Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why Do Mission Trips

A couple of years ago, I went on my first official “Mission Trip” to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This year, our church has returned to do much of the same thing we did then. In fact, some of the work we are doing this week includes repairing picnic tables we repaired two years ago and replacing windows in a mobile home that we repaired windows in two years ago. I find myself, again, asking, why do we do these mission trips?

Before we answer that question, I think we need to define two different types of mission trips. Interestingly, a mission trip may be one type for one person and another type for someone else on that same trip. I see these two types as expert mission trips and training mission trips. An expert mission trip is one in which a person with special knowledge and experience, such as an eye doctor, travels to a mission field to put that knowledge and experience to use. A training mission trip is one in which people travel to a mission field to perform tasks that they do infrequently or are untrained in and often involves tasks which could be performed much more cost effectively if the short-term missionaries were to stay home, go to work, and send money.

The reason for expert mission trips is obvious. The short-term missionary is doing something that can’t be done by someone in the area, so cost effectiveness is less important. The cost is simply the cost of doing the work.

We should not confuse the reason for training mission trips as being the same as expert mission trips. If the reason is the work, why are we sending software engineers, surveyors, pastors, and high school students to do carpentry work? We can argue that the real reason is sharing the gospel with the people we are doing work for, but skilled carpenters are just as qualified to share the gospel as a software engineer is (or a pastor, for that matter). These types of mission trips only make sense when we see them as a learning experience for the short-term missionary, rather than focusing on the work that they are doing for the people on the mission field or the help they are providing to the long-term missionary on the field.

But what do short-term missionaries learn? There are many things that one might learn. We might think first of learning to share the gospel. We might think of young people learning by watching their elders actively working while on the trip. But as I watched my pastor prepare for leading a bi-lingual bible study and then have no one show up, I saw him learn something. I watched as our youth pastor used this trip as an opportunity to let some of his students teach VBS lessons to students not much younger than them and some older than them. His students learned from that experience, but I suspect he did as well. Part of my task on this trip was to “take pictures”. While people are growing tired of seeing a video camera with a red light glowing, this trip is giving me an opportunity to try some things that I don’t have the opportunity try at church. It seems fitting that we are staying in a university dorm, because this trip is a type of experimentation and learning that you might find on a college campus.

As we consider our priorities on short-term mission trips, it might be wise to set our first priority as the learning and experimentation type experiences. In one week, we aren’t going to win Albuquerque for Christ and our primary mission field if Fort Worth anyway, but what we learn by struggling in unusual situations that we are experiencing in Albuquerque are things that we can turn into expertise that we use as we work in the familiar setting back home.