Keeping Missions Fun and Fruitful

June 27th, 2011

“We don’t do fun trips. Only missions.”

I kept waiting for the punch line to come from my youth pastor friend. During his time at that church, he had helped shift his youth group’s focus from ski trips and beach excursions to short-term mission endeavors. They built wheelchair ramps in Tennessee, repaired storm damage in New Orleans, stocked food pantry shelves in South Dakota, and compiled an impressive resume. As word of his ministry spread, his reputation in our region began to grow.

But when he said that his group no longer did “fun trips,” there was no joy in his voice. He was dead serious.

The problem, he explained, is that work trips require such intense planning. Aside from the typical logistics surrounding money and transportation, he had to make sure each team was properly skilled, well-equipped, and safely led. On top of that, he had to make sure that his group of teens with power tools had enough work to keep them from any kind of creative destruction. And his groups spent so much time working that they had little time for anything else.

Adult groups I know tell similar stories. They feel good about serving their neighbors, but are exhausted by the effort. Many of them have given up precious vacation time, only to arrive back at work more tired than when they left the week before.

That’s just the way it goes, many of us think. Jesus gave everything for us. We’re just following his lead.

Well, yes. And no.

While it’s true that Jesus did not hold back in his love for his neighbor, it’s also true that his pattern of life was not a frantic effort to set everything right before he died. We regularly see him draw aside for prayer, or take time to eat a meal with someone, or just sit and talk with people. Serving others was incorporated into a much larger picture of how to love God and others to the fullest.

If we take Jesus’ model seriously, it changes the way we approach our lives of service, including the short-term mission trip.

For starters, Jesus instills in us a healthy dose of humility. He recognized his boundaries, even though he occasionally went beyond them (the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 is a good example). Jesus recognized that he could not save the world by himself, not in his lifetime. Miraculous as his signs were, they were still limited in scope, a mere drop in the ocean of human need.

Our efforts are at least equally limited. We want our mission team members—particularly youth—to feel like they accomplished something with whatever service they offer. And in truth, they usually do. But when set against the scope of human need, even the biggest project amounts to little more than the smallest kindness.

Really living like Jesus doesn’t make us saviors. It makes us servants.

Why does this attitude shift matter? Because it takes the pressure to be the messiah off our shoulders. And it gives us permission to focus not just on the project we want to accomplish, but on the people we are serving. If we take time to let our stories intertwine with theirs, we find that God has been at work long before we came, and will be at work long after we leave.

Short-term mission trips—or any other spiritual retreat, for that matter—teach us how to step out of our normal frantic routine and step into the rhythms of a life with God. Sacrificial service is a part of that life, to be sure. But that life also includes fellowship, community, worship, conversation, rest, and a host of other things we miss if we focus solely on what we can accomplish.

As for my youth pastor friend, he is working once again to blaze new territory. He is recruiting leaders who will be spiritual guides as well as construction bosses. He prepares daily devotional guides that have less to do with the group members' own hard work and more to do with their ability to see God at work among them. His crews still work hard, but their labor has a purpose beyond itself.

At every opportunity, he is inviting participants to pay attention to the rhythms of service and Sabbath, of work and rest. He is convinced that such a pattern, once learned, is transferable beyond the short-term trip and into everyday life.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the joy is returning to his leadership again. Such things tend to happen, when we try to live like Jesus rather than take his place as savior.

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