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.

Please share on Facebook or with your missions pastor, thanks.

The Church Needs to be Infected

pexels-photo-415564To say the church in America is going through challenging times would be an understatement. There are churches on almost every corner but in-spite of all the efforts they are dying as fast as shopping malls and book stores. Most traditional denominations are quite literally dying as congregations age, and the next generation is not embracing the old church model. Fewer millennials attend church on a regular basis than any prior generation and the fastest growing belief system in the US today is atheism. For every church that opens today, four close.

Today more than ever there are hundreds of options competing for our time. It’s common to see people on their phones during church checking social media. As technology increases, there are more and more demands on the few precious hours we have available. This lack of time creates a huge challenge for the American church. How do you compete with the unlimited activities and interests screaming for our time, attention, and involvement? How do you break through the noise? The default reaction is to make the church as “friendly” as possible by adding more coffee houses, spending more on worship, and remodeling the stage to be as Pinterest friendly as possible. This is not working.

So, how do we reach people at a deeper level? We need to let them see and experience others who are on fire for Jesus. Short-term missions can do this. The standard model for missions is “let’s go and tell that group of people over there about the Gospel.” It might be time for us to flip that model to “Let’s go over there and experience a level of faith we have a hard time finding at home.” Maybe, just maybe, if we go out with an open mind, something different might happen. If we go out with the attitude of “Yes, we’re here to serve, but what can I learn from these people who are so on-fire for God?”

Years ago, before vaccinations, if a child had chickenpox, it was common for the moms in the area to get together and have all the kids hang-out so they could infect each other. It was much better to have chickenpox as a child than maybe have it later as an adult. By spending time with someone who’s been infected, the children were much more likely to develop the disease. By hanging out with anybody who’s contagious, we are more likely to catch whatever they are carrying. Faith acts the same way. We can read about it, be preached at, maybe even be exposed to it through family history or tradition. Until we hang out with someone who is deeply passionate about their faith, someone who has been infected by their experience with Jesus, it’s hard for our faith to become real and personal to us.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog you are a believer, if you’re like the vast majority of believers, you were first drawn to the faith by spending time with someone else who was passionate about their faith and their walk with Jesus. This is truly how faith spreads, one-on-one and relationally. Even if you came to the Lord at a large concert or outreach, odds are you were brought or invited by someone else who had already experienced the joy of walking with Jesus. Can faith sprout spontaneously when someone is reading by themselves or just spending time contemplating the Lord? Absolutely. But it is much more likely to be spread by contact with another believer.

There are churches in America that are doing some incredible things. There are pockets of revival and people of passionate faith anywhere. God is not limited by geography. Just as a plant can survive growing through the cracks of the sidewalk, faith can live anywhere. But for a plant to thrive it needs better conditions, better nutrients, the right climate to grow into the healthy living organism it was intended to be. There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with. We need to be spending time with churches that are on fire, that are going through revival, churches that are passionately in love with Jesus.

Around the world, God is doing incredible work through financially poor, persecuted, understaffed churches. Standing in a church in the middle of Ghana you can experience a level of real, joyful worship that makes anything you can experience in a US mega-church pale in comparison. In a cramped living room in Cuba listening to an “uneducated” pastor preach the gospel makes the best-trained theologian sound dry and feeble by comparison. Hearing the stories of the pure joy experienced by persecuted American missionaries in Muslim countries makes the writings of Paul come alive. The church in America is in desperate need of experiencing faith as a child, faith that is all consuming, faith as God intended our relationship with Him to be.

If we hang out with people who eat too much, we will eat too much. If we hang out with people who exercise, we will exercise more. If we hang out with people who are cynical and sarcastic, those traits will grow in our own lives. Faith works in the same way. If we spend time with people who are passionate about their walk with Jesus and are truly living it out, we will be drawn to do the same. If our church spends time and builds relationships with churches experiencing revival, with churches trusting in God at a deeper level, our church will be healthier. Short term missions can help to save the church in America.

By taking teams to other parts of the world and learning how to serve others, ultimately it can change the lives of the teams that go. The phrase that comes up over and over again from short-term missions teams is “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” Obviously, they’re not talking about material wealth; they’re leaving with something so much more valuable. The teams are leaving with a renewed and energized faith. In the grand scheme of things, their renewed faith is something extremely more valuable than any skills, supplies, or financing they might have brought to their destination countries. They leave infected.

