September 30, 2020

Occasional Missionaries; Accidental Tourists

Occasional Missionaries; Accidental Tourists
I’ve got to ask some questions about all these mission trips

Late Night Mission Trips

Several weeks ago I was up late and happened to scan past one of the twelve–a good Bible number– religious cable channels on my TV, when I saw a show about five college-aged guys on a mission trip in Thailand. Our school has ministered to many Thai students, so I stopped and watched for a few moments, hoping to learn a bit about missions in Thailand and how these young men were sharing the Gospel with the Thai people.

Technically and visually, the show was extremely well done, and obviously owed quite a debt in its approach and production to reality shows like “The Real World.” We were introduced to each of the scrubby, twenty-something young men, and learned that this was one of many “extreme” missions experiences these guys had undertaken in this series. I noticed a lot of time devoted to their interactions with one another, and very little time spent talking about missionary approaches to the Thai. I don’t recall any mention of the church in Thailand or of the strategy for evangelism and church planting in Thailand.

Soon I learned that these young men were headed into the inaccessible and primitive northern country of Thailand to spend one day “telling the villagers that Jesus loved them.” None of the missionaries spoke the language of these people or any Thai people. They had employed a very reluctant guide to get them through the hellish jungle, but no translators. They brought a small supply of gifts, and had no plan for establishing a relationship with the tribe other than to show up, deliver their gifts and message, and return to civilization. All on film, of course.

Most of the program was occupied with the difficult trip through the jungle. True to their reality show roots, a great deal of time was expended on leeches that attached themselves to the intrepid missionaries (cf “Fear Factor”) and the painful scars left when they were removed. This was horrendous to watch, but the guys kept going. It was the kind of stuff to make middle schoolers cringe in delight. Outstanding religious television. Way better than Rod Parsley. (The leeches, by the way, dominated the program, and we learned far more about them than about the Thai people who were the goal of this trek through the jungle.)

The last few minutes of the show wrapped things up…Oh yeah…we never actually saw any footage of their arrival in the village or their “work” there, but we were assured things went as well as could be expected without a translator. At least no one was killed and eaten, which would have gone along very well with the leech footage. We saw at least three scenes of the guys praying together, and were told that one of those meetings was a “prayer breakthrough.” The guys got along well enough, so there wasn’t much opportunity to enjoy camera shots of the guys carping about one another, a reality show staple.

What we learned was that missions was a lot like an Indiana Jones expedition. The adventures of five totally unprepared, but nonetheless willing men, taking off to the edge of the world to tell the unreached about Jesus. In L.L. Bean gear and in English. The scrubby adventurers were willing to endure hardship for Christ, and that was commendable. They were obviously zealous and serious about evangelism.

Sadly, these fellows appeared to know almost nothing about missions. (Though we were invited to dial an 800 number and “learn more about missions” at the end of the program.) They are part of a significant movement in evangelicalism and one that needs, in my opinion, a second look.

My Missions Trips

I probably heard of “missions trips” growing up in a large fundamentalist SBC church, but I don’t remember any actual testimonies about excursions as a prominent part of my church experience. We occasionally had missionaries come and speak, but our folks didn’t pack up and go on mission trips.

As a youth minister, I heard Tony Campolo talk about mission trips to Haiti, and Group Magazine began to offer missions experiences as part of their ministry. As a result, while serving in a suburban church in western Kentucky, in 1980 I organized a mission trip for my youth group to eastern Kentucky. I was so poorly organized and so ignorant of what a mission trip should involve that I would be embarrassed to meet anyone who remembered that project. In 1982 we went to central Indiana on a mission trip that convinced me to never, ever take another one without doing an extensive pre-trip visit first. Suffice it to say that when we arrived and the pastor didn’t know who we were or what we were doing there, I knew we were in for an interesting week. I also learned it was relatively easy, without planning and forethought, to waste a lot of someone’s time and money.

When I returned to full time youth ministry in 1984, I began taking groups on inner city mission trips to Boston and Chicago. I organized our entire high school youth ministry program around these trips, and used them to teach Bible, discipleship, leadership and evangelism, as well as missions. Working with African-American and Asian congregations, our students learned a lot about how churches were planted and the problems and opportunities in urban, multi-cultural evangelism. While we did enjoy the cities we visited, our time was primarily spent preparing, teaching, learning, and serving. I was immensely proud of the missions program we created, and heartbroken when my successor took the funding and took the students to the beach.

I share that background to say that I do not have a negative attitude toward mission trips. My mission trips are some of my happiest and proudest moments in ministry. I’ve utilized them and I believe I know their potential to change lives and create disciples committed to the cause of Kingdom expansion and service. Many of the students that I involved in those experiences have become “world Christians” and enthusiastic supporters and participants in missions in their churches and elsewhere.

