[See previous article, "Short-term missions in a post-modern culture" in this series on missions.]
Apart from short-term mission teams (STMT) parachuting into a foreign mission field for seven to ten days, what are the alternatives for Christians who want to explore other cultures and employ their gifts in service to our King? Shouldnâ€™t we demystify â€œmissionary serviceâ€ and invite people of every age to do their part in fulfilling the Great Commission outside their own Jerusalem? Some churches are still quite strong in educating children and youth about the work of missionaries around the worldâ€”Southern Baptists have been particularly strong (at least historically)â€”but there are many Christians who have never been challenged to â€œmake disciples of all nationsâ€ or, if they have, who wouldnâ€™t know where to begin the process of crossing cultural boundaries to make Christ known. Below, I offer a couple of thoughts to consider along these lines.
- Consider breaking your team into smaller units â€” While it may seem like more â€œfunâ€ to experience a new culture as a group, your volunteers might have more impact (as well as learn more about their mission destination) in smaller teams of 2â€“4 people. Speaking for myself and our unique situation in Wales, I would much rather have 2-person teams for 25 consecutive weeks than 50 people for 1 week. It allows for more personal interaction with local missionaries and indigenous church leaders; and it permits continuity in building relationships in a specific mission setting. One door thatâ€™s wide open in the United Kingdom is primary and secondary schools: conducting religious education classes (one advantage of having a state church) and school assemblies (remember those days in America?). It would be incredible to have small teams focused on a particular school for a semester or a school year, cycling American Christians through that door on a weekly or monthly basis!
- Think â€œoutside the boxâ€ in terms of the calendar â€” Granted there are certain advantages for summer-only mission trips, like better weather and the fact that most American high schools and universities close from June through August. Okay, schedule the students for the summer, but open up more calendar options for the adults (particularly the seniors).
- Give attention to the basic question, â€œWhy go?â€ â€” Iâ€™ve heard and read about the â€œmission team from hellâ€ (or thereabouts): students getting drunk, making culturally-insensitive remarks, running roughshod over unsuspecting victims in the name of evangelism, making fun of local traditions, and generally being self-absorbed, loud-mouthed Americans who have come to â€œshare the gospelâ€ and â€œget decisionsâ€ for Jesus. This isnâ€™t a vacation! Itâ€™s serious business. Why go? Here are several great reasons: (1) to encourage local Christians and missionaries in their labors, (2) to help equip the saints, in the spirit of the â€œone anotherâ€ passages of Scripture, (3) to learn as much as possible about the people and the places you are visiting, (4) to grow spiritually, with a keen desire to humbly learn and serve whomever God puts in your path on the mission field, (5) to ask God to make himself known to you, (6) to imagine yourself living in a completely new world for the rest of your life (i.e. â€œIs God calling me to serve in apostolic missions?â€).
- Make provision for those who can stay longer â€” Letâ€™s face it. Itâ€™s not easy travelling for the better part of twenty-four hours, arriving on the mission field with little to no sleep and adjusting to things like jet lag, new food, meeting lots of new people who â€œtalk funny,â€ sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings (like the floor of a chapel, or a sandy beach, or a thin mat on a hard floor, or you name it). All the while, youâ€™re also trying to focus on the â€œwhyâ€ and all you want to do is spend the next three or four days in a nice comfy bed. In seven to ten days, when youâ€™re just getting acclimated, then youâ€™re on the way back home (and perhaps another week of jet lag). Have you thought about staying for two weeks, a month, six months, or a year? Why not? Americans can visit the United Kingdom for up to six months without a visa, so why not plan a longer stay? Mature university and high school students could surely find volunteer opportunities for the entire summer; and retired or semi-retired persons could invest several months each year doing mission work.
- Investigate moving to a new cultureâ€¦permanently! â€” Recently, I participated in a week of strategy planning meetings at a large multi-campus church in the Atlanta area. Thankfully, they have committed themselves to a long-term partnership with evangelical churches in South Wales. In one of our sessions we were discussing ways to make a greater impact for the gospel and I suggested, â€œGive your best people away! Send them to live here, in the towns and villages, building long-term relationships in a place where only one out of every two hundred people know the Lord.â€ Getting a missionary visa is not difficult, nor is it expensive. Surely God is answering the prayers of his people to raise up volunteersâ€¦laborers for the fields that are yet ripe for the harvest! Why think about a short-term experience when God may be calling you for the long haul?
Admittedly, these ideas may seem bold (or even crazy) to some readers but, as my tagline says, Iâ€™m committed to â€œpushing the limits of the status quoâ€ and I donâ€™t want anyone to get stuck in a rut, especially when it comes to missions and evangelism.
By the way, I recognize that I often write far above my own experience and such is the case here, even though we sold everything and moved to the UK nearly four years ago. Until we arrived in Wales, I had been on one mission trip (inner city Baltimore) when I was active in the Baptist Student Union at Mississippi State University in the late seventies. That experience is still vivid in my mind: sleeping on the floor of the church building where Annie Armstrong (a well-known missionary among Southern Baptists) was baptized, working in that congregation’s soup kitchen, doing street evangelism among the marginalized, and helping teaching children in backyard Bible clubs. God lit a fire in my heart that week that burns to this day! So Iâ€™m not dismissing what Father can do in the hearts of those who truly love and obey him, but I realize how easy it is to get swept along with how other Christians/churches do missions. So Iâ€™m giving you permission to think outside the box of what youâ€™ve always known!