The wrong perspective of coming back from a short-term missions trip

I don’t mean to step on anyones’ toes here, but I think it might inevitably just happen.  Often, whenever someone is telling me about their experience from a short-term missions trip that they have taken, they almost always say something like, “This trip was life changing, for it sure made me appreciate much more what I have here.”  Although I kind of understand the reason for saying that, after all, many of these people are seeing poverty up close and personal for the first time ever, I really don’t think that this is the main perspective that we are supposed to be taking away from such an experience.  I don’t think the main reason why God calls us to serve in another country (whether long-term or short-term) is so that we can come back home and realize just how blessed we are to live in the United States. Yet that’s the main thing that many people say when they get back from such a trip. I think that kind of thinking keeps the focus of the mission trip on us, instead of being on God.  I also don’t think it gives dignity and value to other countries and peoples of the world.

Comparing our life to the life of another, or our country to that of another, should be the last thing on our minds when it comes to missions. Think about it:  It is a mission trip. There is a mission involved.  And this mission has nothing whatsoever to do with comparing socio-economic strata between one nation and another. The mission has to do with people hearing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and seeing it lived out in front of them through intentional preaching/teaching as well as through self-less giving and service.  Our mission, whether for short-term or long-term service, is to bring the light of the glory of God to the peoples of the world.

But think about this for a moment. When a person says something like, “Man, it sure makes me thankful for what I have in my own life”, essentially what is being said, but just in a nicer package is, “I’m sure glad that I don’t have to live like those people.”  And who is the focus upon when such statements are made? “I”.  And therein lies the problem.  Missions is not about me. Missions is about God.  If I return from a mission trip and the main point that I have taken home with me is that I am so blessed to live in the land of the free, then I have really missed the mission all together.  But, if I return from a trip and the main point that I have taken is that I am simply in awe that God’s name was proclaimed to a people of a different language and culture than my own, and I saw His love and truth touch lives, then I have indeed gotten the point  of what the mission was all about.  It is all about Him. It is not about me.

Also, the real definition of poverty goes far beyond what material one’s house is made of, whether or not they wear shoes, or what kind of clothes they are wearing.  The real issue of poverty has to do with a person’s perceived self worth and value. When we go on a short-term missions trip to impoverished areas, if we are thinking about ourselves and thinking “man, I’m just so glad that I don’t have to live in such conditions”, we are inevitably, though I’m sure not intentionally, just adding to the poverty of that person or people group.  For in thinking about ourselves, we are automatically making a clear distinction between “us” and “them.”  And don’t think that a person does not know and feel when such a distinction is being made. And in doing so, we are inevitably just giving more power to the negative view that they may already have of themselves.

What is the solution to this, whether in looking at short-term missions or long-term missions?

First, we must see things the way God sees things.  The greatest poverty a person can have is a spiritual poverty. And we all have, at one point or another, been spiritually bankrupt. Lost. Without hope. Not knowing the love of a Savior. Impoverished. That describes each and every human being on the face of this earth. There is really no “us” and “them”.  We are all “us”, spiritually impoverished people who are in great need of a Savior. Helpless babes dependent on our merciful creator. It is only by the grace and mercy of God that our eyes have been opened and we have been brought into relationship with Him through faith and trust in Jesus Christ. So, what is the point of the mission trip? To go and share that good news with others. To joyfully reach out to every single person and let them know that they too have the opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life because there is a God who loves them so much.  The mission has nothing to do with social-economic status.

Second, we must see the way God sees things. Yes, I know I said that was the first thing. It is also the second, third, fourth, etc.  God’s Word is our source of truth. When we see things that way He sees them, we then operate in a way that builds up others and brings glory and honor to His name.  Often, we tend to judge others based on the things that we see without even really getting to know them. So, on a mission trip, we might enter a little village and see tiny huts or houses with lots of dust and garbage all around, and we think, “Wow, this person lives in such a small house made with broken bricks and corrugated metal.  They are living in poverty.”  And so, without even getting to know the people living inside, we have already made a judgment that they are living in poverty and we begin to think how thankful we are to God that we don’t have to live like that. And we have automatically made a distinct separation between “us” and “them”. Let’s stop for just a second here and analyze this:  We don’t even know the people. We don’t know the gifts and talents that they may or may not have. We don’t know the knowledge that they may or may not possess. We don’t know the joy that they may or may not be filled with. We don’t know the faith in God that may or may not consume their lives, perhaps even putting our own faith, knowledge, or joy to shame. But yet, we have judged them, made a distinction, and are already thanking God that we don’t have to live like “them”.  But all we really did was look at the houses they live in. Nothing else.  My wife said it so well at one point years ago when we were discussing this issue. If this is what we are doing, then basically we are saying “I thank the Lord that I have more bricks than you do. I feel sorry that you do not have many bricks. And as one that has a lot more bricks than you do, I am here to help you.” Can you see how  preposterous this sounds?  But that is basically what we are doing. We somehow make a distinction and a judgment, and we return home with the overarching thought, “Whew…Lord, I’m so thankful that I have a lot of bricks.”

It very well can be that the family inside that home is a Christ following family, filled with the joy of the Lord, possessing a lot of knowledge and skill, with a heart of thanksgiving and gratitude, perhaps a family that, had you the opportunity to get to know them, would have made you return home saying, “Lord, I wish I had what that family has.” Perhaps we are missing out on some tremendous blessings because we are too preoccupied thinking about ourselves and what we have instead of seeing the value within.

But, it also can be that the family living inside that home has great problems. Perhaps they are living in despair. Perhaps they feel worthless and therefore have no motivation to get a job. Perhaps they are living in a country where the corruption and control of the government makes them feel this way.  They feel beaten and defeated. Hopeless.  Again, the focus should not be upon us and making comparisons of the haves and the have nots. True poverty runs much deeper than the amount of bricks one owns. It has to do with dignity and self-worth. So, making comparisons and judgments is only going to add to such a person’s poverty. Instead, we should be doing everything we can to share with them their God given dignity and worth. We put ourselves right at their same level, for we are at the same level, letting them know that their is a God who loves them and gave Himself for them. We seek to restore to them the dignity that has been stolen.  And we cannot do this unless we put our judgments and distinctions aside, enter their homes and their world, and be about the mission for which we were sent – to tell them of a Savior who loved them so much that He suffered death on a cross so that they could be brought near to God for eternity. This is what the mission is about. This is what will truly start alleviating poverty.

So, should you get the privilege of going on a short-term mission trip to another country, perhaps one that is a poor country, just remember that the mission is not about you, not about comparing between what “you” have and what “they” sadly lack, and not about returning with thanks that “you” have so much to be thankful for compared to what “they” don’t have. But rather it is all about God.  It is about getting the privilege to share with another how deeply loved they are by God. It is about restoring their dignity that has been lost somewhere along the way, just like ours was at one time or another.  The simplest definition of Christianity that I have ever heard…”Christianity is about one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”  That is our mission.  Let’s be faithful to bring the bread to the nations and come home rejoicing that other beggars like ourselves are now feasting at the table of the Lord.  Who cares about bricks?