By Greg Swinney
A few months ago, I found myself sitting at a roadside taco stand in Mexico. I could hardly believe where I was and what I was doing. A three and one-half hour church service had just ended and those who helped lead the service were hungry. They invited me to go “out to eat” with them.
It was 10 p.m. and I was ready for some food, but I had no idea it meant sitting on white plastic stack chairs along the side of the dusty road and eating out of the back end of a brightly painted trailer. My friends ordered their food (in Spanish), and I held up my hand and said, “Me too.” Then I reflected on the day’s events.
Crossing the Mexican border earlier that day was as simple as rolling my suitcase across the international bridge at Piedras Negras, Mexico. The entry fee into Mexico amounted to loose pocket change—50 cents. As I dug for the coins in my blue jeans, I looked over the edge of the bridge to see the 12-foot, heavy black fence dividing the two countries.
The Mexican border officer smiled at me and spent only a few seconds rummaging through my suitcase. “Bienvenidos a Mexico” was her kind welcome to the country. My longtime friend, Jose Julio, waved from across the bridge and ran to meet me. “I am so happy to see you,” he said, as we made our way to his car.
A New Building
He and his family took me 100 or so miles into Mexico to celebrate the dedication of a new church building. The building project had lasted six years; I remember the day we laid the cornerstone like it was yesterday. Each spring break for five years, I led a team of college students to that area for short-term missions work. Year after year we built relationships, shared the gospel, and worked side-by-side with them on their church building.
In 2009, when drug cartels became more aggressive and corruption among the local police spread, we needed to take our groups elsewhere. Still, our Mexican friends never gave up, and eventually they finished the project we all had started.
Arriving at the church almost took my breath away. This large building was evidence of the sacrifice and faithfulness of people in difficult situations. The church started about nine years ago in the living room of my friends Daniel and Alma. This small band of believers had big dreams. They wanted to have a visionary church to reach out to needy people throughout their region in Sabinas, Mexico. Though they had only limited resources and were surrounded by violence and corruption, they trusted God to provide the resources and the workers. He did.
A Long-term Mission
There are diverse opinions regarding the fruitfulness of short-term mission trips. Some people suggest such trips are a valuable effort, while others feel these short-term efforts are poor stewardship of the Lord’s resources and have little or no lasting effect. Several years ago a Christian Standard writer reported, “A mission board on which I serve received a request from a new church plant that is part of our mission. They asked us not to allow further visits by short-term groups. The church has hosted numerous teams, and there is just no productive work for them to do.”* I’d like to offer a different perspective.
Short-term mission trips have been going on for a long time. The New Testament records missionary journeys that in some places were . . . well, short-term (see Acts 13). Campus ministries throughout the nation consider short-term mission trips during the summer months and spring break as key efforts in disciple making. One of the keys to ensuring the fruitfulness of a short-term mission trip is seeing the entire experience as a disciple-making effort.
A common mistake is thinking that the destination is the “mission.” In reality, the people involved—everyone involved—is what the mission is all about. To ensure a fruitful trip, some elements are crucial.
Make use of pretrip time for disciple-making efforts. Training participants to serve in their area of spiritual giftedness offers them the opportunity to discover their gifts and put them to use in practical ways. One young college student was majoring in construction management, so we placed him in charge of a project leading a team of hard-working students.
Teach spiritual disciplines. Jesus sometimes spoke about prayer and fasting in the same sentence. It appears he never intended for them to be separated. Using this opportunity to teach the spiritual discipline of fasting has been a transformational experience for many of the college students on these trips. Daily devotional times are a primary element in the mission trip.
Study the culture. It is important to know and discuss what is appropriate and what is offensive. Americans sometimes fall victim to thinking the “American” way is the “right” way. Respecting cultures and people helps us build strong bridges of friendship. Discussing everything from appropriate clothing to greeting people in their native language is time well spent in trip preparation.
Develop long-term partnerships. As enjoyable as it may be to hop from one mission to another and to see different sights, long-term relationships equal long-term fruit. Partner with one mission or organization for the long haul. These efforts are best seen as marathons, not short sprints.
A Ministry Full of Promise
The new church in Sabinas, Mexico, can seat about 750, but the people there are praying for 1,000 to be involved in the congregation. When that goal is reached, the congregation intends to start planting new churches throughout the area.
Daniel, the church’s pastor, is a medical doctor and works in three different hospitals in Sabinas, Nueva Rosita, and Agujita (all in the state of Coahuila). Serving as the church’s ministers, he and his wife Alma seem to overflow with joy. They have never received a paycheck for their many years of faithful service. They thanked me over and over for bringing people to work with them, pray for them, encourage them, and offer a helping hand, especially during times when they felt the building project was stalled.
Being asked to speak for the church dedication was an honor I will never forget. “Your predicar [sermon] should be at least one and one-half hours,” Daniel told me in broken English over the phone on the day he invited me.
I swallowed hard and said, “Don’t you mean the whole church service will be an hour and a half?”
“No, just your predicar,” he confirmed.
Almost 500 people attended the dedication festivities, which went on for three days. These amazing people embody lives of sacrifice and unselfishness. I felt like a clumsy munchkin in a room full of spiritual giants. Their faith and joy in this celebration was evidenced by their words, “Gloria a Dios” (glory to God). I heard it repeated over and over again. Throughout my sermon (and, yes it did last 90 minutes), I didn’t see anyone looking at their watch or dozing off. This was holy ground.
This area in Mexico is known for its vast reserves of carbon (coal). The region is called Carbonifera. Coal mines dot the area like pins on a map. Rickety coal trucks barrel down the highway, and everyone gets out of their way. The formation of natural diamond requires that carbon-bearing materials be exposed to high pressure. After mentioning that fact in my message, I said, “You may look around outside and see coal. But I believe God looks inside this church and sees diamonds in the making.”
Isn’t it that way with all of us? So often our lives look black and rough. The jagged edges don’t appeal much to anyone. But in his great mercy, God combines the pressures of this life with our faith, and gradually, over time, we become diamonds of faith reflecting his glory wherever we go.
A dear Mexican lady came up to me as I was about to leave the church, said something to me in Spanish, and then handed me a lump of coal. I nodded politely, as if I understood what she said, and responded, “gracias for the coal.” She replied in broken English, “This not coal, is diamond, it’s just not done yet.”
This lump of coal . . . um, diamond . . . sits on my desk today. It reminds me that with all my stumbling and failures, God is patient and gracious. His love for you and me is beyond measure.
I’m grateful to have friends in Mexico who call me “Hermano Gregorio” (Brother Gregorio)—friends whom I met through short-term mission efforts. And I’m thankful that I’m not done yet.
*“To the Ends of the Earth . . . Short Term,” by Bill Weber; available at ChristianStandard.com.
Greg Swinney serves as the ministry facilitator with Crossroads International Student Ministries.