I love this time of the year because there's a growing buzz among young people due to summer missions.
Trip applications have been turned in. Teams are being formed. Fundraising is about to begin. It's an exciting time.
But from my observations, I wonder if those going on missions trips (whether it's through one's local church or para-church ministry) could sometimes exercise greater wisdom for how they could win over their local churches, not only for greater financial support but for emotional/relational support as well.
Before you assume I'm some kind of short-term missions hater, please know that I love seeing young people mobilized for missions.
Just from the group I directly minister to in my own local church context, there are 18 college students participating in missions this summer with 4 of my staffers leading a number of these trips. We've seen double-digit numbers of students go out the previous years and I've tried (imperfectly) to do what I can to increase visibility for these students.
Now it's true that I haven't gone overseas in recent years, so I understand if some think I'm speaking as an "outsider." But that's precisely why I believe I could write this piece because my perspective comprehends the viewpoint of your average churchgoer while also desiring the overseas mobilization of as many people as possible.
Rather than some kind of cynical critique, this is my earnest attempt to help those going overseas to maximize their influence to win over as much support of every kind possible from their local churches.
But first, here are my observations on the kinds of things goers can do to rub their churches the wrong way:
1. Don't take financial ownership.
It's a little confusing for church folks when someone hands them a missions support letter while their insta-stories have a continuous stream of coffee runs, brunch panini's and a strangely too frequent all-you-can-eat sushi/kbbq runs in boomerang.
No, there's nothing wrong with anyone spending money on coffee or food. But if someone doesn't have a job, won't work a job, but spends like they have a job, while aggressively asking people to fund their missions trip for them to the glory of God, it's emotionally confusing for people.
I've had people ask me why some people trying to raise support eat out so much. I just laugh and say, "Cause they're hungry." But I get their rationale.
Think about this for a moment. If you've ever received a support letter, doesn't the letter always verbalize ideas of cosmic implications? The goer utilizes phrases like, "This summer I have the immense privilege of serving the Lord Jesus Christ in (fill in the blank location)..." or "I believe God has called all believers to the Great Commission." Why do letters include this? Because the goers wants people to know that any given support is going to the worthiest cause in all the world. But wouldn't you agree that this applies to all parties including the one going too?
So while the goer absolutely can spend money, and should ask for money, it also involves one's very own stewardship of money as well.
2. Don't pay attention to the social optics.
Teams spend a ton of time together, create great memories, and more importantly, are being bound together in the greatest way possible: for the advance of the gospel. It's a special bond forged for Kingdom advance exemplied between Paul and the church of Philippi (Philippians 1: 3-11).
I personally think there's nothing wrong with teams showing the world what their team is doing through social media and so forth. In fact, it's re-assuring for me that they really are going on a mission trip! Sure, some people will feel butthurt and left out, but that's their own fault for not signing up to go in the first place.
But my question is - can there be a certain point in which the social overtone of your team begins to hurt the perception of the team and the cause? I think yes. This can happen when team members who attend the same church eat intra-team, share inside jokes, to the exclusion of others around them. This can happen when the person who never shows up to his or her church small group, complains about church accountability, but will forego church functions for mission team hangouts.
I think churches want to celebrate the fellowship of the missions team, but I think teams can help and hurt that desire as well.
*And since we're here, a sincere question for missions teams that went years ago but still make it a point to hang out. At what point does it become more about reminiescing about the good times of the past rather than an engaged conversation about our present and future participation in the work of Jesus in the here and now?
3. Bypass relevant church leaders.
"Wait, are you saying I need my church's permission or something?"
For the sake of argument, let's just say "no." But even just relationally speaking, the goer could at the very least loop in the church and pertinent leaders as to what he or she plans to do.
As an example, place yourself in the mind of a small group leader. You invest yourself relationally and emotionally into a person. And then you get an invitation from him or her out of the blue (on Facebook) that they're going overseas for the summer? I mean, sure you'd be happy and you should be, but don't you wish you they at least gave you a prior heads up, especially since you're arguably one of the bigger points of accountability in his or her life?
