Embrace the Mess that is Short-Term Missions

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Most people are a complicated jumble of conflicting priorities, values, and reactions. Anyone who has worked with a homeless outreach, done marriage counseling, or worked with teenagers will tell you that the vast majority of people are messy. In a perfect world, things wouldn’t be so difficult. It’s not a perfect world. Not even close. Until we embrace the “messy,” ministry will be an unending exercise in frustration.

On a few occasions, I’ve had the incredible privilege of walking a couple through premarital counseling. Along with the standard bits of wisdom, one of the first things I tell them is not to worry about the wedding itself. The wedding is just a three-hour party. Just as no marriage is perfect, no wedding is perfect. The cake will fall over, the band won’t show up, crazy Aunt Bertha will show up drunk. Invariably more than a few things will go wrong. Weddings are a lot like life, if you expect them to be perfect, then you’re going to be disappointed. We’re better off embracing the messy and flowing with it.

For some reason, many people who organize short term missions, like people who plan weddings, set some fairly unrealistic expectations for what they want to happen. It’s good to work for the best, to have a quality and impactful trip. But more often than not when we go to serve others, it doesn’t always work out the way we planned. Managing our expectations is important. We have a simple choice: We can become frustrated with the difficulties, or we can flow with it and enjoy the mess. We need to realize that God sees a much bigger picture and ultimately very little of what goes on is in our control anyway. Sometimes we’re the mess.

Recently our ministry here in Baja was presented with a special opportunity to serve a local need. A family with three children were living in a small camping trailer with a small shed built next to it. Unfortunately, a small fire turned into a large fire and, although they got out safely, the family lost everything they owned. They are not believers; we saw this as an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate God’s love.

As a side ministry here, we coordinate home construction for needy families in our community. We normally spend months planning a home-build, partnering with groups from the US who help with both funding and labor. The need of this particular family was immediate so we couldn’t follow through with our normal system. We saw it as a wonderful chance for several ministries in our valley to work together to bless this family. At a hastily called meeting with various local ministry leaders, people brought what they could to the table to help this family. One ministry was able to help with some funding, one had some extra doors and windows, several helped with labor. It was inspiring to see everybody step up to help and how the odd mix of ministries worked together. In less than two weeks we were able to build this family a cute little house that was nicer than what had burned down. The body of Christ was working smoothly together to serve those in need. So what could go wrong? Remember, people are messy.

As the teams were finishing as much work on the house as we had resources for, the family realized it wasn’t going to be as nice as they expected. No, we weren’t going to be able to finish out the shower. No, we weren’t going to be able to complete the interior paint or install the doorknobs. The family was given a home that was nicer than what they had before and their reaction was not one of thanksgiving. They were going to complain and push for more. Not exactly the response we expected or wanted. Very messy.

There is a very long history of ministry not turning out the way it’s expected to. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one returns to give thanks and glory to God. Jesus knew that was going to happen, we’re not that bright.

The point of all this is that God almost never guarantees the outcome we are expecting or working towards. That’s not the plan. God calls us to go and do the will of our Father and represent Him well. Being pleasing to God is more than enough. People very likely won’t appreciate our efforts; they might not say “thank you.” The “right number” of people might not come forward at an outreach, the family we build a house for might not be happy with our work. If that bothers us too much we might need to examine our motivation: Are we doing this for the approval of men or of God? If we’re doing it for the approval of men, maybe we’re the ones bringing the mess to the party.

In missions, as in life, God sees a much bigger panorama. In looking back at the house we built that wasn’t appreciated, I can see how God used everything for his purposes. We were called to serve, so we served, that should be plenty. We didn’t receive thanks from the family, but we do believe God was pleased. It also lead to some great discussions: How often does God pour out His blessings on us only to have us reject them, complain, or ask for more?

Go and serve, but always remember who you are truly serving. Embrace and enjoy the messiness.

For information on our home builds, please see: Home building program

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