In Defense Of The Mission Trip

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If there’s one thing that the Internet is good at, it is the ability to remind us all of how terrible we are.

Take food for example. You want to eat healthy so you make the switch to skim milk and homemade wheat bread. The Internet is there to remind you that you’re pretty much a suicidal moron for coming within two feet of dairy and bread.

What about exercise? You decide to drop a few pounds so you start doing CrossFit. How dare you?! Don’t you know that some guy once pulled his lower tablium muscle while doing CrossFit?

No matter how hard you try, it’s never enough. No alternative is adequate. You are a terrible person.

The latest thing that we’re all doing wrong is the short-term mission trip. If you’ve grown up in church, you know how these things work. A church group goes to a far away location in order to meet some sort of need in hopes of telling others about Jesus. The trips usually last for a week or two.

In the opinion of some, needs are rarely ever met on such trips. Well, except for our need for self-glory, that is. So says, Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta in a piece entitled #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Volunteerism.

“Volunteerism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.”

To be fair, this is often the case. There are people who go on mission trips just to mark something off of their bucket list or to get a picture taken of them holding an African baby so that they can add some color to their Facebook profile.

But does this justify setting fire to the entire concept of short-term missions? Just because a white volunteer has a picture taken with a black baby at some orphanage?

If so, shouldn’t we also stop preaching sermons, loving our neighbor and moving toward the hurting in our own communities? After all, those are things that can be done from self-centered motives. Am I the only one who has ever hoped that someone was watching while I was doing something spiritual?

The classic theological doctrine of total depravity is not the belief that every human being is a blood thirsty, vile, pervert who is just a moment away from becoming a serial killer. Instead, it teaches us that all that we do, even good things like short-term missions trips, carries the stain of sin. That doesn’t mean that we should stop doing those good things. It just means that we must fight hard against sin and our draw toward self-glory as we do them.

The short-term mission trip is not the problem. The problem is how we look at the short-term mission trip. It’s easy to think that in ten days, we’re going to bring what has never happened in the place that we are visiting – revival, clean water and a new school building. This is rarely the case. When we visit another culture for a week or two in hopes of drastically and fundamentally changing that culture, we are doing it wrong.

Instead, we should be praying for that week in another country to change us as we try to meet whatever needs there may be.

Here’s what I mean.

I’ve led several short-term missions trips. Some have been in this country and a few have been overseas. At some point, during each trip, I’ve heard the following.

“Why aren’t we doing something like this back where we live?”

“I want to go back. For longer. Maybe for good.”

Bingo!

Those kind of phrases are like crack cocaine for pastors. We can never get enough of them. That’s why short-term mission trips are important. They leave the volunteers, those evil imperialists who only care about themselves, with a greater sense of the needs around the world. At the very least, these trips help us to know how to pray and spend our money through the lens of the Great Commission. But in some cases, as I have seen, they leave the volunteer with a thirst for more. He comes back home with a desire to spend the rest of his life in another part of the world and helping others by sharing and demonstrating the gospel.

I am a narcissist. So are you.

But that shouldn’t keep us from whatever task God has put before us.

Some of the greatest acts of generosity I have ever seen happened in my church parking lot. For several years in a row, after our church’s Christmas Eve service, I would walk back to the family car with my mom and sister to find presents waiting for us. One time, someone gave us a car in that church parking lot.

I don’t know the motives behind those acts of grace. Who knows? Maybe there was some narcissism involved on the part of the giver. But I’m sure glad that they didn’t let that stop them from the good that they did.

When it comes to the Internet, you just can’t win. Your clean eating isn’t clean enough. Your new workout plan is too dangerous. Your move to the rough part of town is gentrification, not love. That picture you posted on Facebook of you with a Kenyan pastor standing in front of the school you both helped to build was arrogant and probably contributed to global warming. And on and on and on.

Thankfully, we don’t answer to the Internet. But we do answer to a God who has proven his excellence at taking our sin tainted good works and somehow still using them for his glory and the good of others.

He does it through me regularly as I try to walk the line between narcissism and apathy.

And he has repeatedly done it for me as he delivers his good and perfect gifts to me by the hands of others who are trying to walk that same line.

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