WE DON’T NEED YOUR ORGANIC GARDEN

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

How to Melt a Snowflake

Snowman with a blank placard on the snowSome good friends of mine run a ministry coordinating short-term mission trips to an inspiring orphanage in Ghana (see links below). Some of the students and adults they bring to Ghana are from affluent areas of California and have been protected from the bulk of reality most of their lives. You know the type, people quickly offended by anything and easily “triggered.” I once joked with the leaders that they’re the first people to transport snowflakes into Ghana. Yes, it’s a corny joke. But to push the joke further, the best way to melt a snowflake is to apply heat. These trips are exceptional at melting snowflakes.

More and more, American society is easily offended. Many comedians now refuse to work the college circuit because anything they joke about offends everyone in the room. Politicians need to check every word and phrase before they speak. People are afraid to hear from others who they do not agree with, as if they might bruise if they hear or see something that doesn’t confirm their own beliefs. It’s harder and harder to have intelligent discussions on any topic without it becoming a polarizing issue. Try bringing up vaccinations, gun control, immigration, veganism, or any other topic and wait for the reactions to begin. The idea that other people might have beliefs different than ours and still be functioning intelligent people, in no small degree, has been lost.

So how do we, and others, begin to lose the snowflake mentality? By leaving our sheltered routine and meeting people outside our circle. We change and grow by exposing ourselves to new cultures, new experiences, and new people. Our world becomes bigger, as we realize how big the world is. We grow when we stop and listen, to really pay attention, to what the other person is saying.

There’s something powerful and life-changing about stepping out of our normal routine. Wherever you are in life, odds are your routine is fairly set. You have the same job, working with the same people. You probably attend a church with people who look a lot like you and from the same income bracket. When you eat out, you probably rotate the same restaurants over and over: burgers, Italian, Mexican, repeat. This is not a judgment; it’s just an observation. People naturally fall into a routine in their lives. Sometimes, it’s good to mix things up a little. God generally speaks to us on the mountaintop, not in line at our regular Starbucks.

Before my wife and I moved to Mexico, semi-regular short term mission trips were an essential part of our lives. The trips we took both as individuals before we met, and later traveling together were life-changing and broadening experiences for both of us. These short-term trips are where we first felt the call to full-time missions. Once we were living in Mexico and actively involved in orphan care, people assumed our days of short-term missions work were over. My wife continues to take frequent trips with our local church to mainland Mexico, and we’ve both been to Africa several times. Our lives, and our faith, require that we break up the routine. We all need to take a chance and serve alongside people outside our usual circle of influence.

My first trip to Africa had a profound impact on my approach to ministry and orphan care. We had already been caring for orphans in Mexico for many years, and I thought I had a handle on it. I was (and still am) an idiot. In Malawi, I was exposed to a level of financial poverty that was life-altering. It’s one thing to read about or watch documentaries on extreme poverty, it’s an entirely other thing to experience life with people living in those situations. We saw deep pain, as a mother begged us to take her four-year-old son so he could have a better life. We also experienced people with a depth of faith that put ours to shame. It was two weeks of an emotional workout, and we were stronger for it.

As the years of ministry pass by, I’ve become a passionate advocate of short-term missions. Yes, when short-term teams are managed correctly, they can have a powerful and positive impact, but the individuals on the teams are also impacted. Horizons are broadened, minds are opened, and the seeds of empathy are planted or expanded as people experience new cultures.

If you, or people in your influence, seem to be a little too easily offended, you might have a snowflake issue going on. Think about spending some time serving others for a week or so. Let the cold, self-righteous attitude of the snowflake melt away as it’s exposed to warmth.

To plan a trip to Ghana or to Mexico, please contact Be2live, or contact me directly through this blog.

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The Toilet Paper Police

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Years ago, our ministry had “the toilet paper police.” A gentleman on our staff was in charge of all the soap and cleaning supply distribution to our very large orphanage. This is actually a tremendous job when you think about it: all the soap, TP, shampoo, pine cleaner, diapers, toothpaste, etc. for 120 children, plus the staff, plus the many visiting teams we host. Human beings just go through a LOT of supplies. This gentleman (we’ll call him Bob) was very detailed. Bob would keep lists, track everything, look for patterns in supply usage, etc. Although it was all with the best of intentions, he was kind of a pain. He eventually got the nickname of “the toilet paper police.” He was trying to do the best job possible, and he might have saved us some money, but what was the real cost? What damage was he doing to relationships by stalking people over one extra roll of TP? Kids get sick, people fall in the mud, things change. Sometimes it’s just better to let some things slide for the greater good.

