It was all over in a matter of hours…
Gone were the conversations revolving around poverty, hunger and injustice during our mission trip. They were replaced by the purchasing of our wants that had become needs, of $2 sodas and $5 ice cream in the mall food court, discarding the items with a consumeristic ease after we’d had our fill.
Numerous scapegoats came to mind. However, inside I knew the responsibility fell on me as this wasn’t the first time I had come home feeling we had missed something.
Taking time to reflect on my misgivings, I am convinced the disconnect between what is experienced on the mission trip and how we live life afterward stems primarily from two mentalities we create and encourage in our youth ministries regardless of whether we recognize them.
It has become standard youth ministry protocol during the summers to go with our youth on a mission trip. Countless hours and energy are spent not only planning the trip, but building momentum for it. This often includes parent meetings, packets, numerous fundraisers throughout the year, repeatedly emphasizing the amazing spiritual formation potential of this one week in the summer. “It’s guaranteed to change your life!”
After a while, this constant focus on one week of the summer intrinsically begins to teach: Missions isn’t a lifestyle we live every day but something we do for one or two weeks a year.
Coupled with this climatic emphasis on one week of the year is a theological misunderstanding of service and missions in Scripture. Guiltily, I thought of all the times I had emphasized in preparation for our missions the importance of setting a Christ-like example, “Be the hands and feet of Jesus.” To be sure, on one level there is nothing wrong with this teaching.
However, to focus our sole attention on this teaching risks accentuating some teachings in Scripture (such as the great commission in Matthew 28) at the expense of other passages such as Jesus’ telling of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-45. In this story, Jesus identifies as His brothers and sisters not those who serve and provide the meal, but those who are homeless and hungry.
Jesus was not found only in the church, but in the world. The late theologian Ray Anderson wrote, “It is not only that the world needs the church in order to have Christ; the church also needs the world in order to know Christ. There is a special kind of solidarity with the world that the church must not break in order to be conformed to Christ.” When we serve in missions, we are not simply being the hands of Jesus; we serve to know Christ.
Context is paramount in teaching missions as a lifestyle. We need to know the families we serve and be reasonable with the cost of missions we select. It makes absolutely no sense to plan a mission trip to alleviate suffering but then burdening our families with an expensive trip. The less time we spend fundraising for one week can be spent creating opportunities to serve in our own communities throughout the year.
Our teaching of missions in Scripture has to expand, as well. We must begin to ask questions that do not limit Jesus to being found only in the church. Formative missional experiences should not simply be about what we can give, but what we can receive through knowing Christ in the world. By emphasizing knowing Jesus in the world, we expand the understanding of missions to be about every decision we make because every decision is made in the world.
As we begin to adopt this vision of missions, we might realize it’s not about being missional for one week, but about every time I step out the front door encountering Jesus in a hurting world.