This summer, I have had the privilege of going on two mission trips: one to Liberia, Africa, with a nondenominational ministry called Young Life that I am involved in, and one to Oak Hill, as a chaperone on my home church's annual youth mission trip. Because of these opportunities to serve, I have been giving missions and mission trips a lot of thought recently.
Usually when I think about mission trips, I think about one or two weeks of doing manual labor or evangelistic work to show and/or tell people about the love of Jesus. It is always for someone or a group of people "less fortunate" than the missionaries. The missionaries love the feeling they get when they are laboring for God and his children, plus the gratitude of the people they serve warms their hearts. A "life-changing" experience is had by all, until about a month later and suddenly we're back in the real world. Sound familiar?
Please understand, my goal of this column is not to bash mission trips - because I do know from experience they can be a faith-growing, friendship-building and life-changing experience - but I think pointing out some problems with the typical church mission trip is a good place to start when addressing how we should be handling missions.
I may come across as cynical in stating these issues, but I just want to get people thinking. I simply hope I get you thinking so we can, together, become better missionaries to share the Gospel and love of Jesus Christ.
There are two big problems with missions. One is that we look at mission as something we do rather than something we are. At the risk of sounding like I'm trying to make an excuse, I don't think this is completely our fault, because of the culture we live in. We basically have to do it to survive in such a time-oriented culture, but compartmentalizing things that should be on God's "watch" is what we end up doing. We have become extremely good at scheduling our daily life so that we have a set time of focusing our attention and efforts on activities.
Therefore, when it comes to things with our faith, we usually fall into the trap of cutting that into time slots as well. Worship becomes something we do on Sundays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Or maybe we're better than that and also worship God when we're in the car listening to contemporary Christian radio. I sometimes feel like that is about all I can do with my busy schedule, but we should keep in mind we are called to praise God in everything we do. A set time for worship is as silly as a set time for breathing. We worship God with our lives, not just with our hymns on Sunday mornings.
Likewise, mission is a lifestyle and form of worship and praise to God. Serving others so that the love of Christ is shown is not something we do for a week or two and stop. Contrary to popular belief, no "quota" is reached after a week of working during the summer with church friends. It seems like we return from trips thinking we have done our share of good deeds and don't think much about serving once our schedules fill back up and we get to sleep in our own comfy beds again.
On top of time being a problem, we have become experts at adapting our values to different settings and times of our lives. We can be selfless for a few weeks and serve as Christlike as possible; but, unless we understand it is a lifestyle rather than a "trip," we will never catch the meaning of mission. Mission is not a trip we take in the summer with our church youth group; it is an everyday response to God's love when we get out of bed every morning. Raising tons of money to go to a third-world country for a week of service is great, but what would it say about you (and more importantly, what would it say about the Christ you live for) if you raised money and gave it to local needs and ministries instead of plane tickets and gas money?
When I went to Liberia, a friend and I had a conversation with one of the local Young Life leaders about his perception of Americans. He told us, "I don't like Americans. You are rich, white people who come here during the summer and serve for one week. Then when you go home you are not Christlike anymore. You no longer love others. Americans are not good people."
Of course my friend and I tried to explain there are many exceptions to his idea of Americans and that we personally thought, or at least hoped, that we were different. We couldn't convince our Liberian friend, but it got me thinking - if that is how we're perceived, what are we doing wrong? How Christians are perceived in our hometown might need a little work at times too. Nevertheless, one of the ways we can start creating a more Christlike image of ourselves is through having a mission lifestyle.
We are all full-time missionaries. Maybe we aren't all called to third-world countries, but we can all be missionaries in our own communities. Let's look for opportunities in our daily lives to serve others and share the love of Christ to all.
On the parish calendar:
Vacation Bible School: Fully Rely on God at Nay Chapel United Methodist Church, today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Gospel Sing hosted by French Creek UMC and featuring the Chewning Family, starting at 7 p.m. today
Back to School Block Party, hosted by Chapel Hill UMC, is set from 3 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25, with music, bounce house, carnival games, face painting, cake walk, free hot dogs, nachos, popcorn and more.