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.

Please share on Facebook or with the missions leaders at your church.

Missions Funding Can Transform Communities

cashRecently, I spent some time with a few adults who were raised in our orphanage. All of them have been out on their own for a while, mostly doing pretty well. I asked them about their opinions and feelings on the hundreds of short-term missions teams they’ve experienced. It turned into a very long conversation, almost all of it positive. One of the things they discussed among themselves was the sheer economic impact short-term missions have had in our community.

We are a fairly small town, about three thousand people. In our community, there are two orphanages, a large free clinic, men’s and a woman’s rehab center, a career skills training center, and a free-of-charge daycare center. All of these ministries are supported by, and through, the short-term missions teams that come and visit our community. Many of the restaurants, mini-marts, hardware stores, etc. are open today, and are supported by, the sheer volume of short-term teams that come to serve in our area. Collectively, more people are employed in our town, either directly or indirectly, through short-term missions than any other “industry” in our area. Is this the norm for most communities? No, absolutely not, but in areas with fewer teams visiting, the teams that do visit can have an even greater impact. By purchasing food, building supplies, and whatever your team might need locally, you are providing jobs and pumping the local economy with fresh funds they would not see otherwise. There is a reason every city in America fights for convention business, people traveling to an area bring cash and can dramatically boost the local economy.

Some people put forth the argument that short-term missions teams can be detrimental to local economies by creating dependency or taking away jobs locals might have. I fully understand that, but if the teams are managed correctly, and are partnering with solid on the ground ministries who know the economic landscape, the impact can and should be very positive. We and many other responsible organizations take great pains to make sure any projects that groups might work on are not taking away jobs from the local community. The projects can be geared to augment work opportunities through healthy partnerships.

One example of responsible group management: We run a home building ministry here in our town in Mexico. These are very nice homes, about 600 Square feet, three bedrooms and very “homey.” These homes cost about $7,000 to build. The families receiving these homes are well screened, truly needy, and it would take them years to build a home that we can bless them with in a week. At first glance, it’s easy to say that the teams coming in are stealing these construction jobs from the local community. Experience tells us that these home projects are adding jobs to the local community. The average family who receives these homes would never be able to hire the workers they would need to complete the construction. The construction would just never happen. The family works alongside the visiting team, and we use some of the funding to hire other locals to work alongside them, creating jobs that would not exist otherwise. Frequently, the groups leave additional funding to finish out the house, creating even more jobs. We also work hard to purchase all of the building materials locally from community hardware stores. $7,000 spent in a small local hardware store has a tremendous impact on their profits and their ability to provide jobs.  When managed correctly short-term missions can have a profound, positive financial impact in small communities around the world. But, as with any project, the efforts have to be managed correctly.

There are plenty of examples of people using funds in a way that does no good or even causes harm. Last year a great, well-meaning group built a house for a single mom with two children who lost their home in an electrical fire. In that same fire, the daughter was severely burned. As the group was leaving, one gentleman saw that the house was being powered by running a cord from the neighboring house (not uncommon in much of the world). This very well-meaning man handed the lady over $1,000 to put in the electrical meter and have the house connected safely. $1,000 was more money than she had ever seen in her life and she did not have the experience to handle it well. Two weeks later she had a large new TV, a gaming system, and nothing left to wire the house correctly.

Money is a double-edged sword. Money handled with wisdom can change lives, communities, ministries, and the future of countries. Money handled poorly can destroy lives and communities. It’s a cliche that everyone who wins the lottery says that it ultimately destroyed their lives. Most lottery winners are bankrupt, divorced, and lonely within three years. Over 75% of professional athletes are bankrupt within a few years of retirement. Everyone claims they will be different, but large amounts of money changes how we see the world, how others see us, how people interact with one another, it changes way more than we can imagine.

If teams are focused and wise in how they use the funds, a long-term positive impact is an attainable goal and can transform communities. When done right, micro-loans for small business start-ups can change lives. Partnering micro-savings programs with solid, applicable financial advice can shift a person or families’ future. By providing equipment, medicines, and practical training to an established local medical clinic, you can literally save lives.

