WE DON’T NEED YOUR ORGANIC GARDEN

pexels-photo-348689Many short-term mission teams come with their own pre-planned ideas and agendas; this is fine as long as they mesh with the goals of the ministry they’re serving. Sometimes these goals and agendas are questionable at best. Sometimes they can be harmful to the goals that have been laid out by the receiving ministries and communities.

We once had a well-meaning group ask us about building some very large chicken coops bordering on a professional size operation. On the surface, it sounded great. “Sweet, free eggs for the orphanage”, but something in my gut said this was a mistake. It was outside our vision, and nobody on our staff had the skills or time to manage it. As a team, we decided to move ahead with the project, but it felt like a weight was added to our already complicated days. This highly motivated group spent tens of thousands of dollars and several months setting up “the chicken project.” When they were done and gone, we had around 400 chickens producing eggs. Once again, on the surface, this sounds great. With several months of egg production under our belt, we did the numbers. After paying for extra staffing, feed, utilities, sick birds, etc. it was MUCH cheaper and simpler to just go buy eggs. We wound up eating a lot of chicken over the next six months and eventually converted the chicken barns into something we could actually use.

If you, or your missions team, have an idea for a project, one of your first steps should always be communication. Talk with your receiving organization to see if the idea is something that would actually serve the ministry. Your idea might be great, but if it doesn’t match the vision and skill sets of the people you’re serving, it’s just a great idea that will eventually die off. They need to REALLY get on board, not just say “yes” to make you happy. The receiving organization has to have somebody on their team who is excited about your idea and willing to manage it.

Mission projects tend to come in trends. Many years ago everyone wanted to install computer labs. Right now the project everyone is pushing is hydroponic or organic gardens. Using computer labs and gardens as an example, unless someone is staying behind, or the ministry has someone on staff with a vision to maintain it, it’s wasted effort and funding. Orphanages and schools around the world had computer labs set up ten or fifteen years ago that quickly gathered dust because no one on site had the IT knowledge or desire to keep them up. I’ve seen dozens of hydroponic gardens either rotting away or torn down to have the materials used for other projects. Computer labs and gardens CAN work and be a huge blessing, but only if the receiving ministry has someone on staff to see it through. 

Is your project something they want? Or is this great project YOUR idea that would work “if only they did their part.”  Many receiving organizations will say yes to a project because they feel obligated. They don’t want to offend. It took me a long time realize it’s better to risk offending someone with a great idea than to say “yes” to be polite and suffer through it.

Every couple of weeks, a different person contacts me about setting up a pen-pal project between the children in our orphanage and a school in the US. On the surface, this sounds nice, and I know the people mean well, but this makes NO sense on several levels. My first thought is: “You have heard of this thing called the internet and Facebook right?” To spend time and money to mail letters back and forth doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Also, just as I know this is a homework project for a US Spanish class, my kids see it as the same thing, another homework project they do NOT want to do. A pen-pal program would also require one of my staff to manage it: sorting letters, badgering our kids to write back, mailing everything, etc. One more great idea that we would have to manage together with our already overworked staff.

I know I sometimes offend people when I say “no” to a project. Sometimes they seem crushed that I’m not thrilled with their idea. I hate to discourage anyone from serving, but sometimes I need to say “no” for the good of our staff, and the children in our care. It’s so much better to have people spend their time, energy, and resources to come alongside a ministry with a project that is needed. To build a relationship, bless them, and partner with them in work they’re called to do.

Communication is critical in so many areas of our lives. Honest conversations are all too rare. When you layer the mission team goals, cultural differences, the pressure to keep “donors” happy, communication can be extremely difficult. Your mission project idea might be incredible, but unless the people receiving this project are honestly on board, nobody comes out ahead. You will be wasting efforts and resources.

As for the idea of chickens… Years after the “chicken incident” an older gentleman on our maintenance staff asked if he could get a few birds. He patched some coops together using scrap wood and started the project with almost no funding, but he “owned” the project. Within a few months, he had about 15 birds and a nice little egg production going for our home. Later a group came alongside his vision and helped him grow to about 50 birds. It was the right time, with someone on-site with the skills and vision to run with it. We finally got a chicken project that worked.

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Social Media and Short-term Missions

twitter-facebook-together-exchange-of-information-147413In today’s culture, it’s obvious that social media is huge. Almost every one of us is on two, three, or more, social media platforms. Social media is an enormous part of society and our lives. It’s important to look at how we use our accounts, what our motivations are, and what’s the impact of sharing so many moments of our lives.

