By Ruth Herron and Anita Smelser
We heard it a half dozen times during the hour-long flight. “Are we there yet?” shouted the boy with the cowlick in his hair and smirk on his face in a failed attempt to amuse his fellow passengers. His grandfather described the amusement park they would visit and activities they would enjoy during the visit to the grandparent’s home.
Our group wouldn’t be doing these kinds of activities. Instead, the 16 of us were part of a short-term missions group traveling to Mexico to work for a week.
The number of high school students and adults who are willing to volunteer for short amounts of time on short-term missions trips has reached an all-time high. Our group was unique in that there were three families traveling together. Families today have an extraordinary opportunity to serve on the mission field, and to become mission minded in a real way.
Short-term missions trips offer many potential benefits for parents and their children:
• Appreciating what they have at home
• Seeing that their perspectives on life are forever changed
• Turning into global Christians instead of just missionary tourists
• Traveling the road less traveled
• Turning into servants of Christ rather than spectators
• Creating a passion to take God’s Word to other areas.
These are all positive results, but they focus on the experience of the travelers and not on the work to be advanced.
Evidence of a Lifestyle
Short-termers risk needing to be served by the missionaries or those they seek to serve.
Parents need to use short-term missions trips as a small part of a lifestyle of becoming mission minded. These same parents may have grown up during a time when such trips were viewed as a waste of money, when traveling wasn’t as accessible as today, and when they weren’t as globally connected as today. Our children take for granted instant information about happenings in different parts of the world, and wealth and education not available a generation ago. Parents are uniquely qualified to provide an enriching experience for their family that can be much more than a single experience. Choosing to visit a mission already supported by your church is one way to have a connection with a country and a missionary.
A Family Project
Preparing spiritually for the trip is as important as the physical preparation of passports, shots, paperwork, and packing. Pray for the country your family is visiting. Post pictures of the long-term missionaries who are already there as well as pictures of native church leaders. Communicate with the missionaries about how you might help their work. If possible, choose a work that ministers to families and children so all family members can work in a vital way.
This needs to be a family project with everyone researching information about the culture, the people, and the work of the mission. This is a chance for the children to learn that just because they’re from the affluent West doesn’t mean they’re smarter, better, or know what’s best for people in another area.
Give your children responsibility to research the country and find out about language, at least learning useful phrases. Have them e-mail the missionaries there. Teach them they need to see life through someone else’s eyes, they need to learn from the experienced local missionaries who live in the culture, and they need to view the situations of the people within the context of where they live.
Remind your family they aren’t going into the area to save the people during a week and then leave. Instead, their purpose is to serve, humbly to do whatever is directed of them by the local missionary. If the short-term mission trip is effective, there will be change in both the group and the local workers.
More Than a Vacation
On our trip to Mexico, we cooked for a camp, provided crafts, cleaned the campgrounds, and poured concrete at a local church. Our work offered opportunities to bond with each other, as well as with the local Mexican Christians and the children there. We asked questions about the drug wars, about how the children kept warm when there was no heat in winter, and about why they seemed unconcerned about keeping to a schedule.
It gave us a chance to complete some work projects and to consider our personal responsibility in an unjust world. But it also gave the local Christians the opportunity to spend time with each other, work on art projects, and talk to each other as we supervised the children and prepared meals. Who knows which was the most important task completed?
To be effective, short-term missions must be more than just a volunteer vacation. Families need to view this as a time to practice the Great Commission, and to express an everyday commitment to supporting mission work. Missions isn’t just something different to do in the summer, like working at a real dude ranch. It’s more than a creative way to keep the kids busy or teach them a lesson about how good their own life is. Instead, it’s a chance for families to work together, forgetting about everyday responsibilities, emptying ourselves of things we don’t need, and filling ourselves with only what’s important. It’s a time for the family to pray, dream, plan, and work to reach a goal, not only for the good of the family but for the furtherance of the gospel message.
The trip isn’t over when the plane lands back at the home airport. The answer to the question, “Are we there yet?” is, “No, we’ve just started,” as we parents use short-term missions trips as part of an ongoing lifestyle of living out the Great Commission with our families. Only after Jesus’ return can our answer be, “Yes, our journey’s over.”
Ruth Herron and Anita Smelser write from Salem, Virginia.