Take a short-term missions trip, lead a short-term trip, but please do so responsibly.

Please share on Facebook, or with your short-term mission leaders. Thanks

Dealing with Family in Orphan-Care

pexels-photo-262075Recently one of the boys we raised, who is now an adult and on his own, stopped by my office and asked if we could talk about a few things. He and his brother were dropped off at our home by their father over 20 years ago. Thier father visited once but then disappeared. Sadly this happens way too often.

Frequently, for one reason or another, a child or a group of siblings are brought to an orphanage and the family is never heard from again. Hopefully, whatever orphanage they’re left at has the resources and skills to help move that child from the pain of abandonment through the long journey to healing. An adoption is always a good option. But the reality is that once a child is over the age of about five, they won’t be adopted, especially if they have siblings. The orphanage will become their home; the orphanage staff will become their family.

When a child is dropped off, and they are old enough to know what’s going on, they begin the grieving process just as anyone who has lost a loved one. They have lost their family and life as they knew it. They begin to go through the various stages of mourning: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These can vary from person to person, but less than you might think. We humans are very predictable creatures.

Whether a child was abandoned or removed due to abuse or neglect, their first reaction is always denial. “No, really, my parents are going to come back for me.” or “My mom is in rehab, this time I know it’s going to work.” Our hope is that the child can eventually go back to a healthy family situation, but the painful reality is it’s not the norm. More often than not, if the family cares enough to visit, they sometimes make the situation harder by making false promises, to the child and maybe to themselves. “It will just be a few weeks, I really am coming back for you.” or “Your dad and I are getting back together, then we can take you home.” These types of promises rip the wounds open again leaving the child stuck in the denial stage, living in false hope.

The next stage in the healing process is anger. If a child reaches the point of being very pissed off at their parents, we are thrilled, this means they’re moving forward in the process. I remember one 11-year-old boy who had been with us about three months. He was here with two younger siblings and was starting to settle in. One Sunday, his mother showed up to visit. He was seriously angry; wanting nothing to do with her, he ran to hide behind one of the buildings on our property. I walked back to talk with him, and as I approached, I could see he was so angry he was trembling. I sat down with him and told him he could do whatever he wanted, “If you don’t want to visit your mom you don’t have to. Go hang out with your friends or spend time in my office; I don’t care.” I just confirmed to him what he already knew about his mom, that she’d done nothing to earn a visit and it was OK to be angry at her. I believe my response did two things. First, it shocked the heck out of him. Second, it showed him he was in a safe place and that we would be here for him. It turned out to be a pivotal day in his healing process.

I could write about the different levels of mourning, but I’m sure you get the idea at this point. The healing process is slow, painful, and depending on the person can take weeks, months, or sadly sometimes years. Our hope is that every child moves through the process and reaches acceptance as soon as they are able. Until an abandoned child (or anyone who has experienced tremendous loss) can reach that point of acceptance, it is incredibly difficult to begin to rebuild their lives.

Once a child reaches acceptance, they can start over. They can start taking school a little more seriously knowing they’re not ever going back to their old school. They can start making real friends knowing they probably won’t be leaving in a few weeks. Most importantly, if they’ve landed in a healthy orphanage or care situation, they can begin to bond with healthy adults who are committed long-term in the child’s life.

Even if a child reaches acceptance and begins to move on with their lives it doesn’t mean the pain has gone away; the pain just softens over time. For most children, as they move into adulthood, they reach a point where they will try and find their biological family. If, years later, reunions can be arranged, it’s not always the Hallmark moment we envision. Occasionally they can rebuild a relationship with their family, sometimes they’re rejected all over again. People are messy and messed up.

I opened up by sharing about the young man who came into my office. I’m incredibly proud of both him and his brother as they’ve grown into healthy, productive, men of God. The older brother is married with two children and has demonstrated an incredible commitment to his wife and caring for his family. It was the younger brother who came into my office. He wanted to talk over the situation that after twenty years he and his brother had recently found family in another state. He had just talked with his “biological” mother. He has no memory of her, but they’re planning on visiting her next summer. The draw to know your biological family is strong and we’re tremendously happy for them both. (I’m tearing up as I write this)

The second thing he wanted to talk with me about was also life-changing. We were planning a get-together with many of the children raised in our home, and he was asking permission to propose to his long-term girlfriend in front of his true family at the party. (She was raised in our home also.) I think he’s reached a good place, a place of wholeness; God has restored this abandoned child.

