It’s been several years since I joined a non-profit mission organization, but ever since I rededicated my life to Christ (on a missions trip) I’ve had a heart for missions. In this post, I’d like to share some common mistakes when it comes to thinking about missions…and what solutions there might be. This might be a bit controversial or offensive to some, but I do actually hope it is thought-provoking when it comes to mission engagement. I know I have made some of these mistakes myself, so don’t get too offended if it touches on something that might be true for you! 🙂
- Thinking missions is only for some Christians.
This might be the most troubling mindset and attitude I see. It is true that not all are called to be “missionaries” in the traditional sense of leaving their culture or country to live in another location, but this doesn’t mean we don’t all have a responsibility when it comes to missions and being “missional” (Missional living simply means we work out what it means to reflect Jesus and share Jesus in whatever culture we are in).
But secondly, if God’s heart and vision is for all the world (John 3:16), why should ours be any less? If Jesus places as much value on the person in another country, as He does those in our own countries, why shouldn’t we? Many will argue (often angrily) that we should “take care of our own” (first or only) or that we “have enough problems of our own.” While it’s right and good to help those in our community, city and country, I truly don’t understand this line of thinking biblically when it stops there. Why? Because it’s not God’s heart and flat out contradicts the whole over-arching reason and purpose we are still here on this earth.
Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations as one of His last statements before ascending to heaven (Matthew 28:18-20). If final words are often our most important, what does this say about the heart and mission of Jesus for his disciples and church? Yes, start right where you are, but heaven forbid it stop there! The biblical model is an ever-widening circle of influence, impact and witness (Acts 1:8).
Thirdly, if we are truly living as His disciples, we will have his heart increasingly more, the closer and longer we walk with Him. If He truly is living His life through us, we will have an ever growing passion for missions, a heart for the world and be a generous people. Plus, how can we, if we are thinking biblically and eternally, with the eyes and heart of Jesus (rather than culturally or with a desire to be in control of our own earthly lives) not care that millions have not yet even heard the Name of Jesus? (Romans 10:11-15).
Honestly, I think we have lost (generally speaking) a real conviction of the reality of eternity, and that the greatest human need is the forgiveness of sin and gift of eternal life. It’s questionable whether we really believe in (or at least live in light of) the reality of heaven, or especially hell anymore. If we did, wouldn’t we be compelled more than we are, despite the cost or sacrifices, to reach the lost?
To be clear, I am not advocating an either/or position when it comes to serving locally verse globally, but a both/and. Our neighbor is anyone in need (read more here) and we have a responsibility to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. That may be a combination of physically going, praying faithfully for those going, or giving to those going, depending on different seasons of our lives and calling. But all are called to work together towards fulfilling the Great Commission at home and around the world.
- Mission committees/boards that do not go on mission trips.
If I could have one “legalistic” rule for Christians, it would be that every believer should go on at least one missions trip outside their own country. The world is very different than our own! But how much more so, should this be true for those serving on a missions committee or mission board. I do question how wise of decisions can be made, how well we can represent world missions, understand the needs of those in the field or missionaries/mission organizations…if we never go on a trip to see for ourselves! How can we really have the vision and passion without interacting with those being reached?
There may be exceptions, but time and time again I have seen how even those already generously giving, or with a heart for missions, have come back giving even more after going on a trip. They become more passionate and committed. They become stronger champions, ambassadors, voices and prayer warriors. They catch the vision!
- “Hero” mentality
American’s like to think we know better than the rest of the world. We also like to think of ourselves as the “hero’s” coming to rescue the “victims” or enlighten the “ignorant” in the right and best way to do things. But being ignorant of the Gospel does not make one stupid. Being poor does not make someone dumb. And being able to give lots of money doesn’t make us a hero. At best it makes us an obedient and faithful servant.
I like to remind people going on trips that we are not coming in with a “hero” mindset, but a “helper” mindset. Just because our culture does things a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s always best; especially in another culture. And even the Holy Spirit didn’t refer to himself as the “hero” but as a “helper.” There is only one “hero” and his name is Jesus. We are not there to promote ourselves, feel better ourselves or find praise for how wonderful we are. We are there to let the light of Jesus shine so that people might see that God is good and praise Him (Matthew 5:13-16). We are there to lift high the Name of Jesus. Don’t be a hero. Come alongside and lift up instead of standing above and looking down. Come in the humility of Jesus, not pride of man.
- Going on a short-term trip…but doing nothing to help after returning.
