“Do No Harm” in Short-Term Missions

pexels-photo-209235With the flooding in Texas right now many people are jumping up to do what they can. They’re reacting to the horrible images we’ve all seen by heading out to help, this is a great thing. I truly respect anyone willing to step out of their own lives to help others in need, we all need to grow in this, but we need to do it in a mature and wise manner. None of us wants to add to an already difficult, complicated situation.

As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the basics of that oath is “first, do no harm” or “primum non nocere,” They need to treat their patient in a way that does not harm them. They can’t experiment, or rush in to “heal” them, if they don’t know that what they’re doing will be beneficial. It might be a good idea for anyone going into short term missions, or serving in an extreme situation, to take this same oath. So often, we rush in with well-meaning intentions but wind up making the situation worse than it already is.

There is an endless list of examples of well-meaning plans that went sidewise once they were put into action. Unintended consequences can have effects way beyond what most people would even consider. There’s a story of how cities across the north east US changed the traffic lights to LED technology. LED lights are cheaper to operate, they last a VERY long time, what could go wrong? Well, LED lights don’t heat up. Once the snows hit, the traffic lights would fill with snow and without the heat from the old-school lights it would just sit there blocking the signals. People had to go around with brooms on long sticks to knock the snow out of the traffic lights. No one saw this coming; no one realized the unintended consequence of this well-intended action.

Often, at first glance, a missions idea to “help” might sound like an excellent idea and an act of generosity. The results of our actions might ripple out in ways we might have never considered.

I know of one local church in our town that hosts a lot of groups. Out of an abundance of hospitality, the pastor feels he needs to offer the visiting leaders the pulpit on Sunday. What winds up happening is the church might go several weeks without hearing their own pastor teach. They hear from a line of well meaning people who they don’t know, in a language that needs to be translated. The visiting pastors don’t know the needs of the congregation or where they are spiritually. These visiting pastors mean well but hold the church back. Unintended consequences.

Here at our orphanage, we’ve had well-meaning people visit and pass out loose change to our kids. They think they’re blessing the kids when they see them light up at receiving this money. Well, if you were visiting a family in the US would you just randomly pass out cash to their kids? It’s just weird. Also, by groups doing this, it teaches our kids to beg or manipulate guests in our home. Before they came to us, many of our children were begging to survive. We try VERY hard to teach our kids how to work for extras in life and not to beg. By people kindly passing out quarters, they’re working directly against some of our goals here with the children in our care.

I’ve seen very well-meaning groups come into a community, find a local pastor, and offer to build a church building from the ground up. On the surface, it might sound great. In a bigger picture, fully funding a church build usually sets up an unhealthy dynamic. Does that Church congregation have emotional ownership of their church if they have no skin in the game? Are they learning to share and give to the church if they think their “widows mite” isn’t needed? It’s incredibly healthy when a congregation comes together to work towards a common goal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support and help churches in the missions field, but by doing everything for them, we’re not allowing them to grow in a normal healthy fashion.

So how do you go on a missions trip and not do more harm than good? The best way to move forward with any missions trip is to prayerfully consider our impact, both positive and negative, in any community we’re going to serve. Along with prayer, one of the most important things we can do is partner with, and listen to, an on the ground ministry already serving long-term in that area. These are the people who’s ministries are either blessed by your visit, or are left to clean up the rubble. Organizations hosting groups in Mexico, Haiti, or any country in Africa have seen and worked with a lot of groups. They know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to leverage the skills and resources you want to provide. Let them guide you into a productive, helpful trip for all involved.

Here is one example of how subtly shifting a project will bring it from harmful to beneficial. We have teams that want to do food distribution for families in poorer areas. They might hit Walmart in a nearby city, buy lots of groceries in bulk, and bag them up for distribution. Yes, they are providing food and a blessing for families in the community. But what are they doing to the local mini-marts and farmers markets who are losing sales? Most small stores are barely staying open with what little sales they have in poorer areas. The result of this short-term blessing might be people in the community losing jobs. If that same group buys locally, they might pay a little more for the groceries, but along with blessing the families in need they would be pouring money into the local community and help to keep businesses and jobs moving forward.