The toilet paper thing might seem odd, but the same controlling attitude can easily flow into other areas of ministry. Some people make a plan or agenda and can get VERY upset if things need to change. When we have a flu outbreak, and most of our kids are throwing up, it’s hard to force them to participate in the great vacation bible school program you had planned. If your group was scheduled to paint a building, I understand it’s frustrating if it rains that day, but that is not in my control. Sometimes things change. When you have a large team, traveling to a foreign country, things changing is the norm.

This week we had a group working hard to prepare lunch for our large family. We occasionally have government inspections (always a lot of fun by the way). Once the group had the spaghetti in the boiling water and cookies in the oven for dessert, we all had to participate in a mandatory government fire drill. I’m sure the group wasn’t expecting or planning on this, but they flowed perfectly and actually saw the humor in the whole situation. The group standing around with our kids while a head count was done turned into kind of a cool experience.

Occasionally, something happens that completely derails the best-laid plans. It’s so critical to realize, God might have a plan that is very different than our schedule or agenda. If we’re focused on our frustration of missed flights, miscommunication about transportation, or people getting sick, we might miss out on a very different opportunity. How we respond in the midst of changes, challenges, and frustrations shows everyone around us who we honestly see as being in charge. Are these our plans, or God’s plans?

Now and then, plans change entirely. In two weeks, we have a fantastic group coming from the Midwest to build a house for a needy family in our town. The planning has been going on for months. Blueprints have been finalized, and materials have been purchased, pictures of the family have been sent to the group, etc. This young family has four children, one of their sons is special needs. The details were in place, and everyone was expecting a fantastic week of service and relationship building. This week, everything changed in a way that no one would have expected. Due to what we believe is a reaction to some medication she was on, the mother of this family of four passed away two nights ago. Understandably, the husband and the four children are devastated. We are helping with funeral arrangements and doing what we can to support the family. It seems trivial in the face of death, but what do we do with the home build project? As of the writing of this blog, the group is planning on moving forward with the home build, but the changes are bringing phenomenal challenges and opportunities to minister at a vastly more profound level. Flexibility on the part of the group will be essential for everyone even remotely involved with this project.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. But unexpected changes are the norm with life in general, and international missions especially. Part of it is the bizarreness of international travel; part of it is different cultures and systems than most groups are used to. But part of it is also a spiritual dynamic. There will always be challenges and barriers to effective ministry. The key to getting through those challenges and barriers is to see them differently. The changes we encounter, the disruptions to our plans, can lead to incredible opportunities for service and ministry as long as our hearts are in the right place and we keep our eyes open to those divine appointments that God has laid out for us.

Be organized, plan well, but always remember to allow for the unexpected. Allow for God to set things in motion in ways that we didn’t prepare for. Please don’t be the toilet paper police.

Any donations to support our mission efforts are greatly apprecated. A dollar or two through the “donate” button would mean a lot. Thanks.

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Short-term Missions Leadership

pexels-photo-346885Leadership 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 2018 alone, we hosted and helped facilitate over 300 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 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 your 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 the 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 a 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 a world-changing impact. Go and have your world changed.

Any donations to support our mission efforts are greatly apprecated. A dollar or two through the “donate” button would mean a lot. Thanks.

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The Failure of the Individual and Short-Term Missions

pexels-photo-670720At some point, over the last few decades, there has been a subtle yet consistent shift away from the idea of community, to the rise of individual above all else. It’s not working. Addiction and suicide are at an all-time high; in many age groups suicide is the leading cause of death. The church is shrinking at an alarming rate. Depression and loneliness are rampant.

As society shifts from focusing on the community as a whole to focusing on each individual’s desires and achievements, we are losing the very thing that gives us meaning. At almost every turn, technology and shifting attitudes are slowly driving society apart and leading people into their own little cocoons. We need to be connected; we are created to interact with a wide range of people; we are called to sacrifice for others. It’s time to look at how to foster a sense of community again.

Years ago, there was “appointment TV viewing,” the whole family would sit together and watch the same show along with millions of others across the country at the same time. This sounds quaint or primitive now that we can each have our own on-demand screen in front of us and watch exactly what we want when we want it. The downside of on-demand is that, with a few exceptions, that bonding through community viewing doesn’t happen. Outside of the Superbowl or a major news event, there is no common discussion the next day about the latest show that we all watched.

The idea of each of us having our own screens is a small example of how the priority of community is shifting. Few people would argue the fact that America has never been so divided. People have always had opinions, but now that we can watch the news on TV or online catered and designed to reinforce our already deeply held beliefs, we don’t need to listen to any opinion that might call into question where we stand. If we never listen to the other side, they become a bigger and more dangerous enemy in our minds — not a great way to build community.