My favorite mission trips were two trips to work with Uptown Baptist Church in inner-city Chicago. We did backyard Bible Clubs and worked in the meal program for the homeless. It was a great experience, but the best part of it was that Uptown Church saw their ministry to us as just as important as our ministry to them. They took the time to educate us about urban missions. They showed us how one church was actually eight multi-lingual, multi-cultural congregations. We learned of the unique needs and strengths of poor, urban families and the churches they attend. They introduced us to the issues of worship and leadership in a way that forever changed the way I looked at inner-city congregations. Upon reflection, in many ways we–the rich southern Baptist church youth group–were the mission project. We were the beneficiaries of the mission and ministry of Uptown Baptist Church.

It was as a result of my mission trip experiences that I began to see some of the problems and limitations of mission trips. Later, as I learned more and more about the worldwide Christian movement and the real work of reaching the unchurched world, I began to see that mission trips had the potential to be useful, but also had the potential to be a wasteful and self-indulgent exercise. They could actually become a way of profoundly misunderstanding what missions is all about. Are we helpful to the cause of missions when we come as “Accidental Tourists?” Even in the name of Jesus?

Intermission: What is “missions” anyway?

That’s a great question. Here’s a good answer: By “missions,” most missiologists mean the creation of an indigenous, self-supporting, self-perpetuating New Testament church planting movement in every people group in the world. This fulfills the Great Commission of preaching the Gospel to every nation, and making disciples who obey the teachings of Jesus in every nation. It is a significant definition for evaluating whatever we call “missions.”  It means that missions is not only something that I do, but is a movement much larger than myself that I support and encourage. It has serious implications for how we think about “mission trips” or other popular mission projects.

Not too many years ago, missions was conceived by most people as a matter of western Christians going into unreached countries and making converts. The shift to seeing missions as the creation of indigenous church planting movements means the role of the western missionary–short and long term–has changed significantly. Missions strategy has changed significantly. Well-off churches and individuals with discretionary income can make an enormous difference in the world missions picture, but perhaps not as we once thought.

In his groundbreaking book, Revolution in World Missions, K. P. Yohannon suggests that Westerners should entirely change the way they see their role in the missions enterprise. With the wealth, resources, technology and training available to westerners, church planting movements can be supported and encouraged much more efficiently without having to undertake the enormous cost of getting westerners to the mission field and supporting them there. Yohannon’s ministry, Gospel for Asia, has set a standard in showing what can be done in supporting indigenous Christians, who for a few thousand dollars a year can support a family, attend a Bible school, build a church and go to Bible college.

Coming to see that missions is about the Kingdom and not about a personal experience (for an individual or group) is an important insight for Christians today. How can I best support and participate in God’s worldwide purpose? How I answer that question depends on what I have come to know and believe about not only Biblical truth, but the total picture of world missions. Coming to understand what is really needed, useful and helpful may require humility from enthusiastic western evangelicals eager to travel and return with stories of how they helped change the world. Can evangelicals embrace the truth that, at least to some extent, personal missions involvement may take many forms, and may best be done by NOT going overseas at all?

Yohannon makes it plain that there will always be a place for westerners on the mission field, particularly as teachers, technicians, specialists and supporters. Until an indigenous work grows in every way, there will always be some ways that outsiders can serve and be helpful. But in most cases, western short-term missionaries are not as crucial or desirable as we like to believe. It would be good if more missions experts would say this, but the fear of dampening overall support for missions is strong. We have to tell ourselves the truth.

With this understanding of missions, the “mission trip” needs to be looked at again.

The Better Mission Trip

Imagine that Faith Church takes a mission trip to Brazil.  While on the field, the mission group may build or remodel a building. They may bring in Bibles or other Christian literature. They may lead backyard Bible clubs or revival services. They may see some of the local poverty and participate in feeding and clothing of children. Certainly, the relationships built with local Christians will be a blessing. The team will return full of enthusiasm for missions and will likely plan another trip next year.

The church and individuals can easily invest $50,000 in such a trip so that they may personally have the experience. From that investment, much good will come. It is hopefully (and demonstrably) true that some of these individuals will contribute significant amounts of money and support to missions in the future, and will encourage their churches to be more involved in missions. It is also demonstrably true that the spiritual value of such a mission trip can’t be measured, and entire lifetimes of service to Christ may be born out of these kinds of experiences.

It is also true that westerners probably overestimate the value of these mission trips to the indigenous Christians they visit. (I am in no way trying to put a price tag on evangelism, friendship or encouragement.) Often, keeping a group of Americans feeling busy and useful is a large job. The excitement of such a visit makes a wonderful memory, but how many churches have considered what might be the effect of inviting a national to come to Faith Church, tell, in detail, about needs on the field and among the churches, and then committing resources to that mission enterprise without groups of church members going overseas?

