Don’t Leave the Country

Warning!  An opportunity awaits you that could turn your world upside down.

It could challenge your ideas of what it means to follow Christ. It could blow away your beliefs about what brings true joy. You could end up doing things you never thought possible, and encounter situations where you’re forced to rely on God’s strength, not your own.

They’ll warn you that when you come back, you’ll never be the same. And they’re right.

So if you want to be comfortable where you are . . . if you don’t want to be challenged too much . . . if you don’t want your values or your lifestyle challenged, don’t even think about going on a short-term mission trip. Because if you do, these disturbing effects are almost certain to befall you.

If you’re looking for excuses not to go, consider these.

1) It’ll explode your view of God.

A Ugandan Christian leader who hosted a short-term mission team from our church told me, “We need to meet each other because without our cross-cultural fellowship, we both stay fixed in our own cultural views of God.  When we meet and interact and share our lives, we discover that God is greater than either of our cultures.  He is not a tribal god or an ethnic god or a national God.  He the transcendent God of the universe!”

We’re all instinctively ethnocentric (the belief that the world revolves around our country or culture). As a result, we’re prone to worship a God who looks like us, speaks our language, and appreciates the worship-styles that we appreciate.  When we leave our country or culture, we confront people whose God speaks another language.  Their services might be two or three times longer and louder than we are accustomed to.  People dress differently and have different colored skin.

Cross-cultural travel and relationships exploded my view of God.  Visiting Christians in China enlarged my sense of His awesomeness to realize that He speaks every language.  Serving in mega-cities increased my amazement, realizing that He knows every one of the 6 billion inhabitants on earth by name.  Cross-cultural worship services made me marvel that He really is “Lord of the nations.”  Hearing the testimony of Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, and secularist converts gave me a fresh view of the universal application of the good news of Jesus Christ.

If we desire a god who fits tidily into our own cultural boxes, then we best stay away from cross-cultural mission trips.  Ministry across cultures will transform our view of God!

2) It’ll change the way we view our possessions.

We know intellectually that many parts of the world are economically much poorer than where we live, but staying at home keeps such knowledge at an intellectual level (and at an emotional distance). When we go to serve in a poor barrio, an “inner city”, an orphanage, or refugee camp, we confront this knowledge experientially.  We may encounter feelings of guilt about how much we have back home and how little others have.

In my community, a bumper sticker reads, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”  It reflects the addiction to consumerism that plagues our culture.  An experience in another-culture service project confronts us directly with the challenge of I John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”

We all want to avoid that sense of condemnation.  We prefer to avoid wrestling with the dramatic economic inequities that exist in our world.  The best solution?  Stay away from situations where we face these needs first hand.  That way we’re not responsible. Right?

On the positive side, confronting our materialism helps us realize what really matters.  A young couple’s team went to serve in a church in Haiti (the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere).  They saw incredibly poor Christians rejoicing and singing to the top of their lungs, with a depth of joy that challenged the young couples’ faith.  They were forced to wrestle with questions like, “Is our faith simply a nice ‘topping’ on our materialistic lifestyle?”  They saw that although they possessed much more, their faith was no where near as deep as these poverty-stricken Haitians.

One couple returned, moved to a smaller apartment, sold some “stuff,” and taught their couples’ Sunday School class on “Living More Simply That Others May Simply Live.”   They stopped subscribing to cable TV and used the money saved (about $30 per month) to support a child through World Vision. Their direct encounter with poor brothers and sisters forced them to re-evaluate their faith and their lifestyle.

3) It’ll confront our perspective on hardship.

Most of us already think that life is tough.  Our obstinate boss, an over-priced house, monthly car payments, and too many credit-card bills present us with significant enough challenges.

Some of the sharing in our small groups focuses on what we perceive as hardships.  A mission trip into the poorer parts of the world or fellowship with brothers and sisters have suffered under totalitarian regimes changes our perceptions.