I wish goers would consider how better communicating with their church could help them win. Sure, some churches may not be as receptive, but there are church leaders out there who genuinely do want to know ahead of time because it enables them to strategize with the staff (or elders) about how to better give financial/emotional assistance.
4. Reduce "The Mission" to your mission trip.
This is an attitude of the goer that views his or her mission trip as the apex expression of the Great Commission (making disciples).
It's when the goer begins to believe, "It does not get more faithful than getting on an airplane, going to a foreign place, and serving people for a month." This belief can begin to leak out in one's negative attitude towards other ministry expressions.
For example, the individual can look at one's own church prior to leaving and think, "Do we even care about the Great Commission or are we just playing church?" The individual can look at one's church small group upon returning and think, "These people don't get it. They just want to serve in kid's ministries and milk their movie passes."
Please don't get me wrong. I think mission trips are a praiseworthy and sacrifcial expression of the Great Commission. I'm just saying going on a mission trip doesn't give someone the authority to dishonor faithful men and women of God who are doing their best to live out the Great Commission through other ways and means in their spheres/contexts. Other ministries are not necessarily deficient forms of obedience.
So, what could goers do to more strategically get the local church on board?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Loop in your church. Give your pastor a heads up. Ask him for prayer. Let your church small group know. If you volunteer in the youth or children's ministry, loop in the volunteer lead and ask those kids for prayer (seriously!)
Also, don't hesitate to courageously ask your pastor and church leaders if there are any kind of financial scholarships available for those going on mission trips. (This is where you making your case of how you're taking financial ownership will work to your advantage). Ask your pastor if he would be open to you organizing some kind of fundraiser. Don't bring it up in a way where you're asking him to do all the work, but that you will do all the heavy lifting and you just want him greenlighting on your behalf. And guess what, if he says "no," hear him out, and thank him anyways. Don't get butthurt!
2. Be wise on social media. Yes, it may be your personal account, but remember that what you post is public. People will form an opinion based off what they see, removed from context, while placing in their own biases and life frustrations. Post things up about your team. It's a great way to update people! But it won't hurt you to take an extra moment to consider how something might be perceived either.
3. Celebrate the work of God at your church. When you hear about all the things your church will be doing while you're off in another part of the world, make a decision in your heart to give praise to God for it. Pray and ask God to use it to bless people.
When you return, and people ask about your trip. Rave about it. Paint a glorious and accurate picture of all that God did. Share with people your bleeding heart for the nations. And then ask about how they're doing and what the church has been up to. Don't just expect a one-way celebration, but make it two-way praise session.
If you're a pastor, church leader, or church member, here are a few things local churches could do to better support goers in their churches:
1. Have the right attitude. Please don't be pessimistic and critical. Some of us raise fair questions regarding the long-term effectiveness of short-term missions, but it must also be raised in a timely manner, in the right context, with the right heart. Don't quench the passion of young people who are sincerely trying to live out the Great Commission. If we're quick to bring up stats and question the motives of young people without creating a plan to mobilize them through our own local churches, our arguments may be more rooted in jealousy and insecurity than we care to admit.
2. Give something. Anything. It's okay if you can't give a lot, but you can give something. Yes, we may not be able to give $150 for 10 people, but we can give 10 people $15. This will require financial stewardship on our end as well. It is not enough for us to expect rigorous financial stewardship from goers, while the senders live financially flippantly. That's hypocritical.
3. Be interested and really care. While some of us are quick to throw money for missions, it's also much easier to do that than to take genuine interest and concern as well. We can ask questions. We can commit to pray for them and then actually do it. We can show up to the airport to send-off if our schedules allow. We can follow-up afterwards through hallway conversations in the church, lunch, or simply through email correspondance.
I believe in summer mission trips because of the many lives and examples of young people I've personally witnessed going every summer.
They leave with big hearts only to come back with bigger hearts for Jesus, burning hearts for the Great Commission, and a burden for their local church.
May God allow goers and senders to hold hands in unity, not just for the benefit of a church, or a trip, but the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.