Subtle changes are taking place all around us. If we want to “eat out” we don’t have to sit with people we don’t know; we can just open the app and have the food brought to our home. We don’t need to go to the mall anymore and interact with real people to buy things; Amazon is just a click away. When was the last time any of us hung out in a book store and browsed around with others with the same interest? When we go to buy groceries, we can self-check to avoid the two minutes of contact with the cashier.

More people are living alone than at any time in the history of America. Fewer people are getting married than at any time in history. Half of all children in America are now born into un-wed situations. Examples of the collapse of community are all around us. Too many people are living in their own little world, and missing out on the interactions and messiness that makes us human.

Even within the ever-shrinking church, many people who are “members” choose to sit at home on Sunday and watch the service online. Interacting with real people is just too much trouble. For the people who are present, as the collection plate is passed in church, many people miss out on the ritual of offering tithes as one body because they’ve already given online automatically.

Although we need a personal relationship with Christ, and God desires that, it’s crucial to recognize the importance of the Church body as a whole and what that means. As we read the Gospels, Jesus spoke to many individuals, but He often spoke about the collective body of believers. The bride of Christ is one, not millions of individual brides. When the apostles asked Jesus how to pray, He gave the Lord’s Prayer as an example. There is not one personal pronoun in the Lord’s prayer. Not one petition for an individual. OUR Father…OUR daily bread…forgive US OUR sins…lead US.  You get the idea. The body of Christ needs each other; we need each other.

So what does this little rant have to do with short-term missions? One of the many benefits of short-term missions is the building of community. You can sit in the same church with the same people for years and never really get to know them. Spend a week traveling in Uganda, or Mexico, or Kenya, and you will get to know them, whether you want to or not. You will see them without makeup and before coffee. You will be forced to sleep in the same room and hear who snores. You will see how each person reacts to difficulties and joys. You will be forced to become a little more transparent. You will learn more about the people in your church, and they will learn more about you, than in ten years of Sundays.

Short-term missions also bring into focus what the Bible teaches about the body of Christ. By traveling out with a team to visit other churches and communities, we have the privilege of living and working with people from wildly different cultures, but with the same Heavenly Father. We get to spend time with our brothers and sisters. We get to experience worship in ways that are beyond what we could ever imagine. We get to bump up against people who are living and walking in faith that sets the bar higher than we might be used to. We have the profound and life-altering experience of living in community with the Church.

Experience community again, make it a point to spend time with people who stretch you. If you can, go on a short-term mission trip. It will change you for the better, your faith will be deeper, your connection to the church will strengthen, and you can help other believers around the world.

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Short-term Missions Start at Home

teamI’m a huge advocate of short-term missions. There is something about traveling to another country to share, serve, and experience life with others that is life-changing. Short-term mission trips are incredible for all involved when they are done in a healthy, reciprocal way. The best way to become a great short-term missionary is to be a great missionary to your community at home. Missions and Christian service should flow out of us all the time, wherever we are.

Several years ago, after I had been living in Mexico for a while, I was on the phone venting to a friend of mine after an exceptionally difficult week. I shared that I was involved in so many mission activities that I didn’t know where the line was between my missions life and my private life. He paused for a minute, and then responded with a few words that, although obvious, kind of shook my world, “Isn’t that the whole point? Our faith, our testimony, NEEDS to be our whole lives.”

The idea of anyone being a “missionary” for just a short trip is very odd when you step back and examine it. If we believe in the Gospel, and all that the Gospel is, it needs to be flowing out of us whenever and wherever we are. We can not compartmentalize our faith to a week-long trip or just a few activities to be checked off our “to-do” list. It needs to be who we are.

For many youth groups and churches, the short-term mission trip has become a staple of their annual activity, and this is a great thing. The important thing is to also be developing the heart of a missionary throughout the year and not just leading up to the week-long trip to Mexico, Africa, or Haiti. Why can’t any activity a youth group does be seen as missions? Throughout the year, we should be looking at any activity we do as part of our missions field. To compartmentalize missions into one or two weeks misses the whole point. We are called to serve others, build a relationship with others, and share the gospel through every part of our lives.

Even when a team is serving with us here in Mexico, we often see the compartmentalization of missions. “This is our schedule: work on these days, and then a fun day.” “We’re working for the morning, but then we’re going to the beach.” It’s like a switch gets flipped back and forth: “Christian / just a person / Christian again.” Fun days and beach days are great; we’re called to have a day of rest. But we need to be aware of those divine appointments that God has set up for us wherever we are, not just when the planned activities are taking place. We also need to be keenly aware that we represent the Gospel, for good or bad, wherever we are. We’ve seen way too many teams put on great programs with polished dramas, then turn around and destroy their testimony by going into our community and being rude and obnoxious in stores, restaurants, and with their general interactions with others.