With subtle, wise shifting, our efforts can have the desired positive impact that we want to bring. Maybe instead of preaching at a local church, ask to participate and listen to what the local pastor is teaching that week. Maybe instead of passing out loose change to kids in an orphanage, we can find ways to bless the over-worked staff who most people ignore. Whether it’s food or construction materials, maybe we should buy locally whenever possible. Maybe for every person on our team pouring that concrete slab, we commit to hiring a local construction worker to help for the day.

We’re called to serve, and I believe short term missions can and does change lives for all those involved. Go, serve, give, but please: do no harm.


Embrace the Mess that is Short-Term Missions


Most people are a complicated jumble of conflicting priorities, values, and reactions. Anyone who has worked with a homeless outreach, done marriage counseling, or worked with teenagers will tell you that the vast majority of people are messy. In a perfect world, things wouldn’t be so difficult. It’s not a perfect world. Not even close. Until we embrace the “messy,” ministry will be an unending exercise in frustration.

On a few occasions, I’ve had the incredible privilege of walking a couple through premarital counseling. Along with the standard bits of wisdom, one of the first things I tell them is not to worry about the wedding itself. The wedding is just a three-hour party. Just as no marriage is perfect, no wedding is perfect. The cake will fall over, the band won’t show up, crazy Aunt Bertha will show up drunk. Invariably more than a few things will go wrong. Weddings are a lot like life, if you expect them to be perfect, then you’re going to be disappointed. We’re better off embracing the messy and flowing with it.

For some reason, many people who organize short term missions, like people who plan weddings, set some fairly unrealistic expectations for what they want to happen. It’s good to work for the best, to have a quality and impactful trip. But more often than not when we go to serve others, it doesn’t always work out the way we planned. Managing our expectations is important. We have a simple choice: We can become frustrated with the difficulties, or we can flow with it and enjoy the mess. We need to realize that God sees a much bigger picture and ultimately very little of what goes on is in our control anyway. Sometimes we’re the mess.

Recently our ministry here in Baja was presented with a special opportunity to serve a local need. A family with three children were living in a small camping trailer with a small shed built next to it. Unfortunately, a small fire turned into a large fire and, although they got out safely, the family lost everything they owned. They are not believers; we saw this as an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate God’s love.

As a side ministry here, we coordinate home construction for needy families in our community. We normally spend months planning a home-build, partnering with groups from the US who help with both funding and labor. The need of this particular family was immediate so we couldn’t follow through with our normal system. We saw it as a wonderful chance for several ministries in our valley to work together to bless this family. At a hastily called meeting with various local ministry leaders, people brought what they could to the table to help this family. One ministry was able to help with some funding, one had some extra doors and windows, several helped with labor. It was inspiring to see everybody step up to help and how the odd mix of ministries worked together. In less than two weeks we were able to build this family a cute little house that was nicer than what had burned down. The body of Christ was working smoothly together to serve those in need. So what could go wrong? Remember, people are messy.

As the teams were finishing as much work on the house as we had resources for, the family realized it wasn’t going to be as nice as they expected. No, we weren’t going to be able to finish out the shower. No, we weren’t going to be able to complete the interior paint or install the doorknobs. The family was given a home that was nicer than what they had before and their reaction was not one of thanksgiving. They were going to complain and push for more. Not exactly the response we expected or wanted. Very messy.

There is a very long history of ministry not turning out the way it’s expected to. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one returns to give thanks and glory to God. Jesus knew that was going to happen, we’re not that bright.

The point of all this is that God almost never guarantees the outcome we are expecting or working towards. That’s not the plan. God calls us to go and do the will of our Father and represent Him well. Being pleasing to God is more than enough. People very likely won’t appreciate our efforts; they might not say “thank you.” The “right number” of people might not come forward at an outreach, the family we build a house for might not be happy with our work. If that bothers us too much we might need to examine our motivation: Are we doing this for the approval of men or of God? If we’re doing it for the approval of men, maybe we’re the ones bringing the mess to the party.

In missions, as in life, God sees a much bigger panorama. In looking back at the house we built that wasn’t appreciated, I can see how God used everything for his purposes. We were called to serve, so we served, that should be plenty. We didn’t receive thanks from the family, but we do believe God was pleased. It also lead to some great discussions: How often does God pour out His blessings on us only to have us reject them, complain, or ask for more?