A good friend of mine is a social media animal: daily funny/sarcastic posts, posts about his extensive missions work, his life is VERY public. At one point we were driving together, and he mentioned something about the prison ministry that he was running. We’ve known each other for years, and we’re pretty transparent with each other, but I had no idea he had a prison ministry. It was NEVER on social media, and he never talked about it. When I asked him why he’d never shared about this, his response opened up a lengthy discussion. “The prison ministry is between me, God, and the people I minister to. No one else needs to know.” What a concept, doing something that doesn’t get broadcast to the world. I proposed to him that even the apostle Paul wrote about the work he was doing and that by sharing, it was an encouragement to others to serve also. But my friend held to his response: “This one area is between God and myself, that’s enough.”

What are our motivations when we share online? Pride and humility are fundamental issues in everyone’s on-going battle with sin. Why are we sharing so much with others? To build them up, or build ourselves up? How many of us have seen (or taken) that cliche photo of the open Bible on the table alongside a cup of coffee, with the caption sharing about our “quiet-time.” When I see this photo, I always get the feeling the person taking it spent more time setting up the photo than actually reading the bible. What are we saying with these edited, high-light versions of our lives? Is it really about God and others? Or are we trying to show everyone how spiritual we are?

Not everything about social media is bad. With long-term missionaries, social media has changed the whole dynamic of fundraising. The long (usually boring) quarterly “missionary support letter” has been replaced by Facebook and other social media tools. A missionary can now give real-time updates to supporters and let them know about the great work that is going on. Working in a developing country with no mail service, Facebook has made it so much easier to stay in touch with children we’ve raised over the years in our orphanage. When used correctly, social media can be a powerful tool. But any tool can be used for good, or for questionable purposes.

There is a lot of discussion in short-term mission circles about the use of social media by people on short-term trips. Does it help promote the ministries and causes, or just promote the people going on the trips? As a host, I’ve seen way too many people work hard to get the dramatic photo with a poor child, but show little heart or compassion for the child they were supposed to be serving. Sometimes a person will stage the perfect photo holding a brick, wheelbarrow, or paintbrush, only to wander off and let others work on the project. No one’s Facebook feed is completely honest, but if our primary goal is looking good online, we have a real problem. We are seeking to please man, and not God.

One other pitfall of posting so many short-term missions photos is that, if we’re not very careful, we can reduce the people we claim to be serving to nothing more than props for our photos. It can be profoundly demeaning. I doubt you would feel comfortable with someone coming to your home and taking random pictures to show others how impoverished you are, or how cool they were for visiting you.

The next time you’re heading out on a mission trip, please spend some time thinking through and discussing a “photo policy” for both yourself and your team. Maybe miss the perfect selfie but really talk to the people you’re there to serve. Think about leaving your camera behind and try getting to know the people on your team. Live in the moment. Take in the sights, smells, and feelings of what you’re doing, instead of documenting everything for later publication.

Humble service is a big deal to God. If our first reaction to serving others is to post it on social media, this says a great deal about the maturity of our servant’s heart. I confess, I like to post things online; there is nothing inherently wrong with social media unless we make it that way. Anything we’ve been given can be used to glorify God, or glorify something else. Choose wisely.

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Maybe You’re NOT Called into Missions

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God can use anyone. He wants to use us in ways we can only begin to imagine. God can, and does, use everyone who makes themselves available and open to His will. But, it needs to be in His will and His timing. We all have different giftings and talents; not everyone can do every job.

We host a lot of groups here at our ministry in Mexico, almost three hundred groups a year. For most people, short-term missions is a mountaintop experience, an experience that has a tangible impact on their lives. Frequently, when people are out of their comfort zone and the distractions of everyday life, God can and does speak to them in new ways. More often than not, IF a person has a call on their lives for full-time missions work, they will first hear that calling on a short-term trip. I’ve never met anyone in long-term missions, that didn’t start with a short-term mission trip. So, if you’re on a mission trip, and feel called long-term, what do you do?

Almost every group we host has one person who comes to my office and asks about staying long-term to partner with us. We love that people are open to the idea of long-term missions and a life of service. But, when people are on a short-term trip and immediately want to transfer it into a long-term commitment, we find this tends to be an emotional decision. God might be speaking to them, or it might just be them caught up in the emotions of the moment. How do you know the difference?

When someone approaches me on a trip about long-term missions, I always meet with them, try to encourage them, and give them all of the pertinent information. I also tell them to go away for about thirty days. If, after a month, they still feel called, then it might be real. I don’t want them deciding in the moment. To commit to a mission for six months, a year, or longer is a huge decision. If it’s not done in the right way, a person’s desire to serve can sometimes do more harm than good.

