As Jesus was completing His work on the Earth and ascending back to Heaven, He gave us the “Great Commission," the final command, the last words, by which we should all – as Christians – be living our lives:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matt 28.18-20
It is God’s plan that people from every nation, tribe and language will come to saving faith in Jesus through the preaching of the Gospel (Rev 5.9). In fact, Jesus promised us that this will happen before the end will come (Matt 24.14). If you are a Christian, you have been commanded to make disciples, and to be a part of disciple-making in every nation. Yes, that does imply that there are some who must remain in predominantly Christian communities to engage and teach the younger generations, but it has been rightly said that we must be confident of our calling – by God – to stay, if we dare to not go. In evaluating the missionary life, we today often expect those who would go to have a profound testimony and conviction of their calling, but Jesus has called every believer. We do not get to pick and choose if it applies to us.
The early church defaulted into cross-cultural missions by the very nature of the persecution and dispersion they experienced. Their lives were being threatened, so they ran. When they settled in new communities and new countries, they shared the Gospel, and the church exploded. We also see examples of intentional mission efforts from people like Paul, Barnabas, Silas and John Mark. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Arab Conquests and the Crusades, there was some missionary effort but the Church found itself in a difficult spot, being united as the Catholic Church which was largely political. After the Reformation began and people found faith on a personal level, modern missions was born through people like William Carey.
For centuries, missions was a lifetime and sobering commitment. Missionaries had to travel by ship to their host countries, many lost wives and children to disease and often times they would pack their belongings in a coffin – planning on being buried abroad. Some did travel home to raise support or awareness, but it was not a simple airplane ride, and trips home were rare.
But suddenly we are living in a world where travel abroad is accessible and easy. In 24 hours you can find yourself at pretty much any location on the globe, for a relatively low price. And with this phenomenon has come the birth and explosion of short-term missions. Many people will give their vacation time, and many students seek to spend part of their summer break “doing” missions.
Unfortunately, because of the accessibility, and because of our narcissistic culture, these short-term mission trips – and consequently long-term missions have become a “discipleship tool” for the Church.
We send our youth so that they can see the poverty abroad and come home thankful for what they have.
We send out younger believers so that they can have two weeks of intense Spiritual connection with the Lord.
The team building required before the trip, the required daily devotional as a group, and the outreach tools developed will unify our body, will develop a passion in our Church, and will take us to the next level with God.
I have heard mission agencies, pastors and parents say, “We pray that our people (or students) will be changed” by going on this trip. (The prayer factor makes it sound more spiritual.) Their goal in missions is to make us more “thankful for what we have" and to disciple the short-term missionaries.
But here’s the deal folks: People around the world are not tourist attractions. They are living, breathing, souls who are headed straight to Hell without salvation through the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are over 6,600 people groups (entire nations that are identifiable by a unique language and culture) who are less than 2% Christian. That means that for every one hundred people within the nation, there is only one or no Christian. Nearly half of those people groups are completely unengaged. This means that there is no Christian in the community – no missionary, no national, no radio broadcast; nothing. There is no way that these people will stumble across the Gospel. Almost all of these unreached people groups are in the 10/40 window: that region from 10 degrees to 40 degrees latitude north of the Equator from West Africa to the Far East. You can see the map here.
The call of Jesus is to go and make disciples of these people. These millions of people who have never heard about Jesus Christ. These millions of people who will die and go to Hell unless someone goes to tell them the Gospel. Missions is giving of one’s life to cross culture and language to take the Gospel to these people. A short-term mission trip is evangelical in nature. Any other trip: medical, building homes/schools/orphanages, educational, providing clean water, agricultural, etc. is not a mission trip. It is a humanitarian trip. Yes, it is a good thing, but it is not focused on people’s eternal need and ultimately does them no Spiritual or eternal good.
And quite frankly, the reality is that going out for two weeks or even six months will not make disciples. You might make converts, with the help of translators and the direction of the missionary on the ground, but if you go in on your own without such direction and assistance, you will not even be able to communicate – let alone lead people to Jesus. Discipleship is a process that took Jesus three years with the original twelve. We can expect it to take about that long – or longer – with new converts both here in the United States and abroad. Therefore if we desire to obey Jesus’ commandment in the short-term method, we must make sure that we find either a missionary or a national Church who can utilize our efforts on the ground as part of their long-term work. They will be the ones doing the discipleship.
We must also be aware of the fact that most of the unreached and unengaged people groups in the world live in regions that are hostile to the Gospel. There might be an appeal in your church or community to go into a hard area, but if we endeavor to take students or immature believers into a nation where it is illegal to evangelize or convert, then we are putting everyone at risk unnecessarily. The national partners, the missionaries and the local church are risking their lives to do what they do, and a culturally insensitive or unaware foreigner could derail and endanger everything. Therefore, when we consider engaging such a people group and partnering with missionaries, we should intentionally send our best, our wisest, our most mature.
Missions as a whole is the endeavor to glorify God by obeying the Great Commission by crossing cultures and language to make disciples of all nations. We, as the Church, should be regularly sending people abroad. We all have been called to this effort, and we all must examine our lives and be confident that God has called us to stay home, if we are not going. And if we are not going, we still must be making disciples here at home. And part of our discipleship here at home is teaching others how to make disciples themselves. Many of our youth programs include a summer camp, a winter retreat, and an abundance of other activities. But we should very carefully weigh our youth “mission trip” activity.
If you have mature youth who will cross cultures to share the Truth about Jesus, then absolutely send them. But your goal should never be their discipleship. If you want to teach them how to share the Gospel, take them one-on-one to the mall and show them how to talk to a stranger.
Reserve your efforts in a closed country for the most mature and sensitive in your congregation. If you want to expose them to poverty, take them to the soup kitchen and let them interact with the homeless in your city. Because physical poverty is not the real issue here. There are countless churches around the world, in fact, who pray for us and are broken for us because we have too much stuff. We are too comfortable. We are too self-reliant, and therefore we never depend on God. When was the last time you trusted God for your next meal? We have much to learn from them.
You will be changed when you cross cultures and see how believers live in a different and oppressive society. You will be changed when you see true poverty and genuine need. You will be changed anytime you take two weeks to intentionally walk with God and ask Him to direct your every step, have a daily devotional with other believers, break out of your routine and share the Gospel continually. This is a beautiful and wonderful side effect of getting out of your comfort zone and going on a mission trip. But this cannot be our goal, our goal must be glorifying God by reaching the lost. Beware of the temptation to use foreigners to your benefit. Beware of the temptation to march your people amongst the lost so that they can appreciate what they have and glorify their two-week endeavor.
Focus your people on the need and enable them to truly help taking the Gospel to those who need it most. Make it about God first and the lost second.