For quite some time since the 1800s or so, the term “missions” has usually meant packing up some belongings and traveling to a far-off exotic destination for charity work. This idea was popularized through the efforts of great missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Lottie Moon. Brave men and women would travel long distances to the far corners of the earth in order to share the gospel. Preaching the good news also meant addressing humanitarian issues, such as promoting education, increasing access to healthcare, strengthening families, and empowering people out of poverty.
In fact, if you remember your Methodist history, funding overseas mission work was part of the origin story of the United Methodist Women! Women in a local congregation in Boston decided to donate funds for missionary families to India.
Now obviously the church has a rich history of international missions. But thinking that “missions” only happens after traveling many hours on an airplane misses the point. There are countless opportunities to spread God’s love, regardless of the location.
Personally, I’ve been on several mission trips, from construction projects in central Texas to teaching English at a school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Some of my most formative experiences as a Christian were on these kinds of trips. I’ve also had lots of experience with “local” missions, from several partnerships Concord has developed to working in local jails and state prisons. Here are some thoughts on missions, trips, and things of that nature…
You don’t have to travel halfway across the world to be an apostle.
The word apostle, in a Greek sense, means one who is sent out as an ambassador. As Christian apostles, we are “ambassadors” of God’s kingdom. It doesn’t matter whether you find yourself in a South African orphanage or are passing out sandwiches at Lonoke’s Open Arms shelter, we have countless opportunities to live out Christian missions. Sometimes people struggle with thinking that “true” missions are done either locally or internationally. Why not support efforts on both fronts? There’s plenty to go around, if you ask me!
“Hands on” work isn’t the only need.
“I can’t go on a mission trip this summer.” “I’m too old to do that sort of thing.” “I can’t afford to travel.” “I’m just not good with kids.”
These “objections” to mission work miss a major point about the matter. You don’t necessarily have to literally go on a trip or have “face time” with clients to live out your duty as an apostle. Trips and local projects need people to help fund them. What if God was calling you to support a missionary, organization, or trip? “Hands on” participants need people to pray for them. What if you committed to support your friend spiritually in this way? Even if your schedule or ability prevents you from hosting a VBS on a summer mission trip, we all have the opportunity to share stories and hopefully connect others with mission needs. What if by sharing a story about someone involved in missions, you helped that person discover their own God-given calling?
Our world is becoming increasingly connected.
The food and products I can buy off the shelf at a store in Arkansas are often made or handled by people hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This phenomenon is known as globalization, where we are much more connected in an economic sense than in the past. Likewise, international missions still matter greatly, and I believe the church has the duty to support others who are seemingly far away from us.
For example, I saw this firsthand while serving a church in Houston and visiting to Guatemala with ZOE, an empowerment organization focused on youth development. While in the rural Guatemalan highlands, we heard countless tragic stories about how youth had been impacted by gangs and cartels who trafficked drugs like cocaine. This issue hundreds of miles away from us across several international borders was directly connected to problems in our home city. Drug addiction was directly connected to violence in central America. Our church leadership saw social problems had many causes and ripple effects. The church actively worked to help impoverished Guatemalan youth through ZOE, as well as supporting several local drug recovery programs.
Never do mission work out of pride.
A fancy word for this issue is “paternalism” where someone seeks to provide assistance for his or her own personal gain. Classic examples of this include posting photos to social media to gain the praise of other people, posing with impoverished orphans. Or perhaps that might be boasting about volunteering or making sure that you are “seen” at a particular event. Sometimes we treat the poor as accessories and view ourselves as a savior figure. Instead of being superman or woman, why not help others focus on God? A better approach is to view the hungry, homeless, impoverished, or needy person as a genuine brother or sister. Focus your energy on assisting others instead of tooting your own horn.
Be willing to learn.
As with prideful paternalism, sometimes when we help others we have an elitist attitude about ourselves. Surely we Christian volunteers are the smart ones, and we will impart our knowledge on others! Sometimes people even treat those being served as second-class or inferior. Many times we think we know the best way to do things. In reality, the people we serve ought to have the most prominent voice as we seek to address problems. What are an individual’s or community’s hopes, goals, and dreams? How do they want to improve? More often than not, I find myself learning more from serving people rather than doing all the teaching myself.
Our sermon yesterday explored the conclusion of Acts. Paul literally wanted to go to Spain to spread the good news of Christianity. It is debatable whether he actually made it. One thing is certain, though… Paul would share the message with anyone who would listen, regardless of his location or circumstance. What a powerful example for us to follow today!