If you feel called into a long-term mission (6 months or longer) there are a few things you should do. Before anything else, go to the person in your life who REALLY knows you, and you see as a leader. This person might be your pastor, youth pastor, mentor, or some other person you trust completely. It needs to be a person who will be honest with you. The hope is that if your personality or skill sets are not ready for the missions field, they will speak the truth to you. If they think you do have the right motivation, skills, and calling, they can help you take the next steps.

If you feel called into missions, honestly ask yourself whether or not you have a humble servants heart. This will make all the difference. Everyone thinks they have a humble, servant attitude until they’re asked to serve. It can be very challenging to be self-aware in this area; this is another reason to seek wise counsel. Are you living a life of service now? If you’re not serving those in your church, your school, your work, your town, you won’t suddenly develop a servant’s heart once you cross the border. Just because you change location doesn’t mean your personality and priorities will change. In every way, your baggage travels with you.

Humble service is a big deal to God and essential in missions. As we go into the mission field, we need to represent Christ well and walk in His steps. If we look at the life of Jesus, He was all about service. Humble service. Very often, when He did great acts, He would instruct those around Him to tell no-one. Every action Jesus took was for the benefit of others, are you ready to walk in the same way?

You might be called into missions, even if it’s just for a season in your life. Please be open to that calling and seek competent counsel. If it’s right, and the calling is real, it will change your life in ways you can only imagine, and you will find a joy that few people experience. If you think you’re called into missions, and it’s from the wrong motivations or the timing is not right, you can do a great deal of damage. Please seek God, and make a mature, informed decision.

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Photo credit: Pat Rogers: Pat Rogers Studios

American Exceptionalism and Mission Trips

sunset-flag-america-fieldsAfter 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 Angles 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 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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Where is Your Missions Gold?

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Few things generate more of an immediate and emotional response than the topic of money. People have a natural, deep response to finances and the material wealth of this world. Where and how we use our resources shows where our hearts are.

Interestingly, Jesus taught more on our response to money and worldly treasure than almost any other topic. Our attitude toward money is important to God, and it comes up over and over again in the Bible. The rich young ruler, the parable of the talents, and the workers in the field, are all there to teach us the attitude we should have when it comes to money. There is nothing inherently wrong with money, it’s how we deal with it that gets complicated. One of the most misquoted Bible verses is 1st Timothy 6:10. It doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil, but rather the LOVE of money. Money matters, but what matters more is our response to it. It’s a big topic and we need to be mature and wise about it.

Jesus taught us that where our gold is, our heart will also be. Money in missions has a HUGE impact, so how we raise it, how we distribute it, and how to be responsible stewards of the limited money that exists are extremely important. Whenever I meet with orphanage directors or missions leaders, the topic of fundraising always comes up. The reality is that missions cost money. Money to care for children at risk, money to feed the needy, money to educate, etc.

Several years ago, we hosted a large group from the southeast US at our orphanage in Baja, Mexico. This is one of many groups, but this one group stood out for the wrong reasons. They flew 30 people across the US to southern California, rented vans, and drove down to serve with us for five days. We were happy to have them. Most groups bring some type of funding to cover materials for projects while they’re with us. This group brought $500 to use for projects and to bless our home. We appreciate any donation, but when I heard what they were doing the two days after they left us it struck me as odd. The group of 30 traveled three hours north of us to finish out their missions trip spending two days at Disneyland. There is nothing wrong with visiting Disneyland, but my guess is that those two days cost the group around $9,000 in tickets lodging and food. When the team was raising money to go and serve orphans in Mexico, were they transparent in letting donors know how much of the money would be spent on non-missional activity? Even if they spent their own money on the extras for the trip, is that the most productive use of their resources while on a missions trip?

A few years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to go and serve with an orphanage in Ghana West Africa. We had some very long conversations about the cost of this trip. My wife and I have over two decades of experience in running a very large orphanage. We felt we were bringing something of value to the home in Ghana, and that we could make a substantial impact. We also knew that it would cost around $5,000 for the two of us to take this trip. We had to decide what would be the best use of those funds. Should we pay our way with the intention of blessing that home in the two weeks we’re with them? Or should we just send them a check for $5,000? We had a responsibility to be good stewards of the funds we had available. In the end, we decided to go, and I’m glad we did. I believe the coaching we provided helped in their fundraising and generated ten times as much for that ministry as we spent to get there. We also decided to leave a financial donation to be used in any way they saw fit. I’m not sharing this to show how “generous” we are. I’m sharing this because I think it’s a great policy to leave a substantial donation with whoever is hosting your short-term missions team. Call it “tithing in on travel expenses” if you like.

