There’s something a lot of people don’t consider. When your mission team travels to Mexico, Africa, or some other country, you’re probably assuming you’re going to share the Gospel. The reality is, the missionaries and ministries you’re visiting see you as the missions field, they see you as someone who needs to experience the Gospel as you’ve never imagined.
When I took my first trip to Africa, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches. Every city, town, and village seemed to have more than their share of churches representing a wide range of denominational and non-denominational faiths. These churches weren’t just buildings; these churches were full and alive whenever the doors were open. There were Bible verses written on most cars, and about half the billboards were advertising churches or church events. I quickly realized that the people we came to serve already had plenty of people come and share the gospel. The population as a whole was more excited about God than any area I had visited in the U.S. It kind of surprised me. “Wait a minute, I thought we came here to share the Gospel?”
People have been traveling the world sharing the good news for a very long time. At this point, it’s actually kind of hard to find a country where missionaries haven’t been working and sharing for many years. When I was in Malawi, I visited a monument in honor of the missionaries who had come from England in the late 1700’s. I was not bringing a new message. So what was the trip to Africa about?
If you’re following trends, or you’ve been in a church lately, you’ll quickly notice that churches in the U.S. are shrinking and closing at a rate never seen before. In spite of all the programs, activities, and trying to keep up with social changes, people are leaving the church in droves. ( pewforum.org: america’s-changing-religious-landscape/ ) Most of the world now sees the U.S. as the missions field, as an area desperately in need of the Gospel.
Maybe we need to look at “missions” in a new light.
For as long as there have been missionaries, the model has been, “We have the Gospel, we need to go over to that country over there and share this with others.” Maybe we need to flip the tables on missions and say, “Those people, over there, in that country, have a faith that’s deeper, wider, and more life-changing than mine. What can I learn from them?”
Around the world, there are missionaries, ministries, and churches that are alive and thriving. In many countries where churches suffer under persecution or severe poverty, they are trusting God and living out their faith in ways that most Americans have a hard time imagining. When we travel on short-term missions, we have the incredible opportunity to bump up against heroes of the faith who are living, breathing, examples of how the early apostles lived and walked.
I’m not saying U.S. short-term missions teams don’t bring something incredibly valuable to the table. U.S. teams bring technical know-how, skilled labor, and tremendous resources that keep ministries around the world open and operating. There are clinics, schools, and orphanages in the majority of countries that might not be open without the assistance of the teams that travel the world to serve. Through teams visiting, ministries in developing countries can share at a deeper level about their work. They can share the many ways people can partner with them to change lives.
We as a church need to view missions as a reciprocal relationship. A symbiotic partnership where both parties, the teams traveling and the people hosting, have something precious to share with each other. The idea of reciprocal missions brings a level of respect to both parties, seeing each other as valuable and knowledgeable, each in their own way.
So how do we walk in reciprocal missions? As in any healthy relationship, we need to communicate. If you’re planning a trip, try to find out what the real needs of your destination are and how to help in those areas. Once you get to where you’re going, listen. Listen to your host, listen to their stories, attend church with them to experience what church is like for them. It really is OK to attend a church in another country and not have your leader preach, or your team perform a drama. Sometimes, just showing up to experience and support a church can be a profound experience.
When we have a team hosted by our ministry, we hurt for them when they’re “here,” but they’re not present. Their eyes are closed to the opportunities to learn. We have a great team here in Mexico, and we love to share with visiting missions groups. I recently offered to have one of my team share with a group around a campfire and was told, “No, we have our own programs, we don’t need your team.” Every night, they had their same leaders, share the same messages they could have heard at home. They missed a tremendous opportunity.
Go on a mission trip, but go with a little different agenda. Go to serve, but also go as an education, as an opportunity to stretch your faith, your walk, and what your life might be. If we go with a healthy, humble, servant’s attitude, everybody wins.
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