There I was, eighteen years old, standing beside a middle-aged Mexican lady while watching my hosts drive off and leave me with strangers in a little Mexican village. It was my first afternoon in Mexico, and, already, I was feeling a teeny tiny bit overwhelmed. I had studied some Spanish in high school, but still could hardly hold a full conversation, especially when they spoke about the same rate I did in English, meaning really fast. So there I was, watching the only other Americans in the village drive away. How had I ended up in a little village in Mexico? Let me back up about a year.
As I neared the end of high school, I was looking and praying for what I should be doing with my life. I wanted to “do something” with long-term missions, but I was not ready yet to commit to a three-year stint overseas. During my final month of school, someone told me about the opportunity to volunteer in Mexico, helping out a pastor and his family for several months, so I decided to go. A year after graduation, I found myself in a country whose language I hardly knew and alone in a village in order to improve my Spanish.
I am sure many high schoolers and young adults can relate to my story. Like myself, you are not sure what exactly you should do, but you want to do something related to missions and you want to serve God, right? So . . . what do you do? I am not writing this to tell you how it should be done but instead to prod you to think about the goal of missions and to share a part of my story as well.
What is the purpose of missions? To answer that, we need to go back to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus did not just come up with this at the end of his time on earth. God’s love for all nations and all peoples can be seen throughout the entire Bible, as I explained more in my first article here. Now, here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives his followers a mandate to complete – making disciples. Disciples are those who are following after God and obeying Him – like the first twelve men who followed Jesus. In essence, disciples’ lives revolve around their Master and His teachings.
How do we actually make disciples? This has been a question that people have wrestled with for centuries, and I cannot define disciple-making in a few paragraphs. However, while it does look different in every culture, certain characteristics of disciple-making hold true worldwide.
It takes time. And energy. And prayer. And lots of hard work. It does not just happen overnight. You can’t undo decades of ancestral worship with one Gospel tract. The Holy Spirit does have the power to complete this, but God has chosen to work through you and me and to allow us to help spread the truth about Jesus. While not limiting the power of the Holy Spirit, it is extremely difficult to plant a church in a couple of weeks, months, or even years.
If you are thinking about going on a short-term mission trip, that’s great! But, why are you going? Is it because you want to visit a South American country and this is a good excuse to tour it? Is it because this is what your youth group does every year and so you just go along because that’s what everyone does? Or is it because you have a genuine interest in that part of the world, wherever it may be? Whatever the reason, when you compare short-term missions and disciple-making, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we will fulfill the Great Commission on one two-week trip to Asia.
So what should the purpose be of short-term missions? One of the reasons should be to assist the long-term workers. You should be able to alleviate their load and help them with practical projects and ministry opportunities. Another purpose is to spread the Gospel through tract and Bible distribution. Don’t be the one to underestimate the power of God’s word. Sharing the Gospel of John, even though you might not understand the language, could be the seeds that will yield results in the future.
For those who are interested in going to a certain country long-term, a short trip to see that place could be extremely beneficial for you to help clarify what you will be doing and, therefore, how you can better prepare. You can use a short-term trip to intercede for certain areas. Your goal should not be to do all the coolest things on your mission trip. Maybe the most effective thing you could do is to prayer-walk in a certain town or city for a month. You will grow in your relationship with God, you will learn much about prayer, and you will be fighting against the principalities and powers and darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:12, 18).
Another potential benefit of short-term missions is to give people a vision for long-term missions. Some people may have never had exposure to long-term mission work. In such cases, a short-term mission trip to another culture could teach them about more opportunities in missions and about how they can become involved. For example, many people have gone to Asia for a month, only to come back later and serve long-term in Thailand or China.
Beyond just being trips to other countries, short-term missions can also help prepare you for long-term missions, both in your home community and overseas. Shorter experiences can teach you crucial life-long lessons you can use when you are working elsewhere. Besides my trip to Mexico, I also volunteered at the Mission Training Center in NYC for five months. Both of these experiences taught me valuable lessons that I will be able to use throughout life, even though I probably won’t be working in those specific locations again.
When I was in Mexico, I taught English classes for a few months for a couple of middle-school girls there in town. This opportunity gave me a vision of how English teaching can be used as a mission opportunity. Because of this, I decided to start taking online college classes while I was there – something I am still continuing. I want to use my English degree to teach either in my neighborhood in NYC or overseas as a way of spreading the Gospel.
Besides giving me a vision for future life work, my experience also taught me some basic and useful life skills, like cooking. Part of my responsibility was to cook lunch every day for the pastor’s family and whoever else might stop in. I later used that kitchen experience at the Mission Training Center, which gave me the confidence that I needed there. Living in Mexico also taught me conversational Spanish. Not only was that extremely useful in Mexico, it also gives me a connection in NYC with the Hispanic ladies at my church or with strangers in the train station.
One of the biggest lessons that living in Mexico taught me, and maybe one lesson that I didn’t realize until later, was the importance of people. As a task-oriented person, I chafed sometimes under the slower-paced culture and the time “wasted” sitting around talking. I just wanted to be able to start my daily chores or finish the cleaning or whatever else needed to be crossed off my list. But I slowly began to realize that churches aren’t planted by always having clean dishes. They are born out of the time spent chatting with neighbors, the moments when you choose to stop and talk with a neighbor you haven’t seen in a few months, or the multiple conversations you had listening to the kids talking about their latest school assignment. Do the dishes need to get done? Absolutely. But making the choice to talk to someone now and wait to do the dishes will produce long-term results.
In conclusion, it is beneficial, at times, to do short-term mission trips or serve in short-term mission work. However, do not live with a short-term mindset. As Jesus said, the purpose of missions is to make disciples. It takes time and commitment, and you cannot be truly effective in disciple-making if all you are doing is traveling once a year to a new country. Yes, experiencing other cultures is fantastic! That’s one of the main reasons I love NYC so much, and I am not against all travel. But use what you have learned in the short term to invest in the long term. What are you doing after you return from your trips? Are you being intentional about your life at home? If you are someone who is just traveling around on multiple short-term trips, what is holding you back from long-term investment, either overseas or in your community? What needs and opportunities are around you? What is stopping you from choosing something that you can plug into in order to fulfill the Great Commission? Be the one to step out and commit to the long term. Wherever we are, we all need to be making disciples who are following Jesus with their heart, mind, and soul.