We are called to be wise in our decisions and use of the resources we’ve been entrusted with. God wants us to make the most of the funds available to us. We need to seek healthy organizations wherever we’re serving. Organizations that we partner with need to have a high level of accountability, a history of productive work, and have shown responsible stewardship of the resources made available to them.

Be careful where you put your gold, your heart will follow.

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Your Missions Project Doesn’t Matter

pexels-photo-298297If you’re organizing or participating on a short-term missions 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. Thier 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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Expectations in Marriage and Missions

pexels-photo-94953The church in America is an interesting animal. Over the years the church has done some incredibly positive work and at the same time, if we’re honest, the church has done a lot of damage. One ongoing and problematic issue the church has is that it tends to have a pack mentality. The church tends to embrace whatever the current trend is. Whether it’s calling for the prohibition of alcohol one hundred years ago, the rabid opposition to secular music about 30 years ago, or the spike in end-time studies that seems to come around every 10 or 15 years, the church follows trends.

One of the current trends in the church (besides coffee houses and pallets EVERYWHERE) is to question the value of short-term missions. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot to question, but there is also a great deal of positive when done right. Missions have been a double-edged sword through most of the history of the church. Missions have done a tremendous amount of good, and some deep damage, but missions are an important part of our faith. We’ve been instructed to “go into all the world.” We have a responsibility and calling to serve others. It’s important we take an honest look at missions and do it correctly, lovingly, and with a humble heart.

If one looks at marriage as an institution and judges it on the end results, it would be very easy to mount an argument for abolishing it. Marriage is messy. Marriage is difficult. A healthy marriage is complicated requiring ongoing effort. Frequently, marriages require outside counsel and guidance. Way too many marriages ultimately end badly. Way too often there is intentional or even unintentional abuse. All that being said, very few people in the church would say the institution of marriage should come to an end. When marriage works and both parties are serving with humility, understanding, and a desire to build each other up, the institution of marriage can be a spectacular gift from God. If people enter into marriage with selfish motivations or unrealistic expectations, it makes a healthy marriage incredibly difficult if not impossible. How we prepare and enter into marriage sets the foundation for a healthy loving endeavor, and God is glorified.

Okay, now go back through that last paragraph and wherever you see the word “marriage” replace it with the phrase “short-term missions.” Short-term missions are messy, can cause deep harm and they require a great deal of effort. All these things are accurate. But, when it does work well short-term missions, like marriage, can be an incredible gift from God that changes the lives of those involved for the better. It is worth all the effort.

When a marriage does end in divorce, it usually comes down to one of a few issues. I recently read one theory that the majority of failed marriages are because of unmet expectations: “I thought marriage would solve my loneliness.” “I thought you would be a better homemaker.“ “I thought you would be a better provider.” “I thought it would be different.” When our high expectations bump up against reality, it can be very easy to be disappointed. When people go on short-term missions with unrealistic expectations, the same thing happens, disappointment and discouragement. The trip can be seen as a failure. 

When planning or participating in a short-term missions trip, it’s so important to set realistic goals and expectations. Once the goals and expectations have been defined, it needs to be communicated to everyone involved, while realizing the importance of flexibility. It’s very rare when our expectations happened to line up with what God has planned. This conflict of expectations and reality can cause profound disappointment in any situation if we don’t have the right outlook.

We once had a home-building team come down to Baja with the goal of building a house in four days. This project was highly ambitious, but they were up to the challenge and very focused. About 30 minutes into the project the power in the town went out bringing the project to a stop (when the power goes out it’s usually for a full day) They could have been upset and judged their first day as a failure, but they had realistic and flexible expectations. They were willing to flow with whatever was thrown at them knowing very little was under their control. This team was great. They spent the day playing soccer with a few local teens and the family receiving the house. It turned out to be the best day of their trip with some real ministry going on and relationships being built. Building a relationship is much better than building a house. By not being tied to their specific expectations, they had a tremendously successful trip.

Like marriage, short-term missions is a huge blessing wrapped in a challenge. The enemy doesn’t like marriages or missions, and he will do what he can to destroy them both. By being mature, and having realistic expectations in anything we approach in this life, God will guide us into blessings that are way beyond what our expectations might be.

Short-term missions, when led in a healthy way, can change lives for all those involved. You can teach your team members the importance of working in complicated situations, being flexible in whatever comes their way, and seeking God’s will in any situation. By teaching your team the importance of controlling and managing their expectations, you will set them up for success in whatever life brings them: in missions, in marriage, and in life.

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