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.

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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.

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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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Short-Term Missions is Money Well Spent

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Short-term missions are a very big deal in the American church. One out of three churches will send a team internationally this year. Tens of thousands of people and many millions of dollars will be dedicated to these efforts. Why? Why do we as individuals, or a church body, put all of these resources into these trips? Sometimes it’s good to step back and just ask the simple, but important question: Are short-term missions worth all the funds and resources dedicated to them?

A very common argument against short-term missions is that they are not a good use of money. Or, to put it more bluntly, short-term missions are a complete waste of money. “Why doesn’t the short-term team just take all of that money and send it to where it can do some good?” “Why are we spending thousands of dollars on sending unskilled teenagers so they can just do busy work, take up space, and paint the same wall over and over again?” At first glance, these might seem like valid arguments. Let’s take a look at this.

We all waste money, so why should missions be any different? I know this is an odd thing to say, but we as individuals and as a church spend money on an endless list of things that aren’t necessary but are considered beneficial. How much money do we spend on summer camps, all-nighters, amusement parks, etc. every year with our youth groups? Someone could easily argue that any one of these is a waste of money. Does a church “need” glossy color fliers for everything? Does a church really “need” the trendiest coffee house, or antique style Edison bulbs on the stage to share the Gospel? If you say missions are a waste of money and are not holding the same standard to other areas, there might be some inconsistency in your argument.

“We should save the money on the trip and just send it to the mission or missionaries.” This comes up whenever the topic of money and short-term missions are discussed. On the surface, it’s very simple to understand this sentiment. The thousands of dollars spent on travel would have a profound impact in developing countries or underfunded missions worldwide. The flaw in this argument is that in the history of the church, I don’t believe this has ever happened. What youth group has ever done fundraising, asked for donations, and sacrificed for a foreign mission where they weren’t actively going and serving? It might happen, but not at the same level as if the youth group had skin in the game or if they were actually visiting the foreign country they were raising money for. Many churches have generous missions funds but nothing compared to the funding if they are actually sending teams into the field. Long-term, once a person has experienced a missions trip, they will frequently go on to fundraise and donate to the mission for years to come. Short-term trips do create long-term funding for missions work.

The expressed reasons for short-term missions usually come down to a combination of sharing the gospel, and meeting either emergency or ongoing physical needs. Sharing the gospel, and helping the needy are biblical principles, and we should use whatever resources we can. I used the term “expressed reasons” because so often there are reasons for short-term missions that are not expressed, but can be incredibly impactful and frequently the true reason for the trip. One area that can have a tremendous impact, but is hardly ever discussed, is the fact that short-term missions (when done right) can be an incredible education for the people going on the trips. A short-term mission changes the lives of the people participating.

Many people spend $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year to attend college and think it’s worth every penny. Almost nobody questions this expense because it’s seen as an investment in the student. People attend college to learn a trade, for a better career, but also to grow as individuals, to become well-rounded and get a bigger picture of how the world operates. These are valuable goals we should be seeking throughout our lives. The week or so someone spends in the mission field can accomplish more in the areas of personal growth, and expanding their world view, than a semester at a university. When you look at short-term missions from this standpoint, the money spent is money well invested in the maturity and education of the individual going on the trip.

There are many great churches where people can learn and grow, but nothing compares to experiencing the church in other parts of the world and putting the gospel into action. A person can read the DMV handbook, and maybe even drive a car in a video game, but until they get behind a wheel and drive on a real road, they won’t know what driving is like. There is something about traveling to another land for the Gospel that makes it more real to the person going. To walk in the example of the apostles, not just read about them. To spend time with people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others inspires and changes people. To meet and spend time with people from other cultures in their own homes broadens our worldview.

I have an obvious conflict of interest, the two organizations I lead specialize in hosting short-term missions. But I honestly believe these trips change lives. A week or so in the missions field frequently becomes a defining experience for many of the people participating. Not everyone on a missions trip will go into full-time missions, just as not everyone who walks into a church becomes a pastor, but I’ve never met a full-time missionary who didn’t start out in short-term missions.

