Most of us go on a mission trip—to orphanages, inner-city neighborhoods, the hollows of Appalachia—with a desire to impact the people we meet. We begin with a desire to do good, to see change and to be a part of something meaningful. But the truth is, when we go to these places and meet the real people who live there, we are the ones who leave changed.
I’ve led more mission trips than I can count, and over and over again I see the same narrative take place. The people who come to give are the ones who end up receiving far more from the experience. It’s not what most people initially expect to happen, but it does. Through my own travels and cross-cultural relationships, my faith has been refined and challenged by the most unlikely people—homeless people under bridges; students from small, indigenous villages; and local pastors who are deeply invested in their work.
As a result of these relationships, I’ve started to have a shift in mindset and ask different questions about my role in the world. Here are a few that keep coming up, even though sometimes just asking the question can feel like I’m pushing against what I was always told about missions.
What if it’s not my job to change the world?
As a millennial Christian living in the United States, it seems almost heretical not to embrace the call to change the world. I went to a Christian university that had a course titled “World Changers” and a “World-Changer Hall of Fame” which recognized Christian leaders who had an influence in mainstream culture—football coaches, authors, artists. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating their contributions to the world. They’re all important, deserving people.
But as I’ve visited new places and wrestled with hard questions about my own faith, I’ve begun to question this calling. Does it actually come from Jesus or is it more an anthem of the American church?
After all, Jesus never asked us to change the world—at least, He didn’t use those words.
As Americans, we like to see results. During short-term mission trips, we often ask the question, “What am I going to do?” because we feel the legitimacy of our time and donor support hinges on this question. We’re on a fixed schedule. We don’t have forever to see meaningful change happen. We want to build the building, see a record number of children show up for the VBS program and take home “before and after” pictures from the community cleanup day. But is this kind of change really what we are called to? Is there something more?
The problem is, our agenda often distinguishes us (the people going) as the heroes—as if we’re the ones with everything figured out and everyone should look more like us. Especially when we’re working in a cross-cultural setting, the American (or more privileged) voice is often the loudest in the room. We unintentionally start with the assumption that our Western culture has it all figured out instead of listening to people who might have a different perspective.
I love the story of a Kenyan pastor who likes to visit Walmart whenever he is in the United States. He says, “I discover solutions to problems I never even thought of!” As Americans, we don’t like to live with problems. We value efficiency and cleanliness and results. But sometimes in our eagerness to do good for someone, we end up treating them like a target for our charity. We focus our attention on the physical needs and forget to see the richness many communities possess in the form of relationships, faith or connectedness to creation. When we are focused on doing, we miss out on learning.
What if instead of trying to change people, we started by looking at our own lives first?
Although Jesus never asked us to change the world, He does call us to live a life that is worthy of being called salt and light in the world. It’s a command we need to take seriously. And it may start with evaluating our own hearts.
I love the Scripture in 1 Peter 3:15 that says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” This verse implies that our lives will be such a striking reflection of Christ that people will ask about Him—so we have to be ready with an answer. A gentle answer that keeps the door open for more conversations. A gracious tone that gives people the space they need to grow. This approach is so different than the way most of us are told we should be sharing our faith.
What if we let our lives do the talking?
At Experience Mission, we often challenge mission trip team members to slow down as they enter a new community and culture and ask the question, “How am I going to live?” This question shifts the focus from going and doing and documenting and leaving, and instead challenges us to press pause—to slow down and enjoy everyday moments with the people we meet. When we set our to-do list aside, we start to love people better.
If we lead with our agenda, what happens when people don’t change right away?
Love is authentic when it doesn’t have conditions. People feel dignified when they know they aren’t just a target or a project. Change is lasting when it isn’t forced. Our purpose is clear when we recognize we are simply part of the harvesting process that we read about in 1 Corinthians 5, “Some plant, some water, some see the harvest—but God is at the center of the growth.”
When we go into a mission trip with a to-do list instead of a genuine love for people—we’ll leave disappointed. Most walls need another coat of paint. Most people aren’t free from addictions in a week. Most community or cultural issues are so deeply rooted that it could take years to see transformation. But when we paint and build and connect and serve in a way that lets our lives reflect Jesus, we can begin to have the type of impact we hope for. We might not change the world, but we may be lucky enough to love someone well and receive something in return.
[This article originally appeared in 2017]