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.

 

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.