Off Topic: Mission trips

Mission trips.

They seem to become more and more popular every year, although no one really knows how many Americans take part on an annual basis. The more popular they become, the more churches and other religious institutions such as private universities organize and send teams abroad, making any kind of calculation of participants more and more difficult.

My day job is in missions mobilization, as I’ve made note of in the past. I do marketing and graphic design for a very small organization called Mission Data International (M-DAT). We’re known for the mission trip search engine ShortTermMissions.com, thus short-term mission trips are in my mind on a regular basis. I read articles about them from time to time and look at statistics from our website weekly. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but I’m certainly more immersed in the “field” than most.

M-DAT has a policy (I’m not sure if it’s written or implied) suggesting employees serve on a short-term trip every three years. My wife and I have yet to do this, basically on account of our complicated support situation. We talk about it though, and occasionally we come across opportunities that interest us.

A few things from this Spring have me thinking still more about mission trips, and I thought I’d take some time to sort through my thoughts in a brief post.

What is a mission trip?
The phrase “mission trips” bothers me. It is applied much too broadly in modern Christendom, doing a disservice to all of us in the faith. More basically, the word missions is used in the same way, being thrown around in a manner such that it more or less loses any specific meaning. It’s very popular to say that “Everyone’s a missionary.” I used to, in my infancy so-to-speak, be of this mind.

Before I go on with this section, let me make it very clear that I don’t consider a missionary in the traditional sense — that is, someone who goes cross-culturally and long-term — to be any better a person than any other Christian. It’s just a different part of the same work. The people who stay on the homefront and support the people who go, whether they be financial, logistic or prayer supporters are just as important to the Kingdom work as those on the front lines. More of us stateside folks need to realize this and take our support roles seriously.

Contrary to popular opinion, everyone is not a missionary. Saying so confuses the Biblical task before us of presenting the Gospel to every nation (Matt. 24:14, 28:18-20). A missionary is best likened to an apostle, or “sent one,” working long-term in a cross-cultural environment. This is, for me, more a matter of denotative clarity than personal preference. I believe we need to use language as specifically as we can in order to communicate as clearly as we can. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Hence, when talking about what we commonly call “mission trips” I would like to encourage us, as others before me have done, to use more specific terminology. For instance, call a group of people helping put up a building a construction trip, or at the least a service trip. Refer to an excursion cleaning up after a hurricane disaster relief. You get the idea.

Not all mission trips are a good thing
In the flurry of trips being created and executed by sending organizations, churches and other entities, quality control takes a back seat at times. I was reminded of this — hardly a new observation — when I spoke with a friend back in March. My friend has an intimate knowledge of India (for a Westerner), estimating that he’s been there more than ten times just in the last five years or so. He told me of a local pastor who took members of his congregation to India to work on a construction project. This bothered my friend who knew so many people in the country desperately need work. So in essence, the team took jobs away from the people they were trying to help.

The desire to take one’s students or church members into another culture to broaden their Biblical perspective or serve the orphans and widows is, of course, commendable. We are insulated in America from much of the world’s needs and woes in our bubble of wealth, materialism, consumerism, affluenza, etc. Watching news reports or reading newspapers don’t get us close enough to the suffering for action-inducing comprehension in most cases. Such trips expose us to a reality rarely if ever in our minds, and otherwise never in our experiences. Mission trips, in theory, are a good thing as long as we avoid issues like the above.

Other common problems to watch out for include not tying a trip to a long-term effort, going because your friends go or going with a vacation mentality (I’m very skeptical of “Adventure” trips). See some standards set up by people with strong ties to the industry intended to curtail such things at the Standards of Excellence in Short Term Mission website.

So what makes a good mission trip?
As my wife and I peruse opportunities from time to time there are a few things we look for. We hope to find a trip that allows both of us to put our gifts and interests to work (which, as it happens, doesn’t seem to be all that easy in our case). This will allow us to be and feel more productive than if we just tagged along on any old short-term trip to an orphanage or construction site. We both prefer to serve in Southeast Asia, and neither of us are very excited about the more common and very short 7-14 day excursions. Student Volunteer Movement 2 suggests that people actually consider two year opportunities; short-term trips are technically classified as anything from one week to three years. SVM2 rightly points out that this will allow you to get over the “honeymoon” period of the service, give you time to learn the language (to a degree) and grant you time to see the fruit of some of your efforts.

What we’re looking at now is a 1-2 year service in Southeast Asia. The opening relates well to my own interests in art — the best I’ve ever found in the context of strategic mission — but we don’t know exactly what my wife would be doing, if she’d have to be doing anything specific. It’s not our favorite location either. The climate is hotter and more humid than my wife would like (although on a temporary basis she would manage), and with the humidity comes mold which I’m pretty allergic to.

We’ll see if any of this materializes. The contact for opportunity I just described has been very slow about getting us any kind of details.

I could probably elaborate on a number of these points, but since it’s a tangential topic to this blog I’ll conclude here. Please choose carefully when considering a mission trip. There are many creative ways to make them work in the Grand scheme of things, but there are also a lot of pitfalls that participants and leadership need to be aware of.

Adding: I forgot to talk about one aspect of mission trips my wife and I have discussed recently that seems not to come up very often: Missions as learning. It is valuable to go as a cultural learner. Some will certainly say that this is a waste of money (but remember, some waste is worship), however that argument will always be made by certain people in the missions world who advocate sending money to nationals — a topic I’m always interested in but am not going to broach here. Suffice it to say I don’t agree with that mindset in its purest form for a number of reasons.

Going as a cultural learner is a good first step into long-term missions. It gives the goer the opportunity to put down his or her ethnocentrism and learn from the beginning to love the people and their culture just as God does. Some mission trips do this. My wife’s time in Cameroon some years back more or less was as an observer. But from what I can tell, most trips are planned with something much more concrete in mind, be it medical service, orphanage work or the all-too familiar VBS. We are, as stated in the Waste as Worship post already mentioned, a very efficient people. To plan something without a quantifiable agenda can seem against our nature, and putting specific goals to a “discovery” trip is more difficult.

Let’s get over our need to account for every last penny and quantify everything we do in concrete terms. Let God woo people to himself, in the words of C.S. Lewis. And remember that we are witnesses whether we intend to be or not (again, Matt. 28:18-20), wherever we we live and love our neighbors.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

One Response to Off Topic: Mission trips

  1. marthafines says:

    Merry Christmas to all… and to all a good night.

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