There is hope for an emotionally wounded child, if they are lead to the master healer, and allowed to grieve in His arms.

If you liked this, please share with others on Facebook or wherever you hang-out.

We All Need A Nest, Orphans Even More

pexels-photo-581087Human beings are pretty basic. Although we’re all individuals with different quirks and preferences, there are some basic needs that we all want to have met. Basic physical needs are obvious: food, water, shelter, etc. We all understand these needs, but then it gets a little more complicated. Especially for a child who has been orphaned or abandoned.

We all want our “nest,” our own stuff, our space. You’ve probably experienced this while traveling. You might be just a little nervous until you see your bag slide onto the luggage carousel at the airport. You feel a little better when you’ve dropped your stuff into your hotel room. Even if you’re camping or at a retreat center, you want to find and set up “your” bunk, then you can relax. When everything else is stripped away, a homeless person will defend their shopping cart or personal belongings. It’s a basic human need to have some sense of our own “stuff” to mark our space and existence.

When a child has been abandoned or removed from their home situation for some reason, in their mind their life is over. In a way it is. The life they’ve known is gone forever. Odds are they will never see their friends again, they will never be back in their old school, and will probably never see their old home again. This obviously doesn’t cover family that they might not ever see again. Even if they were removed from a horrible situation, it was their family; it was what they knew. How would you react if tomorrow EVERYTHING was removed from your life and you had to start over with just what you had on your back? Then try to do that when decisions are being made for and about you with no input from you. All control is gone.

Orphanage staff and foster parents usher children through the terror of that “first day” often. A while back we had a police cruiser pull up to our home, two officers and a child got out. The terrified ten-year-old boy was holding a small, kind of squished, plastic basket of strawberries. The short fat cop turned to me, kind of shrugged and said: “We didn’t know what to do. We got him a snack.” At least they tried.

We do a few things to make the first day a little better than it could be. We have systems in place where a child of the same age becomes a “mentor,” the new child’s first friend in our home who can show the new child around. This new friend explains how things work and what goes on. All this new information is received much better coming from another child, and not a scary adult.

One of the things we do that helps a child settle in is get them their “stuff.” They get their belongings to set up near their bed; they get to set up their nest. One of our staff goes to our stash and sets the child up with a few changes of nice clothes, some of their own toys, items to help them establish their space. We know full well we’ll need to speak into deeper areas of their lives over the following weeks, months, and years, but those first few hours are critical to the child settling in and realizing they’ve landed in a safe place.

It might seem odd that we focus on “stuff” so much, but it matters tremendously to a child (or anyone) in crisis. There are volumes written about caring for children in these situations. Every step of the journey to healing is important; the first day is just a small step in a very long path. The reason we focus so much on the clothing and toys is that it lets the child begin to create his or her own space again, it allows them to establish their identity.

The quality of clothing and belongings given to a child on their “first day” makes a statement. Too often, out of necessity or lack of thought, orphanages give the new child whatever used items that have been donated. We understand this, but it makes a strong statement: “You are not worth new stuff so you get what other people have gotten rid of.” Too often, a child who has been thrown away, a child who has been demonstrated to be trash, is given things that no one wants. What is that telling them? What kind of value does that place on their lives? Very often, the toys our children are given on the first day are the first new toys they’ve ever had. The items they are given will not restore them, will not heal them and will not bring their old homes back, but it helps give them a new sense of identity. It can show them that they are worthy. I’m not saying the child you’re helping needs high-end name brands, but whatever it is, it can show them that they are worth more than they realize.

While reading this, I’m sure some people are thinking “But stuff is just stuff, it’s not what’s most important!” I agree, it’s not what’s most important, but it’s a start. Anyone who says stuff doesn’t matter has never lost everything.

If you’re in orphan care, do what you can to bring a child’s first day from terrifying to passable. If you’re supporting an orphanage or people who do, please remember that the quality of items given matters more than you might think. Please show the children what they’re worth.

I’m currently setting up my 2018 speaking schedule, if you’re interested in having me share with your church or organization please let me know.  Click here for details.

