Do it here before you do it there

Recently while I was killing time (i.e., procrastinating) on Facebook, I came across some pictures of a family that I had not seen in a long, long time. This family lives overseas as missionaries and when I connected with them over ten years ago they were serving in northern Africa. Scrolling through their pictures brought back cool memories of playing with their three younger sons, walking dusty streets, and eating strange and exotic foods.

As my mind reminisced over those almost two weeks that I spent with that family, I began to process all that went into that trip. The cost of airline tickets, lodging, food and passports was a staggering amount, but it had all been worth it. At least, I believe it was worth it. Come to think of it, this amazing trip halfway across the world - as exciting as it was - left me with memories of an incredible cultural experience but little else. I was instantly reminded of how little I knew of the opportunity that awaited for me when I got there.

I just assumed that when I arrived I would dive right in and do what the other missionaries were doing, seeing people come to faith in Jesus and traveling the countryside like Jesus did. If I had just done more of my homework and interacted with the missionaries a bit more, I would have learned that in countries like this where Christianity is a minority religion, those opportunities to share my faith are not only rare but are also illegal. For the missionaries serving in this kind of environment, their goal was to assimilate into the culture over a period of time while creating relationships that they could nourish over several years. There was no way I could accomplish something like that in ten days.

Was it a waste of time for me to go on this trip? I wouldn't say that, for I learned a lot about a foreign culture and the challenges that missionaries face in countries that are closed to Jesus. Plus, I hope that my presence there was a blessing to this family and their kids, whom I have a blast entertaining. But when it was all said and done, I didn't really DO anything that could be counted as missions. Years later I have to ask myself, "Was this really a mission trip?"

I have had the opportunity to go on numerous short-term mission trips during my lifetime - Orlando, Bahamas, Turkey, New York City, and Antigua to name a few. All of them provided me with hundreds of memories, pictures, and souvenirs and there were even a few long-lasting relationships formed along the way. But if I can be totally honest with you, I am left with more troublesome thoughts and questions than I care to admit. Maybe you've had the same concerns.
  • Instead of gearing up to paint a church in South America, would it have been a better idea to send the funds to the local missionaries who in turn could hire local workers to do the painting, thus offering much needed employment and putting money back into their economy?
  • As we train to reach lost people living in foreign cultures, are we as passionate about reaching lost people in the neighborhood across the street?
  • When you prepare for a mission trip by volunteering in a local community center or other nonprofit, do you continue that local ministry when you return home or do you view it as necessary pre-trip training and nothing more?
Let me go ahead and say what some of you might be thinking - no, I do not believe that short-term mission trips are a waste of time. God has used opportunities in other states and countries to grow me in my faith and give me a zeal for the nations to hear the gospel. But I also believe that on many occasions I have been guilty of participating in nothing more than Christian tourism, a multi-billion dollar industry that provides us with amazing experiences that can be devoid of real missionary value (see Toxic Charity for more on this subject).

As a result of all of these experiences that I have had - and the opportunity to take a good, hard look at mission opportunities as a whole - I have come up with a rule of thumb for myself when it comes to participating in any sort of short-term mission project that I want to share with you:
Before I travel there, I have to look at what needs to be done here.
For me, I can't justify spending all of my time and resources helping out over there unless I first am invested in reaching people for Jesus here. If I ignore the lost or the poverty-stricken down the road, then how can I as a follower of Jesus put so much energy somewhere else? This does not mean that I will never take another short-term mission trip but rather it ensures that my view of missions doesn't become so narrow that others around me become marginalized.

The conclusion for me is that the lens through which I view missions must be panoramic in nature. It starts at home and then necessarily extends to the nations. Because of the opportunities to serve overseas or in other states that are often placed before us, it is easy to have our heart strings pulled in that direction before we can even gain a firm footing on the needs that exist right now in front of us. Let's not be so consumed with traveling over there before we have first loved our community in Jesus' name right here.

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