Are short-term mission trips an appropriate use of church resources? Do they help or hinder long-term mission efforts? These are important questions, but I am going to set them aside for another time and make the safe bet that your congregation is involved in some sort of short-term mission or service trip at least once a year. If that is the case and you are a church leader, then I want to encourage you to go on that trip. Even if you have doubts about the effectiveness or the efficiency of the effort, there are good reasons for you to attend. In these articles I want to share what I have learned by joining such trips over the last twenty years.
- You will have pastoral opportunities that you would not otherwise have. When you work and travel alongside other the members of your church family the focus is usually on anything except pastoral ministry. Oddly, this seems to increase the effectiveness of pastoral counsel. Typically, church leaders interact with the flock in “religiously structured” environments. We teach classes; we meet in offices; we make visits; we meet and greet at worship. These can be quite effective but the time is often limited. Furthermore, the structured environments are a barrier to some of our flock–and also to some of us leaders. In other words, people can keep up their “church face” for a few hours each week and never dig into the internal dynamics of discipleship. On a mission trip our time together is structured by the work, and the “church face” cannot hold forever. I recall one mission trip where I spent an entire day working with one brother. He and I would not have had the time to discuss our lives and faith without this day of work. He also understood that when I am on “church duty” I am not as accessible and he appreciated the opportunity to work, talk, and pray.
- You get to be ordinary. If you are a church leader who centers your identity of the special titles and privileges of “the clergy class” then you might want to skip this point. This might be worthy of another article, but I have never been comfortable with the formal reverence and semi-divine expectations of church leaders. I believe in respect and responsibility, but I refuse to pretend that I am anything other than an ordinary man who follows Jesus. Mission trips are the great equalizer, especially when you travel and live in close quarters. Church members get to see leaders in a different light when we spend time together. Thanks to social media (which is often unreal), even members of my church family who did not go with me on a recent trip got to see me power through an Ambien-induced stupor at 2:00 a.m. to board the plane home. Whether they were laughing at me, with me, or admiring me, one thing was certain: they know I am just an ordinary guy.
- You get to be cool. When you join the young people in your congregation on any sort of trip, they learn that you are approachable. With the exception of youth ministers, the young people do not typically get as much access to church leaders. Mission trips and multi-day events allow us to build relationships. If you want to be more effective in your preaching, teaching, and counsel to young people it is important to build the relationships that authenticate your messages. All that is required is being real. I did not seek to improve my image among the youth of our church on one of my recent trips, but it was satisfying at the end of the trip to hear one of them young men tell me, “You’re pretty cool for a preacher.”
These are some of the reasons that our involvement in mission trips is beneficial to our ministry among our own church family. In part two I will share some observations on how our involvement opens us up to God’s work in the world we share.