Such a national Christian might say, for instance, that several church buildings could be built for the cost of sending two or three westerners. Several preachers could go to Bible college training for the cost of a few westerners coming to their culture. Bibles and literature could be translated. Bicycles could be purchased. If Americans are going to be sent in, why not select personnel with needed skills? Doctors, nurses, dentists, agriculturists, teachers, engineers, computer geeks and so on. If such a list of needs were presented without a request to send a large group of church members to do a “mission trip experience,” how many churches would respond? More importantly, why would this approach be less appealing?

Do we understand which approach actually best involves Faith Church in the world missions enterprise?

It is obvious that some of the popularity of mission trips comes from American values and the appeal of an overseas adventure. Americans see themselves as the “good guys” They believe that persons in other nations view us much as we view ourselves. That is, of course, a complex topic, but it is safe to say that our perception of ourselves on the mission field may be somewhat generous. In working with missionary leaders on the field and hearing their honest reactions to the various groups that come to help them, I now realize that a mission group can be either an asset or a lot of trouble. But the less effective group will probably never know it. They have their own agenda, and it may or may not have anything to do with what is really needed.

Perhaps the better mission trip would be to send a “fact-finding” or exploratory team. Rather than go to work, this more specialized team would go to pray, learn and observe. They would immerse themselves in understanding the opportunities for missions on the field, and would return to motivate the church to send money, resources, sponsorship and personnel to the field. This kind of ministry investment seems more in line with the real nature of missions.

In fact, churches should consider the importance of making every church member feel they are involved in a significant way in missions, and not just those who are able to raise or spend thousands of dollars to go. It is not healthy for a church to have thirty “world travelers” if the rest of the congregation is largely ignorant and uninvolved in missions.

Mission Trip Questions

Perhaps the best way to further address this subject is simply to raise questions with little comment. Certainly, my own point of view is relatively easy to discern in the questions I ask, but it isn’t my role to supply answers for any church or potential missionary. These are important questions, and are at least an effort to move in the direction of taking some of the energy apparent in the mission trip phenomenon and channeling it into as many useful and helpful avenues as possible.

How important is it for American Christians to go on mission trips to provide activities for children or hand out food and clothing? I say this with full knowledge that probably some of the best memories many people have is spending time with children on mission trips, but the question still needs to be asked. In the big picture of missions, is it really as important as we tended to think it was at the time? Or do these kinds of experiences really tell us more about what appeals to westerners and their mistaken concepts of missions? (Please don’t write me and say “Well, it was important to that kid,” or “If it changed one life…”)

Could the overseas responses to American preachers be more of a cultural than a spiritual phenomenon? I have no doubt that the reason many American preachers return to the mission field again and again is the extreme responsiveness to the public invitation, and the resulting validation of that preacher’s ministry when shared back home. Are we being honest about what is really going on here?

What percentage of mission trips are spent engaging in significant amounts of tourism, pure and simple? This is a laugh line among a lot of youth ministers, but it is a real issue. My groups would spend several hours a day touring wherever we happened to be. It was a good time. It wasn’t missions. It was tourism. I am sure some “beach evangelism” is more beach than evangelism. Getting young people to the mission field requires motivation, but is it really fair to call the result missions? (I certainly know that many short term missions trips have no “tourism” as part of the program.)

How are mission trips related to church planting? There are many different ways this question will be answered. Some trips are directly related to a church plant, while some have nothing to do with church planting at all. I would suggest that if a missions effort can’t be connected–clearly and obviously–to church planting or strengthening an existing church, it may be of questionable value.

Do Americans really need to travel overseas to do confrontational evangelism in a culture where they don’t even know the language? It sounds great as a story. Is it really what missions needs to be about?

Do college-age Christians understand that the mission field doesn’t need “missionaries?” It needs people with skills? Agriculture, teaching, engineering, medicine, computers, translation and so on. Why are so many young Christians choosing to be missionaries, but not preparing to offer a skill when they arrive? In allowing and encouraging so many short term college mission trips, are we fostering the idea that being a full time “mission trip guy” is actually a ministry? It distresses me that most of the missions-motivated young people I meet are concerned with studying Bible, but unconcerned with acquiring a useable skill. It is humbling to say this, but Westerners really don’t have much to teach our friends on the mission field when it comes to the Bible. (Other than at the very specialized level of seminary.) They are often far ahead of us in zeal for obeying scripture, establishing churches, evangelism and so on. (Thank God for one young man I know who is training to be a carpenter, and wants to use that skill overseas!)

