The best way to help anyone is to be present in their life. In missions, often our American mentality is that we have to build something, we have to paint something, we need to bring something tangible. Tangible projects and supplies are greatly needed, and they do help, but people are crying out for connection.
People in missions (and in life) need others who will listen, people who will encourage, people who bring dignity to lives. Too often, the people on the receiving end of missions are seen as the “target” of the mission, as opposed to real people who have lives, opinions, and their own walk with God. Maybe, all they need is a loving, compassionate ear. Someone to see them as an equal. Maybe they have something powerful they can share with us if we listen.
Not that long ago, I had a young US pastor in my office while his group was working with the kids in our orphanage. I asked him how he was doing, and he gave me a standard, polite, canned answer. I then asked him again. “NO, HOW-ARE-YOU-REALLY-DOING?” I explained: “I know being the leader can be a lonely, hard experience. I want to know how you’re doing.” His eyes got incredibly wide, and then a little watery. He began to pour out his heart about the pain and loneliness he was feeling, that he felt had no one he could talk to. He shared how hard the last two years of ministry had been on his marriage. The floodgates opened, and I believe it was deeply healing for him. I am not that bright, I don’t give wise counsel, but I was just available and willing to listen. It had been a very long time since this pastor had anyone really listen to him.
To be present in someone’s life takes some effort, but being present is what ultimately changes people’s lives. People remember an emotional connection long after any store-bought gift is long forgotten.
Several years ago, I had just started meeting with a small ministry in Southern California about a ministry partnership. We had met a few times and it was just the start of a relationship, we really didn’t know each other that well. About that time, my father-in-law passed away, and I needed to cancel a meeting with them to attend the graveside service. Halfway through the service, I noticed a gentleman standing a little to the side. One of the leaders of this ministry took the time to drive about an hour to the cemetery, just to be present and see if we needed anything. I was blown away. Who does that? From that point on I was drawn to that ministry and wanted to be part of it.
Often, in short-term missions, and in ministry in general, too many people focus on what they have to give. “I need to give them this message, I need to counsel them, I need to fix this for them.” Sure, people can use help, and it’s good to share the gospel with anyone, but people will be way more receptive if they know you care about them as more than a target for ministry. When you go on a mission trip, it’s good to really spend time with people, to get to know them as individuals with their own rich lives. We all need to see others as people, not projects.
A good friend of mine recently shared this story: “I was discussing the cost of a trip to Cuba with a man of means who considers himself an accomplished missionary. He said it was a waste of money to spend what it costs for transportation, food, and lodging for someplace as close as Cuba, and we’d be better stewards just sending cash. We went anyway. I was given the opportunity to travel to places that haven’t seen an American since the 1950’s, preaching every night for over two weeks in small house churches. The last night, we were in a place that had abandoned American factories rusting all over the village. The pastor came to me in tears and thanked me for coming. He said we were the first Americans to EVER care enough for him to come and share with him and his church. Had we just sent money, he would still not believe that we cared for him. I would have missed out on meeting an incredible man of God.”
If you look at the three stories shared, the pastor in my office, the visit to the cemetery, and my friend’s trip to Cuba, they all have one thing in common. Each story was just people taking the focus off their own goals and agendas and listening. Listening is a lost art. With all the noise and distraction in our world today, taking the time to really listen to others is very rare.
Jesus gives us the perfect example. Before He shared His critical message, He almost always asked about the person in front of Him. “What do you seek?” When He noticed Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus asked to stay in his house. He wanted to spend time with him. Jesus was (and is) all about making personal connections. He’s never seen anyone as only a project; He sees each of us as individuals through eyes of pure grace. He is available to us. We need to do the same with those we encounter. It’s a good model for missions, and life.
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