Let’s be honest. There is only so much that can be accomplished on a short-term missions trip. The real work should begin after returning home. You are now the eyes of those who couldn’t go. You are now the voice of those without a voice. You have an opportunity to actually do more good and be more of a help after you return from a trip. You have a network around you that will be curious to at least hear about your trip.
Think about what those you were with would want to say if they were in your shoes. You have pictures and video of real people you met; share their stories. You saw first-hand the impact the missionary or missions group was having; champion the cause. Beyond those crucial first few weeks of returning, commit to becoming an ambassador or volunteer in whatever ways possible. Talk to the missionary or missions organization about what would be of most help to them and what ideas they know might work. Organize a fund-raiser. Send their newsletters on to friends. Share their Facebook posts or news stories. Think strategically. See that your purpose has only just begun when returning, not that it has ended!
- Separating the Great Commandment and Great Commission.
Sometimes there is a tendency to separate the Gospel message and good deeds. Again, this shouldn’t be an either/or but a both/and. By just doing “good deeds” we miss an opportunity to point people to Jesus. Isn’t He what compels us to love our neighbors in the first place? But also just preaching the Gospel (without taking care of the poor or caring for the orphan and widow or meeting real needs) can limit our effectiveness. (This is not to say that some sense a calling to focus more on one side of the coin than the other, or that circumstances are different for different missionaries or mission organizations. My point is simply that these are not in conflict with each other, but go together and compliment each other).
For example, in many countries “good deeds” can blow open the door for the “good news” to be received. We have seen that so many times in our mission organization. I just got a story about a woman who was worried about her many children that were falling sick. They couldn’t afford to see a doctor or purchase medicine. Just then, we showed up in her village to conduct a medical clinic. Her statement to us was this: “we were praying to all our gods, but it seems your God heard our prayers!” The Gospel and Good deeds are not mutually exclusive of each other, they go hand in hand beautifully. Jesus taught and preached, but He also healed the sick and performed “good works” in people’s lives. It can be a mistake to exclude one over the other.
- Thinking sending missionaries is a waste of money….or thinking sending missionaries is the only way to do missions.
I believe God is still calling people to be missionaries in the sense of leaving their homes and living in other countries and cultures. But I also believe God is calling many organizations and people to invest in local national leadership. I believe context, culture and calling are the keys here. There is an argument to be made that it is far more costly to send missionaries than to invest in local leadership. The model of the mission organization I lead, believes strongly in raising up and working through National leaders. Under this model we can stretch the dollar further and serve more people. Plus, those already in country know the language, culture, customs and have networks already developed that would take years to develop. But I also know of faithful, committed, and effective missionaries that have been clearly called by God and ought to be supported.
Granted, there are missionaries who are very ineffective (and perhaps not truly called), but there are also mission organizations that are not effective too. However, I believe this is where great caution and discernment is needed. It is not wise to compare one missionary or mission organization to another. Context, calling and talents are different.
One missionary for example could be laboring in an unreached place for years with little to no visible fruit to show, but that doesn’t automatically mean they are ineffective and support should be cut off (Think even Isaiah and Jeremiah in their day. Nobody listened to them then, but now their inspired messages have born so much fruit!). The issue is faithfulness to God’s calling. Another way to put it would be this, what value does God place on one life? Jesus was willing to give his life and paid the price with his own blood for us. Pretty costly! There is only one message, but not one right “model” or “method.” There are rather many ways, callings and different gifts to reach many different people.
- Thinking giving a “cup of cold water” is ineffective…or that giving a “cup of cold water” is always enough.
I believe there are two extreme mistakes to this point that would appear contradictory. The first has to do with a seemingly growing movement out there today that speaks in terms of “ending world poverty” or “world hunger” or “human trafficking” or other world issues. While I think some of the creativity and passion is commendable, sometimes if something is not “self-sustaining” or resolving the entire issue, it is deemed not worthy of being supported. So it’s no longer enough to simply take care of someones immediate needs.
But I do not think world poverty, hunger or human trafficking is ever going to be resolved, until Jesus returns. He seemed quite clear that the “poor will always be among us.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11). However, this doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in despair and cease working towards alleviating poverty, world hunger or human-trafficking (and it’s root causes). On the contrary, Jesus spoke that reality to remind us that it is a continual calling and responsibility we have to take care of the poor. And there are some organizations and people doing great things to change entire societies or structures to tackle these problems. The organization I am with provides skill training to women at risk of human-trafficking, believing that is the best way to stop human trafficking from happening in the first place. Sometimes finding self-sustaining models is the best approach.