Go and serve, but always remember who you are truly serving. Embrace and enjoy the messiness.

For information on our home builds, please see: Home building program

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Find People Who Inspire


There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with and those we encounter who inspire us. We spend so much time following social media, or seeing how much stuff we’ve accumulated, like cats chasing after a laser that is bright and shiny but means nothing. Ultimately, what matters are the relationships in our lives. We need to make sure that we have quality relationships with people who inspire us to reach for greatness in all we attempt.

A few years back I was on a small team putting together the curriculum for a 30-day missions training program. We were assembling themes, speakers, and activities for a group of fifteen or so college students joining us for the program. Someone on the planning team made a comment that stuck with me: “The topics are important, but what the students will remember are the inspirational people they get to spend time with.” We all have (I hope) people beyond our own families that have influenced our lives. It might be a teacher, a coach, a boss, or just someone we encountered that inspired us to be a better version of ourselves. We should seek out people that challenge us to be better.

I’ve made many stupendously bad decisions in my life. When I was in my early 20s, I made one correct decision that had an enormous, positive impact on my life. I made a conscious decision to surround myself with people who were better than I was. People who were dedicated to God, people who were going somewhere with their lives, people who just seemed to have a clue. It’s an old saying but it still holds true: “We become the five people we hang out with.” If we spend time with people that eat right and exercise, we will start to become healthier. If we spend time with people who are seeking God and focused on their walk with Him, we will become better Christians. If we spend time with people with no direction in their lives, we won’t go anywhere. You get the idea. Thirty years later I’m still friends with several of those quality guys I chose to allow to impact my life. We still influence each other and keep each other accountable. They are all dedicated to their families, to God, and to seeing His kingdom expanded. I’m better today because of those men in my life. Who we surround ourselves with has a huge impact on our growth and who we become as people.

Obviously, if we look for them, we can find people who inspire us and provide great examples in many different areas. I’m not entirely sure why, but the dynamic of traveling on short-term missions trips seems to create those opportunities to be inspired by others. Once we leave our home country, it’s easier to spend time with people who’ve experienced a defining moment that changed their lives. They’ve had that calling or experience that caused them to work for something bigger than themselves. Missionaries, nurses, doctors, construction workers, people from wide ranging backgrounds who’ve decided to dedicate a period of their lives to the neediest and the most hurting.

I want to tell you about “Dave in the canyon.” In 2009 Dave was just another normal middle aged man from northern California. He had no ministry training, had never worked full time with a ministry; he was just an average guy who took a chance on a short-term missions trip. I don’t think Dave was expecting a whole lot when he signed up. He met some people in Baja Mexico serving the poorest of the poor in the dump area of Tijuana. Those “chance” encounters would alter his life profoundly. Six months after his missions trip, he walked away from what he had in the US and found his new life serving the children and families living in pallet houses in Tijuana. Today, this guy glows, glows with a joy that few people ever experience. He was inspired by God through his interaction with a few people doing great things, and now Dave is that inspiration to others.

I love sending people to “help” Dave. Dave doesn’t need any help. The people I send to him are the ones that need inspiration, that need their lives changed, they need their worlds rocked. The people I send need to bump up against greatness. Dave isn’t perfect, but he serves humbly in very challenging conditions. He never complains, never loses hope, and trusts completely in God. I’m honored to be called Dave’s friend and have his influence in my life. The world needs more Daves.

What’s great is, if we seek them out, there are a tremendous number of Daves in the world. We have the privilege of meeting them and being impacted by them. Inspiring people can be found almost anywhere, but in my limited experience, they’re easier to find where life is harder, where life is much more of a struggle than we typically experience in the US. In Ghana, Peru, Mexico, etc. you can encounter people serving at a level that is beyond “normal.” Remember, it might be easier to encounter giants of the faith in the missions field, but they’re all around us if we look.

Choose wisely who will be in your life, who will influence you, who you want to become more like. Surround yourself with excellence. Bump up against inspiring people. Your life will be better for it.

For more information on Dave’s work, please see: Life in the Canyon

Short-term Missions Leadership


Leadership matters. This seems obvious, but it’s an important part to consider in any successful missions trip. The quality and vision of the person leading will make or break the experience. The leader’s experience with international work, their vision for the trip, and their ability to share that vision are critical.