Do Americans understand the incredible mission opportunities here in the States, particularly with Muslims and other internationals? Every major metro area is full of internationals, and ministry to them is ministry to their nation, family and people group. Student ministry and international outreach in America is good missions overseas. And leaves a lot more money to send overseas. Even unreached people groups can often be ministered to by finding students in the states from those countries. We are currently ministering to two Mongolian students right now. Do I really need to go to Mongolia?

Why aren’t more churches offering the Perspectives Course or other missions education to the people most interested in mission trips? Youth, college and young adults. It really doesn’t take long to teach the most basic and helpful concepts of the current world missions strategy. But I know many highly involved “mission trippers” who don’t have a clue about what is really going on in the world of missions, or what is needed to “finish the task.”

Does it appear to anyone else that some mission trip ministries do a very poor job and take a lot of money to do it? I’ve seen enough to know there are some shady ministries making some big money and putting kids at some risk, all the while calling it “missions.” This ought to stop.

How many denominational resources are dedicated to getting Americans overseas on short term trips, when those same agencies know these trips serve little real purpose other than public relations? Mission agencies need to tell the truth, and encourage finding the best ways to support missions. Many churches could make a big difference in the cause of Christ overseas without sending planes full of Americans to lead Bible clubs or hand out donuts.

Shouldn’t we be discouraging the “Gonzo/Extreme” attitude exemplified by recent stories of American students with no real connection to existing strategies going undercover into Muslim countries ?  I appreciate bravery, and I know there must be risk-takers, and even martyrs.. But I am not impressed that “daring exploits” always qualify as good missions or good examples. Sneaking into a Muslim country to show the Jesus film is courageous, but is it really the direction we want to encourage young missionaries to go? This is a controversial question, but it needs to be asked. Some martyrs and sufferers are worthy, and some are just plain presumptuous and may actually hinder the growth of the Kingdom. I have friends in Muslim countries working in secular jobs to allow them to minister as Christians, but they are connected to the missions work and strategy in those countries and elsewhere, and are not just taking “gonzo” risks on their own.

Shouldn’t the current emphasis on short term mission “trips” be replaced by an emphasis on the preparation, knowledge and skills needed to really help the mission cause? We need more students studying translation, broadcasting and cross-cultural evangelism, and fewer just going to knock around for a couple of weeks. Every missions agency knows what they need on the field, but few Christians care enough to even ask. We need straight talk to students about preparation, and how to develop themselves into someone really useful, even on a short term trip overseas.
If mission trips continue to be a major part of evangelical life, could they be refocused and refined into more effective ventures for the cause of missions in the long-term? Could an effort be made to alter the experience to something more substantial, significant and really helpful? It doesn’t mean mission trips should stop, but that we should be able to admit that a good thing can always be improved and that more of the same isn’t always better.

As a constructive suggestion, I hope churches and youth groups will look for work that CANNOT be done without an outside group coming in. For example, my church is very small, and a group coming in to do a week of outreaches and ministries in the community and repair to our facility would be a legitimate help because much of this ministry is impossible for us to do ourselves. There is a great deal of practical ministry that isn’t “missions” per se, but is simply serving the Lord by helping the weaker brother. These sorts of experiences have real value, even though they are more “service” than “missions.”

Several years ago, one of my closest friends went to England with his family to hand out the Jesus Video to Muslims. It’s his story, not mine, so I won’t tell it. It was, in short, a bad experience. From top to bottom. I could tell that a real interest and enthusiasm had been drowned in the realities of a flawed project designed to involve Americans in missions. I doubt that my friend would ever undertake this again.

But then, in all honesty, was taking videos to England, at the cost of thousands of dollars, really the best way for my friend to support missions to Muslims in England or elsewhere? Was taking his family to England the best way for him to be excited and involved? I believe that supporting existing work with the funding he devoted to the trip, financing more translations of the Jesus movie, being involved in spreading the word about this ministry to millions would be more appropriate. I believe that, in hindsight, he would probably agree.

Our current mindset, however, is that the “mission trip experience” should be for my friend and his family. They will get such a blessing. He will get so much out of it. And he did, but not what I believe he expected or intended. I believe such experiences could easily be multiplied, and it would be increasingly obvious that the cause of missions is not served very well by large numbers of short term mission trips often primarily justified by their effects on the missionary and the sending church. The cause would be significantly furthered by a higher level of missions awareness, more targeted support, linking up resources with needs, and a greater understanding of how to encourage and rejoice in church planting and church growth movements around the world.

I believe missions is a key part of a Christian’s discipleship in this world, especially for American Christians living in such a blessed land and time. Short term trips can be part of that discipleship, but perhaps there are many ways to follow Christ around the world without taking money that could build churches and support local pastors and sending it to the airlines.