Nairobi, Kenya, is seven time zones ahead of the East Coast of the United States. The last time I was in Kenya this startling thought occurred to me: Have we made it easier to go seven hours ahead on a mission trip to “be Jesus” to people from another culture who speak a different language than to go seven meters away to our next-door neighbors—the people with whom we share both language and culture—to “be Jesus” to them?
I will start by saying I am a proponent of short-term mission trips, though I believe we should call them by a different name (more on that in a minute). At Mountain Christian Church we are calling them “GO Trips,” with “GO” standing for “Glocal Outreach.” By Glocal we mean “here and there and everywhere in between.”
Are there real needs in Nairobi? Of course! Should we continue to send GO Teams there to join with Missions of Hope International and reach out to the people of the Mathare Valley? By all means! But how can I care so much for the person in the slums of Nairobi while not approaching my neighbor with the same compassion and desire to share the gospel?
This disconnect and subsequent motto “seven ahead and seven away” has become a teaching tool for us to impress on our congregation, along with the words of commissioning from Jesus in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses [the Greek word is myrtys] in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (author emphasis). Jesus really meant “AND”! But sometimes we treat this command as if he conjoined these geographical places with “or,” as if it were up to us to choose either here or there.
At Mountain we have learned that by reversing the order of places that Jesus speaks of, sometimes we can help our people think in terms of being as assertive with their faith locally as they are while on a GO Trip. We quite often use the EvangeCube as an outreach tool in Nairobi. Quite a few people, after telling the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection—and sharing their personal faith—say, “Wow, I have never shared my faith with anyone before.”
Upon returning to the U.S., we tell our people to buy an EvangeCube, and when they are asked by their neighbor what they did while in Africa, they can say, “Well, we visited a lot of homes in the valley and showed them this little cube. Let me show you how it works.”
In Maryland as well as in Africa, it’s the same method and same need—relationship with Jesus! If it takes a trip seven hours ahead to raise the temperature and accentuate the desire to travel the seven meters to visit my neighbor, then it is quite a good investment.
Just Walk Outside
One of the things we often say around here is, “The best short-term mission trip you can take is to your mailbox.” Mailbox is simply a metaphor for any common place outside of your house. Preparing for a short-term mission trip to another country is costly both in time and money—lots of both are invested for a successful trip. So, what about the time invested in those seven meters away from us? To say your best short-term mission trip is to your mailbox is simply to ask if you are willing to engage your neighbor in substantive conversation in the front lawn.
Another disconnect we have created is by calling these mission trips “short-term.” We like to put limits on things. People might not commit to something that is open-ended with no tangible finish line. Just using the word term indicates a beginning and an end. It also unwittingly sets us up for the inevitable, “Well, I am DONE with my mission, now I can get on with other things.”
But of course, the mission continues . . . the very things we might do in Kenya (seven hours ahead), we need to do with our neighbors (seven meters away). There is intensity and urgency when one makes a commitment of time and money to do a short-term mission trip, as well as the “adventure” of the experience. But we don’t often think of our neighbors with the same urgency. My neighbors will always be there. I can reach them any time. And what about my reputation in the neighborhood? If I share my faith with my neighbor, will I be labeled a religious fanatic, a Jesus freak, or worse? (These questions don’t come to mind before sharing one’s faith in Nairobi, where the visitor will be staying for only a few days.)
Mountain has worked to close this disconnect by calling our GO Team members “life-term missionaries.” We follow Christ; he has a mission; and he sends his church! If you are in Christ, you are on a mission. It’s terminal—you are a lifer. As such, you may participate in short-term, medium-term, and long-term mission opportunities, but you never stop being on mission. Can you imagine if Jesus had said this to the 70 he sent out? “Go out for a few days and share what you have found in me with the people around you. Then come back home and do nothing.”
Another disconnect is that the label “short-term mission trip” somehow articulates that the mission is more about us and what we might choose to do or where I might choose to go than it is about Jesus calling and sending his followers.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis speaks of people who are so intent on spreading Christianity they do not even think of Christ. It’s as if we were followers of Christianity rather than followers of Christ.
We need to be careful not to advertise a mission trip as if it were something to be consumed or enjoyed—as if it were a vacation or experience, or a place to go to satisfy a lifelong itch. When we do this, we end up with people who jump from trip to trip and go from place to place to get their “fix.” I once heard a man say, six months after returning from a trip, “I can’t wait until the trip next year because my life has just tanked since our last trip.” Ouch!
Rather, a “mission trip” should be the place to which God is calling us to incarnate his presence. We go with the knowledge that God is already there and we simply show up and clothe ourselves with him (Galatians 3:27). This approach teaches people that we are not taking Jesus to our destination, as if he would not be there if we didn’t show up. Rather, he is already there. He is simply waiting to incarnate himself through us to be a presence of hope.
And it’s the same thing next door to my house. Will I go there and incarnate the presence of Christ?
At the end of the day, time and distance are no match for the mission Jesus himself has called us to. On this mission he has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age! It simply behooves us to submit to his lordship every day, and listen to his voice as he leads us. He will accomplish the mission regardless of the time zones spanned or distance traveled. Isn’t it amazing that he wants us to join him in being a part of it!
Tom Moen is global and local pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.