There is much to be said about the current cultural phenomenon known as “Missions Trips”. Most people within the North American church have either been on a short-term trip or know someone who has. In many ways, it has become a cliché within our contemporary church culture: young, affluent Christians fundraising, going somewhere, learning about God, serving in (hopefully) a useful way, and then returning to their home culture changed (again, hopefully) for the better.
It bears mentioning that for all their benefits, there are a lot of ways that short-term missions or service trips (or whatever you want to call them), could be done poorly. Perhaps our service is taking away jobs and opportunities from locals that need them. Perhaps we’re bringing a gospel more informed by our culture or personal biases than the Word of God. Perhaps we are using the noble guise of “missions” as a front to satiate our wanderlust. Whether there’s a self-seeking motive or another less-than-holy force at play, the ways it can go wrong are many. But they are far outweighed by the ways it can go right. For all of its possible pitfalls, short term, inter-cultural missions still retain the potential for immeasurable goodness and fruitfulness within the global Church. Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, God-hungry, surrendered hearts can go anywhere in the world, make connections, form relationships, share the gospel, advance the kingdom, help the oppressed, heal the sick, cast out devils, raise the dead, etc. The question is: how does one know if they should go?
Let me describe the details of the story I currently find myself in. In 2017 I was living in Vancouver. The situation I was in had no obvious drawbacks or problems: I liked my neighbourhood and my roommates. I was part of a great church plant. I had my university degree, and little to no debt. My employment was a mix of landscaping and freelance graphic design (both of which I enjoy). My free time was spent gallivanting around beautiful British Columbia with friends. I had a car. The list goes on. But a deep longing of the heart also marked this season of life. What was I longing for I asked myself. For adventure? Resolution? More purpose? For signs and wonders? For the next big thing? I just knew I was restless. I felt like I was a plane in a holding pattern, traversing the skies; always approaching but never arriving. (I’ll come back to this image later.)
In November of that year I decided to use some of the extra money that I had saved to travel and visit some friends. They were working in a private Christian school in the hills of Guatemala. Their school year had just finished, and it was the perfect getaway location for me to take advantage of. Unbeknownst to me, it was not my desire for a break, but rather the purposes of God that had guided me. Within a few days of being in Guatemala I knew that this was the next season of life and I agreed to come back as an English teacher the following school year. (Side note: as I continue to walk with the Lord through life, I find myself feeling all the more like a passive agent, as if all of His goodness is happening to me, and I’m simply along for the ride. Psalm 23 comes to mind, “surely your goodness and mercy will follow me.”) I can now say that this past year has been the best year of my life. My community is amazing. I love my job and my students. The Lord is moving powerfully. The plane that was previously trapped in a holding pattern has landed in the best possible way. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m coming back for another year, and maybe even more.
For me, this is an entirely new season of life. For others, serving in missions may only be a few months, or a few weeks. Each story is unique and therefore the reasons that someone would say ‘yes’ to a service opportunity are unique to each person. However, there are a few common denominators that we can extract to help us discern the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Make sure you’re going to be useful
I don’t want to sound harsh, but it’s possible for one to be incredibly useless on a short-term service trip. Not just useless, worse than useless. Not only could one have nothing to give, but they may also be a burden to their host ministry, or an offence to their host culture. A lose-lose situation. If you’re going partake in a short-term trip, you should have something to give. And you probably do. In fact, I know you do, but it’s up to you to figure out what that is and cultivate it. I’m not talking about just bringing the Gospel (in fact you may find that the Gospel is waiting for you there). I’m talking about your specific gifts, given to you by God for the edification of the Church. If you can determine what those are, it will help you immensely, no only in your time serving, but in the rest of your life.
Make sure your motives are pure
As I have previously mentioned, it’s possible to engage in short-term service opportunities for all the wrong reasons, but there are all the right reasons to do it as well. You must owe nothing to anyone except the obligation to love, and love does not seek it’s own. Die to yourself. Give up your rights. Lose your life so that you can find it. It’s a paradox, an upside down kingdom. I know I may sound like a broken record, but you really must not love your own life, even unto death. This is the key to not only a fruitful missions experience, but also a victorious life (Rev 12:11). When you have completely disregarded yourself and love has become your only motive, only then you are finally capable of living and interacting in the world like Jesus did.
Obedience is the only factor
I am convinced, and am becoming more and more convinced as time goes on, that obedience is the only factor. In my case, the season of life I was in had me perfectly prepared for this kind of interruption. I had no long-term job, no debts, no serious relationship — nothing kept me from making an on-the-spot decision to move to another country. For others it may not be so. There may be job aspirations, hopes and dreams, relationships, contracts, family obligations, etc. It doesn’t matter. Obedience is the only factor. What your parents think is irrelevant. What your bank account says is irrelevant. What stage of the University journey you are in is irrelevant. Obedience is the only factor. If God is calling you to do something, you must purpose in your heart to obey and do it.
When I was in my season of waiting, when I felt like a plane in a holding pattern, a member of my church gave me a word that helped me position myself to receive the next thing God had for me. He said, “when a plane is in a holding pattern, it’s not arbitrary or unrestrained. The control tower has a pre-determined course for it, leading it form point to point, until it’s time to land.” Looking back on it, this was true in every way. God had a plan and purpose that was perfect for me and where I was in life. His timing was perfect. His organization and management were perfect. He provided and continues to provide the funding. All I have to do is have a heart surrendered to His love and He does the rest.
Whether it’s in the context of short-term missions or not, be open to those Holy Interruptions and the ways, planned and unplanned, that God leads your life. Just say “yes” and enjoy the ride, it’s that simple.