One couple went on a winter service project, worked with a poor congregation, and stayed in the unheated apartment of a pastor in a very poor Eastern European country.  They listened as the pastor recounted experiences of being followed, harassed, and later “detained” by the Communist government on multiple occasions.  He challenged the couples’ perspective on “joy” as he remembered the Bible study he started in the “Re-Education Camp” and the efforts he made to reach out to Secret Police.

When they returned home, they decided together that they should try to stop complaining. They taped the phrase “No more whining” on their bulletin board in the kitchen.  Upon returning to their small group, they had difficulty readjusting because they wondered at the level of the sharing.  They totally drowned the spirit in the group one night when they said, “Sorry we don’t have much to share tonight; after what we’ve experienced, we realize we have nothing to complain about.”

4) It’ll challenge our cultural ethnocentricity.

There’s nothing wrong with being patriotic, but we American Christians often face great difficulty because we evaluate everything by our own standards and cultural norms.  We struggle when we enter a country where another government makes the rules.  We evaluate according to our own perspectives, and we conclude that people in British Commonwealth countries drive on the “wrong” side of the road.

An experience across culture forces us to confront our tendency to compare everything – from religious freedom to standards-of-living to types of food.  It challenges our world-view.

One short-term mission group testified how their experience in Bangladesh had transformed their lives. They were most challenged by a woman who had given up her USA citizenship to be able to serve there long-term.  Her example, plus their service in this poverty-stricken, Moslem country, forced them to ask if their faith and values were truly Christian or just cultural.  Several of the team members reported about their new understanding about being ‘citizens of heaven’ first and foremost.

5) It’ll force us to think about heaven.

Serving on a short-term, cross-cultural mission trip foreshadows the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church in Revelation 7:9 – which pictures people from every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping Jesus in heaven.  Cross-cultural worship helps us experience the reality of Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile.”  It enlarges our understanding of the creative diversity of God.

Worshipping with Koreans has challenged my fervor in prayer.  Singing with Haitians has enabled me to experience true anticipation of heaven.  Listening to testimonies from new believers in Nepal has helped me to understand the awesome grace of God’s forgiveness. Being with these believers intensifies my anticipation of heavenly worship.

The incredible growth of Church of Jesus Christ in Latin America, Africa, and Asia over the last century means that heaven will be predominantly non-white and non-Western.  If we’re not ready to experience a taste of heavenly worship, we need to avoid cross-cultural service.

The cohort from my recent DAI Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership course in Nepal.

6) It stretches our faith.

Going out to serve cross-culturally puts us into a “must-trust” environment where we realize that we’re out of control.  Whether we consider our concerns for finances, safety, health, or communication, we find our prayers intensified because we cannot resolve these issues without God’s deliverance.

At our home church, Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, dozens of youth and adults participate in short-term missions every summer.  When asked about their growth, a vast majority of participants will say things like:

  • “The trip to Moldova taught me to pray,” or
  • “I trusted God for the money I needed, and God miraculously provided,” or
  • “We relied on God for safety as we served in the Guatemala, and God took care of us every step of the way.”

They testify that their faith was stretched. Unpredictable situations, being out of control, having to eat things unfamiliar, and being asked to minister in areas where they did not feel confident forced them to depend on God instead of themselves.

Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission over 100 years ago, said “Unless there is an element of risk on our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”  Cross-cultural service provides plenty of risk.  If we don’t want to stretch our faith, we’d best avoid an overseas opportunity to serve.

Warning!  An opportunity awaits you that could turn your world, your faith, your view of God, and your perspective on the future upside down!

You probably don’t want to do this.  It can be too uncomfortable.  It might be too challenging.  Some say it’s too fanatical.  It can challenge your ideas of what it means to follow Christ.

But then again…  Maybe a cross-cultural service opportunity is just the kind of challenge you’ve been looking for to jump-start your growth.  Maybe putting yourself into an overseas ministry setting can get you out of a rut.   A short-term mission is about transformation of our views of God and our understanding of the Body of Christ.  It’s about evaluating our lifestyles and deepening our faith.

You really don’t want to do this, because it will change your life.