this “problem” of feeling like I didn’t fit in as an American anymore, and I failed to recognize that not being “of the world” actually means not fitting in and not belonging to a specific culture– that only by not fitting in am I capable of bringing and representing something different and deeper than what any culture can understand.
While it’s great to want to serve in places that are completely opposite the culture we know and relate best with, we have to be honest and remember that being able to relate to where someone is coming from is a massively important part of sharing the gospel with them. Sharing our faith with a stranger (or a group of strangers) isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than speaking up with the friends and neighbors we see on a regular basis at home– the ones we have natural chances for continued follow-up conversations with.
This concept is not new, obviously. Plenty of missiologists teach about the dangers of flying over our next door neighbors in order to reach strangers. Are some called to do exactly this? Absolutely, and those who are would know undoubtedly in their heart that God is calling them to uproot and leave. But while we (I) have gotten so focused on Paul as the model missionary, we (I) forgot that he and his team taught their disciples to serve where they were already planted (1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Thessalonians 4). Not to mention all those times Jesus operated with the same strategy (Matthew 10, Mark 5, John 4 to name a few).
“But Kyle, the Great Commission… ends of the Earth… remember?”
Yes! But we cannot only refer to those who travel away from home as missionaries. Besides, the literal translation from Matthew 28:19 for “Go and make disciples…” uses a “Go” that represents an active, ongoing tense rather than future. It means start where you are and continue wherever you are. It’s an “in the moment” command, which most definitely includes and, dare-I-even-say-it, starts at home. Therefore it’s not mission trips we are really commanded to go on, but rather missional lives.
The American church has been receding for some time. Right now, it’s in worse shape than it’s been in for a long long time. We have statistics to back that up. That’s saddening, but what really confounds me is the understanding that right now the American church is also sending more missionaries to the rest of the world than ever before. Thanks to easier, more convenient travel in a globalized and compartmentalized world, short term mission trips have made “mission” more popular than ever.
The more I think about it, the more this trend doesn’t add up. Now, more than ever, the American church needs its own leaders to plug in and reach Americans. International mission trips may always represent the ultimate “go” for us. They may always seem to be the most Christianly thing we can do with our time and money. But if we were really concerned with long term, sustainable care and discipleship as we say we are, it gets a little more difficult to justify the price tags for some of the week-long trips we go on. What if we took half that money (the flight money) and sent it over to the trusted local pastor we were aiming to empower and let him invest in meaningful, ongoing relationships? Those are the relationships we say we care most about anyway. And what if we used the other half of the trip cost to make ourselves out-of-our-way generous and available to the hurting people in our own communities? Some short term trips are amazingly fruitful and beneficial for both travelers and local church, and that’s awesome. But I’d venture to say that they are far more rare than we would like to think.
This might sound harsh, but surely I’m not the first to think that if the trends of the American church are any indicator of what we are sending out, should we really be so quick to assume the rest of the world needs more of what we have? Every culture has its baggage and obstacles, but it’s something I think every missionary should take a long, hard look at. America is the richest nation in the history of the world. That doesn’t automatically mean we have the best faith. In fact, the U.S. is now higher than ever on the receiving end for missionaries from other countries.
I don’t say any of this to make it seem like I think all international mission involvement is bad. Again, I’m not even knocking all short term trips. Many are hyper intentional and have God’s hand all over them. And, as I mentioned, some people are indeed called to go overseas and serve on short term and long term mission projects.
But many definitely are not.
Many people (like myself just a few years ago) think of home as merely our resting or fundraising grounds, allowing us to prepare for our next mission trip. Many have a perception of ministry that requires buying a plane ticket and using a translator to talk to a stranger they will likely never see again. If someone is traveling with these mindsets, then yes, I think international mission trips are more harmful than helpful. It’d be hard to argue otherwise.
However, if mission trips to places outside of our ability to truly relate and communicate well are seen as experiences for us to go and grow in our own relationship with the Lord, then there is a great purpose for going. But by nature, these trips will place the “missionary” in the backseat, seeking to learn rather than lead, and to serve a local church and local believers. Likewise, if we see our time abroad as something that would prepare us to have a more-effective and well-rounded ministry at home, then international trips can have an amazing impact for God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, many, including myself, have made the mistake of thinking the opposite: that our experiences and training at home are preparing us for ministry somewhere else.
And by the way, if you’re considering a short term trip, I would encourage you to ask these questions:
- Do you already consider yourself to be on mission? If not, you might want to consider staying at home until your mind has come to grips with this.
- What’s the long term, sustainable strategy of the trip? Is it discipleship-focused or materials-focused? What will your physical presence do there? (It’s okay to go with the main purpose of being impacted yourself, as long as you know that about your heart going in.)
- Is there a strong, trustworthy leadership team organizing the trip? Are they focused on training you and your team before, during, and afterwards so you can allow God to maximize your effectiveness both in-country and, more importantly, when you return home?
Initially, I thought my life purpose had to be a continuation of that crazy, world-wrecking trip I went on after college. But I’ve come to realize that God already accomplished the purpose of that trip: to change me. Traveling to far-reaching places helped to open my eyes and (finally) show me what it meant to have my citizenship in heaven rather than to a single nation and culture. It made me more passionate about helping other people see more and think differently. And it made me more capable and confident to be successful at this. Traveling around the world and then coming home to cope with what I saw has finally taught me when, where, and how we are meant to be “on mission.”
I’ve come to realize that God used that mission trip to empower my real ministry and define my everyday mission, which is here, at home.