For over 20 years our organization has had the privilege of working with countless short-term missions teams. In 2016 alone, we hosted and helped facilitate over 280 visiting missions groups. Some for a weekend, some for up to two weeks. Most of the teams we’ve hosted have been great, some not so much. Beyond funding, beyond the size of the group, beyond anything else, leadership is the single most important part of an effective, impactful missions team.

Short term missions, when it’s healthy, can be life changing for the individuals going on the trip and can be a huge blessing to the receiving organizations and communities. When it’s unhealthy, it can be an expensive and damaging waste of time. So how does one lead a healthy short term missions team? Below are some key points to consider.

Be honest with yourself, why are you going? If you’re planning a short-term missions trip to mainly impact and educate your team, this isn’t wrong, but be honest about it. Don’t say it’s only about spreading the gospel and serving the needy if it’s really about something else. Leading your team into experiencing God and how to walk with Him isn’t a bad thing.

Many years ago my home church was planning a two weeks missions trip to Australia. I went to my pastor seeking his advice as I wanted to go but felt like a hypocrite. I honestly had no deep passion for the people of Australia; I just wanted to go and hang out with people serving God. I still remember my pastor’s profound words of wisdom: “There are worse ways to spend two weeks.” I went, I had some life-changing experiences, and I think I may have even accidentally helped some people. There’s nothing wrong going with mixed motivation. My serving full-time in Mexico today can be traced directly back to that trip to Australia. A short-term missions trip can be hugely impactful for the people going and as a leader, you should seek this and work to facilitate it.

Define who the leader is. This seems pretty basic, but depending on the team there might be more than a few people who are natural leaders, the team needs to know who is ultimately in charge. “Adult” teams can be the worst, everybody is used to doing things their way, following directions from someone else can be hard for some people.
Here at our ministry, we coordinate home building projects for needy families in our area. We’ll have teams come down to build a home for a local family over the course of a week. If the team has three or four contractors, I make sure they select who is making the ultimate decisions otherwise they spend hours debating every decision or working in different directions. Your team can come to consensus agreements, but ultimately someone has to say yes or no to any major decision. The leader sets the tone.

Know your team. The maturity, experience, and vision of every team member is a little different. It’s important to evaluate your team members to lead them effectively. If your team is under skilled maybe they shouldn’t work on a major construction project, if they’re new in their faith, maybe they shouldn’t be leading a Bible study or public prayer. If you have a skilled individual (construction, IT, mechanic, etc.) let your hosting organization know that these people are available if needed. Know when to push your team and when to hold them back. Jesus knew his apostles well, their skills, their weaknesses, and their maturity. He knew what they could handle and allowed them to take risks and grow. He also had them wait when needed. You need to be Jesus to your team.

Work on Cross Cultural Training. If the members of your team have been relatively sheltered and have never been exposed to true poverty or other cultures, coach them in how to respond, react, and process what they’re experiencing. Every culture has nuances and differences, but an attitude of mutual respect goes a long way anywhere. Respect for local dress codes, traditions, language and church culture are all important. Unintentionally offending a culture is a sure way to severely limit a team’s effectiveness, both in serving and in ministry.
Everyone has something to learn from others. Americans can carry a fair amount of national pride, and that’s OK as long as you realize other people can be proud of their countries also, even if it isn’t America. The “ugly American” stereotype exists for a reason. We need to realize that the culture we’re visiting isn’t worse than ours, it isn’t better than ours, it’s DIFFERENT than ours.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Let your team know the goals, expectations, schedules, etc. Communicate with your team about the importance of flexibility, conflict resolution, and being part of the team. Give you team a written schedule as a guide knowing things might change. Communicate with your host organization about travel plans, your goals, your skills, and ask them what they would like to receive from your group. From the day you have your dates picked, start communicating with your host organization and ask them everything you can think of. Also let them know everything they might need to know about your team (size of team, ages, skills, any funding available, etc.) You are building a relationship between your team, and the team on the ground you will be serving. In any healthy relationship, clear and detailed communication can go along way in avoiding any problems or conflicts that might arise.

