After living outside the US for a while, I thought I had the whole “America is better” thing sorted out. I was wrong. It’s one thing to realize that America doesn’t have it all figured out, it becomes very real when you travel to other countries. When you carefully observe your surroundings while traveling, you realize that America doesn’t have all the answers. It’s healthy to experience this. Humility is good.
There are some things that the US does very well, but we have a lot to learn. A few years ago I was traveling back from South Africa. The Johannesburg airport in South Africa is an architectural marvel: graceful design, incredible dining, great shopping, a reasonably priced attached hotel, this airport has it all. From Johannesburg I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport: modern, efficient, beautifully designed, it’s very impressive. From there I landed at Los Angeles International Airport(LAX) which is pretty much a third world country, what a pit. LAX is rundown, horribly designed, and once you get out of the inefficient facility, your first impression of the US is blocks of porn shops. “Welcome to America.” I know airports are an odd example where the US is a little behind, and maybe I’m the last one to realize this, but there are simple examples like this everywhere.
Sometimes it’s the little details we see when traveling that make us go “why can’t we do this at home?” In Mexico, they have a very different system for traffic lights. They still use red, yellow, and green BUT they’ve found a simple way to make them work to help traffic flow better. In the US the lights jump from green to yellow requiring a quick reaction: “Slam on the brakes or gun it?” In Mexico, as the green is approaching the end of its time, it starts to blink, letting everyone know yellow is coming up soon. Simple difference, a significant improvement.
There are a lot of ways to judge a country. I am an American, and I’m proud to be an American, but I also understand America is far from perfect. In many basic areas, we rank way down the list worldwide. Of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world, we’re in the last place with infant mortality rates. When compared to the bulk of “first world countries” we rank well down the list in income discrepancies, math and science education, healthcare, internet access, etc.. Pretty much the only area we consistently rate near the top worldwide is obesity rates.
In our day-to-day lives if we attend the same church, go to the same job, hang out with the same people, even visit the same websites every day, it’s easy to live in our own little bubble and think everything is OK. If we only spend time with people who look, think, and act a lot like us, it’s challenging to have an accurate view of humanity, and the world as a whole. We need to get out and meet people in other areas, walk the streets of a foreign city, and watch the news about America from a different country. Until we see the bigger picture, it can be hard to truly understand the world, how it interacts, how it functions, and how we fit into the mix.
If we go on a mission trip, it’s usually motivated by one or two primary goals: Spreading the gospel and/or filling needs through service to people in developing countries. Both of these are valid, but the side benefit of serving in other countries is that it broadens our horizons. It helps us to have an accurate picture of where we stand in the world. We have a lot to offer, and we have a lot to learn. From an evangelistic standpoint, most countries people travel to on mission trips have heard the Gospel. In Mexico, Central America, most of Africa, etc. missionaries have been sharing the gospel for years. In many areas of the world, the church today is healthier and more active than most areas of the US. Once again, America doesn’t have it all figured out. Which is why we NEED to go. We need to spend time with, and learn from, others.
Short-term mission trips work in both directions. We, as Americans, have a great deal to offer, and there are countries around the world that have a lot to offer to us. By traveling out on mission trips, we’re able to serve, encourage, and help support people around the world. We also have the privilege of experiencing faith and cultures in ways that we will never experience back home. Through our missions service, we can share with others, build relationships with others, and we will be better for it. If we go with a humble heart and attitude, we might also make the world slightly better. We will come to appreciate each other and the vast differences we each bring to the table, and the Kingdom.
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