My very first short-term mission trip was in 2003 when I was in high school. Our team, like many other high school mission trips, went to Mexico to build houses, lay down some water piping, and hold a VBS for the local kids. I remember the anticipation leading up to that trip, and the things I was looking forward to: “I finally get to see Mexico!” “I can’t wait to just chill and play guitar.” “There will be plenty of down time to hangout and talk with girls from my youth group ;)”
While this trip was the beginning of the pursuit towards long-term missions in my life, I can’t help but look back and laugh at young, 16yo Clark, for the many foolish reasons that led me to go on that first short-term trip.
As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’ve decided to take the next few weeks to devote my blog (and semi-relaunch a blog that’s been on hiatus the last few months) to answering common questions concerning missions. And the first, and possibly most important question to ask when considering missions is, “Why should I go on short-term missions?” While this is logically the most common question people should first ask when pursuing short-term missions, I’ve actually found that it’s one of those questions that’s not given much attention.
3 Common Reasons NOT to Go
Whenever I ask people the question, “Why are you going on short-term missions?” I get a number of answers. But the most common answers I’ve heard can be boiled down to three main reasons: investment, accomplishment, and growth. Usually these are manifested in such statements like: “I have nothing to do this summer.” “I have the time to go on short-term missions, so why not?” “I want to see the country of _____.” “I want to serve and use my gifts in the area of _______.” “I want to grow.”
While these aren’t necessarily sinful reasons for going (though they very well could be coming from a sinful, selfish heart), they are ultimately all man-centered reasons for going. If you really think about the core of these reasons for going on short-term missions, they are all born out of a completely “me”-centered desire.
Reason #1: Investment
When someone says “I have the time to go on short-term missions,” what they’re ultimately saying is “I’m looking to invest my time, in order to gain the greatest return for me.”
Reason #2: Accomplishment
“I want to see the country of ______,” is less about an individual’s desire to engage in God’s mission to the nations, but more about an individual’s desire to engage in world tourism and sight-seeing, or just plain curiosity.
“I want to serve and use my gifts” is just as equally “me”-centered. It makes the mission more about the individual’s gifts and ways he can serve, than about the actual mission to be carried out. The mission becomes less about the work to be done for God’s glory and mission, and more about personal achievement and a sense of accomplishment. You can tell if this was the desire of a short-term team that has returned from the field, if their testimonies are more about what they did, than what God is doing overseas. Though statements like, “It was amazing to see God use us and our gifts to bless the people,” may sound noble and God honoring, it still rests on the exaltation of the individual work of the team, rather than the grand work of God amongst the lost.
Reason #3: Growth
Even the most heartfelt statement I’ve heard from teams training to go on short-term missions, “I want to grow” is, at its core, a man-centered reason for going on short-term missions. If personal growth was the main reason for sending short-term teams – as I’ve heard some well-intentioned, but theologically mis-led pastors and leaders say – then let’s stop spending tens of thousands of dollars every summer, and just send our mission teams on a three week retreat. Heck, if all we want is for them to grow, we could save every single penny and send them through three weeks of suffering on our urban streets, living as homeless! For, as we often say, suffering often bears the most fruit of growth.
The point is, the job of missions is not the growth of believers; that’s the job of the local church. While growth will of course happen as a team is serving God on short-term missions, relying on His means, and seeking to proclaim the Gospel to the lost among the nations, personal growth and sanctification should not be the main reason we should go on short-term missions, spend our money, and invest our time to send them.
The Result of our “Me”-Centered Attitudes
I know this may sound like I’ve gone on a complete rant, but I believe that if the fundamental reasons driving a short-termer’s desire to go are intrinsically “me”-centered, we’ve lost all sight of our purpose, and stop becoming effective for God’s glory and His mission. When we go with “me”-centered desires, we build “me”-centered expectations. And when our expectations aren’t met, we get frustrated, unhappy, and want to just give up and go home.
This is why halfway through a short-term trip, you’ll start to hear complaining amongst your teammates (or from your own mouth! – I stand guilty as charged) about all the food they wish they could eat; about what they would give if they could have an IN-n-OUT burger right now; about how they wish they could sleep in their own beds, and stop taking showers out of a bucket; about how they’re so irritated with one another and the local people, that home sounds like the only sane place to be right now.
Ultimately, all these unmet expectations, frustrations, and complaining, are a result of our desire to go being more about our mission than Christ’s mission. It was never about God; it was always about us. When this happens, we get tired, fed up, and frustrated. We burnout and come back thinking “I’ll never do that again.”
Adjusting the Center
For anyone who has gone on short-term missions, you’ll identify with what I’ve shared. For those who are planning and preparing to go now, I beg and exhort you: we need a radically God-centered mindset when going on short-term missions. We need something that will carry us through the trip, long after our expectations and desires are unmet, leaving us unhappy and frustrated. We need radically God-centered reasons for going, in order to give us a motivation that will extend beyond our own abilities and desires. We need reasons that will cause us to forsake everything about our mission, and be utterly passionate for Christ’s mission.