Teach and practice flexibility. When traveling with a team and working in other countries, it’s impossible to plan for, or expect, everything. Lost luggage, illness, power outages, can be expected but sometimes other things come up. I know of a group that was planning on spending a week working on a church building, the day they arrived a leader from the hosting church died. The project was unexpectedly put on hold, but it did give the team new, unexpected doors to serve and minister. The change was out of their hands, so they flowed with it correctly, maturely, and with grace.

Lead them into the experience. Missions trips can be overwhelming. Debrief every night, encourage intentional conversations about what everyone is experiencing. Maybe have everyone turn off the cell phones and focus on the day and the people experiencing the trip with them. It’s heartbreaking to see people on a missions trip with so much opportunity only to watch them stare at their phones the whole time. Lead your team into being intentional and living in the moment. A trip needs to be about more than the perfect Instagram photo.

As I was writing this, I realized that any one of these topics could be a book unto itself. What you have here is a VERY basic list of few things to consider.

As a leader, you have a huge responsibility, also a huge privilege. A privilege to lead people into life changing, mountain top serving experiences they will remember the rest of their lives. When led and hosted correctly, short term missions can have world changing impact. Go and have your world changed.


The Fear Factor

pexels-photo-471470“Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to respond to this question over the last 20 years. I honestly believe this is more of a statement on the church in America today than any perceived danger in Mexico.

What keeps us up at night worrying almost never happens. In 2016 there were a total of 4 deaths by shark attack, 67 people died from taking selfies. If you ask a cross section of people, fear of sharks would probably rate higher than fear of smart phones. Way too many people live lives wrapped in fear of things that don’t happen or don’t matter. American culture feeds and encourages fear: fear of the “other” political party, of terrorism, of people from different countries or cultures. Fear has become the new American way.

A few years ago I got a phone call from a concerned father who was looking at sending his daughter with their church missions team to serve with our orphanage in Mexico. After talking to him for a while, he asked me straight out “Can you 100% guarantee the safety of my daughter?” I think I surprised him with my answer: “Absolutely not.” I asked him if he could 100% guarantee the safety of his daughter when she was driving to school, out shopping, or even in their home. There are almost no 100% guarantees in this life other than the fact that we will all eventually die. If we lived our lives looking for 100% guarantees, we would never do anything, that’s not why we’re on this earth.

At what point did the church collectively decide that we need complete security at all times? Why are we so afraid? Jesus never taught that we should only go and share the gospel if our safety could be guaranteed, that we should only help others if there is zero risk involved. I’m not saying we should take unnecessary chances, but what should we be willing to risk to share the Gospel?

“Fear not” comes up a lot in the bible, “You need to avoid risk” not so much. If we believe we have an all powerful, loving Father in heaven who only wants what’s best for us why are we so afraid? If we believe that God can use ALL things for our good and the good of His kingdom, why can’t we rest in that? The Apostle Paul did some of his best work sitting in prison. Paul was completely convinced this was just a temp job; he was on his way to heaven. Paul doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who was afraid of what might happen. The world needs more Pauls.

A good friend of mine has been a missionary in a Muslim country for a few years. (for his safety I can’t share his name or what country). This guy is fearless. Recently he sent me an e-mail asking an IT question, not a big deal. He went on to share about the struggles they were having going to print with a new bible recently translated into a dialect for that area. One print shop was burned down, one printer who wanted to help was sent to prison, my friend’s family was threatened, and he was arrested and held for several days. Yikes. I would have hit the road long before this. Rather than running, giving up, or even complaining, he was rejoicing. Through the entire E-mail, you could feel the joy he was experiencing; he had found the “joy in all things” that Paul wrote about while in prison.

In 2014 my wife and I were scheduled to travel with the team of about 20 to Ghana in west Africa. We had our tickets, we had our visas, and about 30 days before we were scheduled to leave the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. You couldn’t pick up a paper, turn on the radio, or watch the news without being told how dangerous Ebola was and how we were all going to die. Not the best time to travel to West Africa. Over the course of a few weeks most of the team dropped out and, to be honest, we thought about it. We made a few calls to people on the ground to get accurate information and had some LONG talks. Any sane person would have canceled. (we’ve never been grouped in with sane people). We decided to go. The team was just five people, and EVERYONE said we were crazy. We went, had an incredible trip, and I believe we had a real impact at the orphanage where we were serving. West Africa is a BIG place, where we were serving we were over 1000 miles from the nearest Ebola case. At no time were we in any danger other than malaria and the other normal issue from that area.