Find Your Defining Moment

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Many people have a defining moment in their life. Whether positive or negative, it is a moment that is branded into their memory and will be with them until they die. Frequently that moment changes the direction of their life. Maybe it was being present as a loved one died, or the first time they stood up on a surfboard, maybe it was the first time performing in public and receiving applause. What might seem trivial to one person, might have life-altering implications and impact for someone else. What is your defining moment?

One of the handful of questions I get asked by everyone is: “How were you first called into orphan care.” I can still remember the sites, smells, and emotions during that day that changed my life twenty-five years ago. My defining moment that would radically shift the direction of my life happened to be shared with someone who I had never met before, during their defining moment. Each of our lives would be forever changed in a few hours together.

I was comfortable in my life as a semi-successful Christian businessman and helping with the high school group at my church in my spare time. I assumed that would be the direction of my life and had no problem with that. I was comfortable; I wasn’t even considering that God might have something else in mind. I was helping to lead our church’s high school group on short-term missions trips to serve a very small, very depressing orphanage in northern Baja. I enjoyed serving the kids in the orphanage, but I also enjoyed the change I was seeing in my high school students as they learned to serve others. Unbeknownst to me, God was making those same changes in my heart.

One day I got a call from the orphanage. They needed something brought down from the US and asked if I could help. I had a Saturday to kill and agreed to drive down. While I was there, a ten-year-old boy was being dropped off. Most people don’t think about it, but every child in an orphanage has a “first day.” Almost always it is a terrifying, branding, horrible experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. They have either been abandoned by their family or removed due to abuse or neglect. To them the reasons are irrelevant, everything they’ve ever known is gone, and they’ve landed in a scary building, crowded with strangers. It is a defining moment they will remember the rest of their lives.

As I watched this boy being dropped off, I could see how terrified he was. I didn’t speak the language at the time but even if I did, what do you say to that? What did I have to offer that child when he was at his most fragile point? I couldn’t tell him it was going to be okay. I couldn’t tell him he landed in a good orphanage (he didn’t), everything I had in my youth ministry bag of tricks was useless. So I sat with him. We split a Coke. He cried. And a couple of hours later I got in my car and drove home. I hurt for that child, I hurt for that child deeply, but intertwined with the hurt was something I had never experienced before at that level. I had been involved in a lot of ministry, but I’d never felt so used by God as sitting with that boy, in the dirt, at that moment, when he desperately needed somebody. I wanted more of that in my life. I wanted to experience more of being used by God to touch and serve people at that level. Everything I had been working towards suddenly became incredibly trivial and pointless in comparison to those few hours in Mexico.

It’s impossible to plan a defining moment in your life, but if we step out of our comfort zone and place ourselves in new and challenging circumstances those defining moments are more likely to happen. If someone doesn’t take the chance at “open mic night” they might never experience the exhilaration of an audience laughing at their jokes. If someone chooses to stay home rather than go on that first-day snow skiing or surfing, they might not ever experience that rush of adrenaline. These same principles and ideas apply to our Christian walk. We won’t know what a prison ministry, a homeless ministry, or the ministry of encouraging others is like until we’re willing to take that first step, and put ourselves in uncomfortable and awkward situations.

In my experience, both personally, and as a witness to thousands of others, few activities encourage more defining moments than short-term missions. There’s something about leaving your home country, crossing borders, and making yourself available to be used by God in new circumstances. Short-term missions, when they are done right, can bring a heightened sense of awareness and help to bring our priorities in line. Although people might be on a mission to share the gospel and meet the needs of others, there is frequently a whole other layer of ministry going on where God is working on us.

Over the years I’ve received countless letters, emails, and comments from people sharing with me how a short-term missions trip changed their lives. I know many people today who are in full-time ministry as a direct result of a defining moment brought about through short-term missions. For countless others who aren’t in full-time ministry (yet), a short-term missions trip becomes an experience that will ripple out in their lives for years to come. It can become their defining moment, a touchstone that they will remember forever.

My hope and prayer is that through whatever circumstances, you will have that defining moment that will bring more significant direction in your life. I would encourage you to take chances, to say “yes” to trying something new. Stretch yourself emotionally. You can’t plan a defining moment, but please be open to it.

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