It’s hard to imagine the early apostles compartmentalizing their evangelistic efforts. “Next week I’m traveling to Ephesus, planning some great activities.” “We’re practicing a really great drama for Corinth.” Yes, they traveled to all those locations, but I’m sure they were sharing the Gospel with their immediate neighbors, people in the market place, and people they just met along the road. Jesus had set that example. He obviously spoke with large crowds and presented very focused teachings, but He also shined at small gatherings, with the woman at the well, and whenever and wherever He interacted with others. This needs to be our goal as Christians.

The best training for short-term missions is becoming a missionary to your community. If you’re planning on building a home for someone in Mexico, practice by volunteering to do home repairs for someone in your church. If you’re going to do food distribution in Haiti, volunteer at a local food bank in your home town for a few hours a week. If you want to reach the broken or lonely in Africa, visit a retirement home and build some relationships down the block from where you are now. If you’re going to serve the world, start with washing the dishes for others in your own home.

At no time in history has it been so easy or cheap to travel around the world, this gives us incredible opportunities to share and serve with others. But, if we’re not sharing and helping with others who we live with and interact with every day, why should our lives be different because we’ve traveled to another country and are living out of a backpack?

Take a mission trip, go into the world and experience the profound joy of serving with others and representing Christ well. But practice at home first. Your walk with Christ will be better, your life will be better, and you’ll be a better missionary, wherever you are.

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Back the Heroes

toiletI’m not a big fan of mission statements and taglines. Mission statements or taglines can serve a purpose, but too often they are written in a way to only make the organization look good. Most of the time, tag-lines are only a vague shadow of what any organization is actually about. Up until very recently, Google’s tagline was “Don’t be evil.”, weird, cool, but it has nothing to do with day-to-day operations or objectives of Google Inc.. (Ironically, I had to “Google” Google’s tagline…)

I’m part of an organization that has a tagline that is actually powerful: “Back the Heroes.” It sounds obvious at first, find someone doing great work and back them. Find the right person and help them. Come alongside someone changing the world and help them work towards the goals they are pursuing. Backing the heroes happens less than you would think, especially in short-term missions.

Too often, people want to build their ministry, not THE ministry. This happens in a lot of churches, not just in missions. People in ministry who are more concerned about being in charge, being the one on the microphone, building their own kingdom of followers. If a pastor doesn’t work with other ministries, it’s a problem. If a worship leader has to lead every song, never giving others the privilege, it’s a problem. We have a local pastor in our town who, although far from perfect, does get one thing right every time. He’s always open to having good teachers take the pulpit for a weekend. Not many pastors are secure enough to do that.

In short-term missions, people often want to do it on their own. They want to build their own kingdom, not THE Kingdom. This can be a problem because, by definition, a short-term mission is SHORT-TERM. Ministry, real ministry, takes time. Time to get to know people, time to build relationships, time to earn trust, etc. The only way to be effective in short-term missions it to come alongside someone, or some organization, that has been on the ground for a while. Someone who knows the people, the needs, and the best way to reach the goals at hand. For effective short-term missions, you need to back the heroes.

Mattew 20: 25-28 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

When we decide to back the heroes, it means it’s not all about us anymore. It means coming alongside someone and helping them reach their goals, helping them be successful. There is not a lot of glory in being the water-boy, or the sound guy, or the timekeeper at the 5K, but those jobs matter a great deal. The neglected people in the background are the ones who make the difference between success and failure.

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” ― John Wooden.

A team I’m part of recently had the privilege of helping with a great ministry serving in some of the most impoverished areas of Tijuana. A small, underfunded church, led by a great man, is changing the world. Pastor Albert is all glowing energy. He pastors a church with passion and in his spare time has built a powerful ministry feeding and caring for the immigrants who have landed at the border of Mexico and the US. He feeds between 500 and 1,000 people a day and is now housing immigrant families on cots in his church.

The “back the heroes” ministry I mentioned came alongside Pastor Albert to help with a day of outreach. Our short-term team prepared meals, passed out gifts and blankets to families, and helped organize a church service and worship time for those interested (using another local pastor and worship team who know the people well). Although our short-term team did an incredible job, it would have been nothing without Albert and his profound vision for the people in his area. He gave direction leading up to the event, steered us away from some ideas that would not have worked, and lead us with grace and vision. We found a hero and showed up to carry the water (quite literally in this case).

“Don’t be evil.” Google’s tagline, might actually work for a ministry, but take it a step further. Back the heroes.

If you would like to join us in backing the heroes, please contact me or check our website www.strongtowerministries.org

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