In looking back at our trip to Ghana, I’m flooded with emotions. One of the emotions I have is regret for the many people who, out of an abundance of caution, chose not to go. They missed out on a life changing experience. They missed out on the chance to share with others and connect with believers on the other side of the world. The enemy once again used fear to stop ministry from taking place. How many people weren’t reached? How many lives weren’t changed by this incredible experience? The people who chose to stay back had the perception of safety, but they missed a life altering experience.

Take a chance. Risk something. Go drill a well in Kenya, go build a house in Baja, go serve (or start) a prison ministry. Step out and see how God might use you or might use the new challenges to change you. Of the people I hang out with in the missions field, I never hear them talk about the regret of taking a chance. What I see and hear are people who glow, glow with a joy that few people experience in this life. These are people who have taken, and continue to take chances for God. They are not afraid of risk, they embrace it, they have found joy. The only fear we should accept in our lives is the fear of NOT doing what God is calling us to. We should be deathly afraid of wasting our time here on this earth living a mundane, “safe” existence.

To answer the question about Mexico that I started out with: Yes, Mexico CAN be dangerous in certain areas, most of it is really safe, but watch out for those selfies.

Perspective in Short-Term Missions

workers-construction-site-hardhats-38293Few things are black and white in this life. Many people pass judgment on short-term missions from a purely sending perspective or as a bad use of funds. “Why spend so much money sending our team to Africa, what difference can they make?” “I’ve read that mission teams do more harm than good.” It’s so important to look at difficult, complicated, multi-level situations from many perspectives. Frequently, if we honestly try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we see things in an entirely different light.

A few years ago a member of my American staff here in Mexico was very vocal about how terrible all the new factories in Mexico were. Through her studies in college, she learned how the factories were abusing the workers and taking advantage of the low wages in Mexico. She had never actually been to one of these factories though or talked to the workers. After she had passionately shared for a while, a good friend of mine who was raised and educated in Mexico walked in. He was very familiar with the factory systems and had many friends and family members working in manufacturing. As neutral as I could, I asked him “what’s your feeling on the factory programs?” His immediate response was “send more,”. Living in Mexico with the factories, he saw them providing much-needed jobs at a higher pay scale than had been seen in generations. Yes, the workers are making less than their American counterparts but they we’re making more than any of their peers. The factories provided good health care, in many factories there was free childcare, and the workers actually had a lot of rights. Perspective is critical before we pass judgment.

What are the unseen blessings of sending groups? How do the receiving organizations and communities see short-term missions? Although there has been a great deal written in the last few years about the damage short term mission can do, you would be hard-pressed to find a single hosting organization who doesn’t want more teams to visit. Why is this? Don’t they see or understand the “damage” groups bring? Of course they see it, but the benefits to the missions organizations, the communities, and people in the field far out way the headaches of hosting most groups.

How many orphanages, churches, schools, or medical centers would not exist without the teams that built them or support them? How many long term missionaries would be in the field today if they had not first taken a short-term trip? In twenty-five years serving in Mexico, I’ve never met a long-term missionary that didn’t start out on a short-term trip.

When done right, short term missions can have a real and dramatic impact, beyond anything we might imagine. A few years ago we had a well-meaning group sign up with our organization to build a house in our town through a home building program that we run. When they signed up, they were sure they would have a large team and the funding. As the trip dates got closer a few people dropped out, and then a few more dropped out. They were left with six high school girls, one leader, and almost no funding. On paper, from a logical standpoint, not the ideal group to build a house or go on a missions trip for that matter. In most people’s eyes questions were raised: What are six high-school girls going to do? What difference can they make? Shouldn’t they just stay home and use the money more effectively? In spite of the reasonable questions that were raised, this group REALLY felt they were supposed to take this trip. They reached out to us and asked what to do. I told them to come, join our team for a week, and we’d find a way for them to serve.

Once the group arrived, I paired them up with a few local construction guys that I work with. The plan was to help pour a cement foundation for a house in town. The family receiving this blessing had been on our waiting list for a while, living in an old trailer. This single child family had a believing wife and a husband that was more-or-less the town drunk.