There can also be an issue of dependency that can develop in some situations that is unhealthy. And working to not damage a local economy or business is something to take into consideration (as some recent documentaries have exposed lately). Being as strategic as possible is a good thing. But I don’t believe “self-sustaining models” are always practical or possible. Take digging wells for example. Some say it is a waste to just give out water, without digging wells. But first of all, Jesus himself did not frown down on “giving a cup of cold water” or providing clothing for those in need. He said there will be eternal reward for even those small temporary gestures (Matthew 25:31-46).
Further, in some parts of the world we work in, wells won’t work for various reasons. In addition, while our method may not be as self-sustaining as a well would be, we find it much more effective and strategic to help local churches provide clean water in large jars a couple times a week, during the hottest months of the year, person by person and village by village. This personal touch actually opens the door to conversations about Jesus and about the local church. It breaks down many barriers. The same goes for disasters. Sometimes immediate life-saving aid is needed. It may be food that only lasts a few days, or medicine that runs out, or water that will need replenished or clothes that will be ruined over time. But for that particular moment it meets a legitimate need and demonstrates God’s heart of compassion.
The sustainability question should absolutely follow (and is something I address in the next point). But to conclude this point: my beef comes with those who look down on this under any circumstances, but also those who stop at only at this. It is a cultural problem that when a disaster hits, we can be very generous in the moment, but then completely forget about it within a day, week or month. We move on, but we find in many of the countries we work in, the people haven’t been able to truly move on. We invest in relief, but especially (though not exclusively) we can be very poor at truly helping rebuild. That ties in to the next point:
- Being excited with the “new”…but failing to “sustain” what has been started.
We get excited about new things. This is not wrong in and of itself. However, it is wrong if after the excitement wears off, we walk away. There are too many cases (even within my own 5 year old organization) where excitement to start a new project gets funded…but then the monthly operating costs can’t be funded or sustained. There is just a massive drop-off once something starts verse ensuring it can continue forward in it’s purpose and programs for being started in the first place. Missions needs to be a long-term commitment, not just a short-term adventure or high to feel good about ourselves.
- Getting annoyed with “asks”
I was just reading a book on Bob Pierce (founder of World Vision and Samaritans Purse) and there was an ironic story told about a prominent and wealthy businessman who got angry over an appeal and said “As far as I can see, this Christian business is just one continuous give, give, give.” Bob tells of how the pastor responded by saying, “I want to thank you for the best definition of the Christian life I’ve ever heard!”
Is not continuous giving at the core of the heart of God? Is not sacrificial giving at the core of the Gospel? Why then, do we get so offended over being approached or asked to give to missions? Does God get weary of giving? Scripture seems to indicate He does not, that He in fact calls us to come to Him with every need and simply ask as a child would his Father. Rather than putting him in a grumpy mood, it delights the heart of God to give! Shouldn’t we too be delighted to give? Think about it! We are meeting a need, being an answer to another persons prayer, displaying the character and heart of God, storing up for ourselves treasure in heaven and participating in fulfilling the Great Commission! Shouldn’t giving be viewed as a blessing and opportunity instead of a burden and an annoyance? It is true that we can’t say “yes” to every ask. We can’t meet every need. But it should be considered an honor to be approached and asked.
- Advice and theory….verse little to no action.
I want to say this without offense being taken because I think many mean well; but often advice on how to do missions better, implies missionaries are stupid. Americans in particular sometimes think they are experts who know best and that other cultures are ignorant. But trust me, once you really spend some time with and get to know people of other countries, it is amazing how innovative, shrewd and discerning they can be. Personally, I know without trusted leaders and staff in country I would never make it!
To be honest, American’s can come across quite arrogant, spoiled, rude and obnoxious to other cultures. And quite frankly, our ideas that would “change everything” or be “how it would work best” is one of many such claims or promises that actual missionaries have probably already thought through or know won’t work or materialize. If you do have advice or input, approach it in a humble and helpful way, (most missionaries or mission organizations are under-staffed and desperately need volunteers, not well-meaning but often misguided or unpractical advice) instead of “I know the best way.” It may not be your intention, but it is how it often comes across.
If you see a need, own it and do something about it, instead of simply pointing it out! Advice might be good in theory, but missionaries need action, help and funding…now! There are times advice and theory is helpful, especially in a committed relationship, but combine it with action to show you are in the real world and not in a theoretical world. They live in the real world and need real help. Advice, theories and promises that never materialize can be quite disheartening. Choose to be a servant instead of a “savior.” The role of Savior has already been taken!