And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
It was 1985, and our 18-year-old daughter Helen was transferring through Miami International Airport on her way back home to Lafayette, Louisiana, from a short-term mission trip to the Dominican Republic. She had been there leading a team of young people from our church, including our 16-year-old daughter Catherine and our 14-year-old son Jon, as part of a World Servants project. They had worked in a remote village with dirt roads and no running water. In two weeks they had built a simple church structure using concrete block and had also led a Vacation Bible School for the children of the community. It had been hard work, but they were thrilled by all that they had accomplished, and the villagers were overjoyed.
As she walked through the busy airport, Helen spotted “Charlotte” and a group of her old friends from high school. After the usual squeals of delight, Charlotte explained that they were on their way home from a week in Paris, where they had visited various museums and enjoyed many of the delights of that wonderful city. She asked Helen what she had been doing and looked appalled when our daughter described her two weeks of manual labor in the Dominican Republic.
“Why would you ever do such a thing?” Charlotte asked.
Short-term missions are not exactly new, but they have always been somewhat controversial. One of the more contentious, of course, was Jonah’s mission to the city of Nineveh. You will recall that in his effort to avoid his divine calling, he found himself swallowed by a (very) large fish. Once set free from his watery prison, he returned to his mission, still somewhat reluctantly, and to his great dismay the people of Nineveh listened to him, repented of their evil ways, and returned to the Lord. I have always enjoyed the final picture of Jonah sitting under a tree feeling very sorry for himself while the Lord God teaches him a priceless lesson about his great love for the people of the city.
Luke’s Gospel records a rather different response from the 72 disciples who returned with joy from their own first short-term mission trip, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (10:17)
While I have never witnessed anything close to such dramatic outcomes, I have seen God use mission trips for great good, both in the lives of those who are sent and in the lives of those who are visited. The trips do not need to involve extensive journeys to faraway places – the Church of the Holy Cross in Raleigh, North Carolina (where our son Jon serves as rector) sponsors an annual mission trip to nearby needy communities only a few hours’ drive away. They do the usual mixture of construction projects and witnessing. Last year, working in partnership with a local church, they remodeled the house of an elderly woman who needed handicap accessibility. The mission participants always return home excited and humbled by the way that they have seen God at work through their efforts.
During the time that I served as rector of Truro Church in Virginia, we sponsored several short-term mission trips every year. Sometimes the results were quite extraordinary. In 1998, Ben and Vanessa Henneke and a team from Truro visited the Diocese of Mpwapwa, Tanzania, at the invitation of Bishop Simon Chiwanga. Their goal was to meet in small groups for Bible Study and prayer and simply to listen and learn from the people that they visited. Together, they would think of ways that the people’s lives, and the lives of their children, might be improved. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many people survive with “slash-and-burn” subsistence farming that has increasingly led to erosion, decreasing crop yields, widespread deforestation, and famine. As the mission team and their hosts prayed and talked together, an idea began to develop. Using funds from newly established Clean Air Credit programs, small groups of villagers would undergo training to establish a tree-planting program. This would not only address the pressing need for reforestation and sustainable agriculture but also give the people a virtual cash crop through carbon sequestration.
The results of what is now called TIST (The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program) have been breathtaking. From that small beginning in 1998, TIST has now spread to Kenya, Uganda, and India. There have been approximately 19 million live trees planted as a result of the work of over 90,000 TIST participants. The impact on their local environments has been life transforming, and farmers have experienced an enormous number of ancillary benefits through TIST. It all started through a short-term mission trip. (A more detailed account of the history of TIST and its current programs can be found on the TIST website.)
Youth With A Mission (YWAM) is an organization with a continuing global impact through its commitment to short-term cross-cultural missions. First established in the 1960s by Loren Cunningham and his wife Darlene, YWAM has trained and sent out tens of thousands of short-term missionaries all around the world. Their work continues to grow – take a look at their website. We have been blessed by YWAM teams that have come to serve with us and also by the many people – young and not so young – who have taken part in their global mission activities.
Epiphany is a wonderful season to reflect on new opportunities for mission. If they are not already a part of the life of your congregation, I encourage you to investigate short-term missions. There is an enormous variety of opportunities available for all ages, abilities, and budgets. Not only will you be doing your part to fulfill the great commission, but you will also discover that these mission trips transform the lives of those who go and bless those to whom they go.
Your brother in Christ,