For a week the girls worked alongside my local team. The father could NOT figure this out. It confused him. A lot. He stood for hours with his arms crossed trying to figure out two things; Why are these odd, blond, American girls helping his family? And why were these local construction guys having such a good time? My guys are all strong believers. They were picking on each other as guys do, flipping wet cement at each other, laughing a lot, and having a blast. They weren’t cussing, they weren’t drinking, and the father couldn’t understand any of this. He had never seen or experienced healthy male relationships before, and he just didn’t get it. At no point was the gospel presented in words, there was no pressure on anyone. This project was just a collection of Christians from two cultures serving a needy family. The collective team was putting Christ’s love and example of service into action.

The week ended, the girls left, and it might have ended there. But the seeds of Christian service had been planted; the father witnessed Christ’s love in action. The following Sunday he was at our local church, the next week he came to the Lord. No one, including him, knew at the time but he was very sick and he died about 90 days later. Because this small, unskilled, under-funded team (that didn’t speak Spanish) pressed forward; this man is now dancing in heaven.

If we go into any area of our lives with an attitude of empathy, of trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, we will be more effective. As we approach short-term missions we need to move past our preconceived ideas of the people we’re serving, the needs we think we’re addressing, or even why we are going. Go with a plan, but be sensitive and open to just being present and experiencing God alongside others. Maybe God is just sending you to change you through the people you’ll encounter.

Short-term missions change us

971174_10200726932789783_914982034_nI have been receiving and hosting short-term mission teams in Baja Mexico for almost twenty-five years. Between the two organizations I lead we hosted 325 groups in 2016. Short-term missions are important but not for the reasons and justifications everyone gives for short-term missions. You think you’re going to put up a building, distribute food, or most importantly share the gospel. God has an entirely different agenda.

God works in ways beyond the ways this world works, His ways don’t make any sense in the eyes of the world: “the first shall be last, whoever would be great must learn to serve, to save our lives we must give it away.” When we raise funds, make plans, sacrifice our time to go and serve others, God has a very different objective than we do. God is always thinking of us and seeking ways to bless us, to shape us, to cause growth in us, to help us take on His image. We might screw it up, but God rejoices when we try, just as any loving parent rejoices when they see their child grow and try new things.

Short-term missions work because it changes the lives of the people who go. God is faithful and unchanging. Almost every individual or group we’ve hosted over the last two decades has the same reaction at some level: “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” When we take a chance and step out of our comfort zone, we grow. When we interact and serve with people from other cultures, it expands our world view. When we see how people live in other countries, it gives us, a deeper perspective on the conditions in our own country and humanity as a whole.

When we go and serve others, we’re putting our faith into practice. Jesus was a man of active faith. Jesus encouraged those He encountered, He spent time sharing His heart, He fed, He healed, He focused on those around Him. If we say we are a follower of Christ and we’re not actively serving others, we are hypocrites. Taking the time and resources to go and serve people in other countries changes us as we exercise our faith. People exercise to feel better, look better, and to be healthy. We need to be actively working out, stretching, and exercising our faith.

It is the very rare exception to find a full-time missionary who did not start out in short-term missions. We need to try walking before we run. Not everyone is called into full-time international missions, but some are. Is that calling on your life? Until we go and experience serving at a different level, it’s very hard to hear that voice calling us into something deeper. Today, there are missionaries around the world who got their start with a week serving in Mexico. THIS is why we host short-term missions.

At one point I had been living and serving in Baja for over fifteen years and thought I had a pretty good handle on what it meant to serve in the missions field. I was wrong. A few years ago my wife and I were asked to go with a small team to Malawi, a tiny, very impoverished country in the middle of Africa. Although I live in Mexico, I had never seen that level of poverty. It changed me. My hope is that we had an impact on the orphanage where we were serving, but I left with a greater understanding of what financial poverty looked like and the effect it has on people. At one point a desperate mother begged my wife and me to take her three-year-old child. She knew her child had no future in that country and no chance in life where they were. How scared and hurting must a mother be to give away her child? My life, my walk, my ministry was changed profoundly by my short experiences in Africa.

Short-term missions matter. Send your team, lead your team, go yourself. You will be better for it as you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and allow God to use you and to change you.