Go on a trip, back a trip, and support those who are experiencing putting the Gospel into action. Missions is a wise use of funding and will change lives for the better.

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Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?

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Spiderman, Batman (and Robin), Superman, Ironman, etc. Why are so many superheroes orphans? It’s more than just an odd coincidence. Comic book writers know basic human nature. They know that, when channeled correctly, trauma and pain can be used for good. Unless someone is cut deeply, it’s challenging to have the empathy and understanding needed to truly help and reach out to others. Unless someone has lost everything, they have no idea how to reach others who have.

In our area of Mexico, broken tile mosaics are very popular. You start out with clean, bright, shiny, usually flawless tile. You then drop it, or in some fashion shatter the tile to break it into sharp, jagged, usable pieces. After the first breaking, you take a specialized type of pliers to crush off rough edges or create new edges, to shape it into the perfect piece to create the design. Without that shattering and crushing, the tile might be flawless, but it would be useless for its intended purpose. The artist creating the mosaic sees the bigger picture and breaks each piece to create a stunning masterpiece that brings joy and beauty into the world. Sometimes, we are that tile.

When my wife and I first got to Mexico, the children in the orphanage had seen a lot of people come through and had heard a lot of false promises. When they met us, in their eyes, we were just another couple that was going to abandon them. The first few weeks they tested us, and we had a hard time connecting with our limited experience and horrible Spanish. One night, while talking with some of the teen boys, it came up that my mother had died when I was fairly young and my wife came from her own challenging upbringing. The moment they heard about our histories, I could see something change in their expressions that said: “Oh, they get it.” Suddenly, although our Spanish still sucked, and we still had a LOT to learn, a door was opened between us, and we had a connection. Without the pain we had gone through, that door would not have opened. Without our histories, I doubt we would be in orphan care today.

We interview a lot of people who feel called to orphan care and want to join our team, and we ask all the standard questions. The one question where I carefully watch their response is “tell me about your childhood.” If they get nervous, they move to the top of the list. Over the years, we’ve found that our BEST staff are the ones with the worst childhood. I don’t wish pain on anyone, but I know God can use it. Abandonment, child of divorce, alcoholic parents, time in foster care, should never have to happen. But man, it can create people of depth and understanding. They “get” the pain our children have gone through. They understand the healing that needs to take place, and how to guide our children through it. The Master has used their broken edges to shape them in such a way that He can use them for a masterpiece.

We had one long-term volunteer come in that seemed perfect, on paper. He was raised in a great family, very polite, came from a very active church, impressive education, etc. It quickly became apparent that he was a disaster in orphan care. He didn’t do anything wrong exactly; he just couldn’t connect with the kids. He didn’t get it; there was no empathy in him. He even had a hard time connecting with the other team members on a deeper level. It just didn’t work. In talking to him even, he used the term “charmed life” when referring to his history. Ideal family, small-town upbringing, popular in school, etc. He had never really suffered anything. He went home to the US after a few months and he’s doing fine, I’m sure he’ll have a good life, but his lack of suffering hindered his ability to minister to those in need. He had never been broken.

If you’ve gone through loss, abandonment, the death of loved ones, etc., take joy in knowing that we have a loving Father, a master artist, who can take our broken, rough edges and shape them into a masterpiece. If we’ve turned the pain over to God, and allowed Him to move us through healing, we can now be the tools He will use to change lives. There is nothing that has happened to us that God can not use if we allow Him.

If you’re in orphan care, the healing process is long, complicated, and can sometimes be an agonizing experience as we lead children through the pain. But it can work. God can bring children through horrific experiences and bring them to a healthy place. The sad truth is, not every child heals emotionally. Some will make poor life decisions and never reach that place where they have moved on from what’s been done to them. Our job as caregivers is to guide our children to healing, to show them that what’s been done to them is not who they are. We always need to remember that God is the master, the artist, who will shape the broken parts into His perfect masterpiece. We just carry the broken tile to the Artist.

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Short-term Missions Leadership

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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.