If you’re organizing or participating on a short-term mission trip, you probably spend a lot of time raising money or planning for your “project.” Your project might be building a house, roofing a dorm in an orphanage, or some other physical way to assist in a needy community. These projects are necessary and a huge blessing, but they are not what is most important. It’s good to recognize this, discuss this, and encourage your missions team to remember why they go. Ultimately, it’s all about representing Jesus well.
When I first started bringing teams to Mexico on weekend trips, I would only focus on having our team do a quality construction job for the orphanage where we were serving. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; anything we do for the Kingdom and to serve others should be a quality job. In whatever we do, we are representing Christ and the church. After I had lead three or four trips, a good friend of mine pulled me aside and we had a conversation that I remember almost word for word. I felt like we were making an impact on that orphanage through the construction and painting projects we were working on. My friend asked this question: “In ten years, will these children remember that we painted the wall? Or will they remember the time we spent with them playing soccer, sharing a meal, and listening to what is going on in their lives?” That one conversation stuck with me and has had a dramatic impact on my ministry work over the last twenty-five years.
One of the many privileges of hosting hundreds of short-term missions teams over the years is being able to observe the differences in the groups. We’ve been able to see a wide range of aptitudes, attitudes, funding, skill sets, goals, and all the details that set groups apart. Sometimes these things set them apart for good reasons, many times for bad.
Without a doubt, our favorite groups are the groups that understand the bigger picture. They come down focused on working on a project and doing a quality job, but they realize that the projects themselves are irrelevant. The construction projects, the home builds, and the painting projects are just tools to build relationships. They understand that we are all in this together and they (or we) do not have everything figured out. Humility goes a very long way in missions work.
It is so important to remember that in the grand scheme of things; our physical projects are irrelevant to the relationships that we build. The activities we might organize are irrelevant to our heart behind them, and our heart for the people that we are proposing to serve. Lives are touched by people, not stuff. Does a child care more about a new soccer uniform, or the fact that his parent was present at every game through the season? When a casserole is brought to a grieving family, the quality of the dish might matter, but the fact that an individual would put forth the effort and deliver the meal to the grieving family means so much more. It’s all about relationships.
I network with a lot of international ministries and every year my team hosts a tremendous amount of visiting short-term mission groups. We have one group that really stands out for all the right reasons. It’s a fairly large church from the middle of Iowa. Every year they send large teams into our town and over the course of two weeks build between two or three houses for needy families in our area. If that was all they did that would be plenty. These houses are a huge blessing in our community and a tremendous witness to all those involved in the project, and the surrounding area. But this group from Iowa really “gets” that it is not about the houses. They do a quality job, but they also go out of their way to build a relationship with the families they are serving.
This Iowa church shares meals with the family, and the family usually prepares a few meals for the group. They invite the families to come back with them and spend time around the campfire. Every year when they come back, the leaders go around and visit the families that they’ve met in prior years. Sometimes this group even sends packages down for birthdays, graduations, etc. for the children in the families. A couple of years ago they took it to another level. They realized that over time they had built about thirty houses, so they planned an evening and invited all the families to come together for a potluck and games with the kids. Their dinner is now an annual event and a big deal in our town.
I, and the many people in the full-time missions field, could not do our work without the groups working on projects, putting up buildings, etc. I like a quality project, but I know that it’s just brick, wood, and paint. It’s not what is MOST important. Jesus never painted a wall. Jesus never built a house for someone. Jesus listened. He encouraged. He asked, “what do you seek?” Jesus was (and is) all about relationships. He sets the perfect model for all of us to follow.
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