Probably everything that can be said about mission trips has been said. And probably everything that has been said is true somewhere. However, it is too big a phenomenon to ignore.
The last twenty years have seen an explosion of mission trips. Some estimate that one million Americans go on mission trips annually at a cost of $1 billion. Early on mission trips were mostly undertaken to stimulate missions commitment in the sending church: more giving, and praying, and producing more long-term missionaries. For years many of us have encouraged congregations to send their pastors and leaders to the mission field to give them first-hand experience and build their missions commitment.
Now people are traveling everywhere in the world for all kinds of reasons and no reason at all, and missions trips are part of this trend. Daniel Rickett said that mission trips are at the tipping point of becoming tourism. On the contrary, many Christians have seen needs elsewhere in the world and discovered ways they can contribute. Almost all new long-term missionaries have been on one or more mission trips. Others have maintained contact with people in remote parts of the world. Nearly anyone you ask will say the mission trip was a “life-changing experience.” The results of more research are coming to light, with mixed results. It seems a life-changing experience isn't what it used to be. Some people are attempting to build a life made up of a series of life-changing experiences. Some people who go on a mission trip come home two weeks behind in their work and find the washing machine broken, a tired wife, and a houseful of dirty laundry. This turns out to be another life changing experience, partially neutralizing the earlier one.
Mission trips are changing the way we view missions and do missions. Mission trips are a means to accomplish mission work on the field, to enlighten and disciple the ones who go, and to influence the congregation back home. At the same time, trips consume a great deal of missions energy both at home and on the field. Those who go return exhilarated, worn out, and two weeks behind. Unless the fires are deliberately stoked, they tend to die out.
While much good work is accomplished on trips, there are not infrequent reports that trips were more costly than beneficial, if not down right detrimental, on the mission field. The permanent life change we hope to see in the one who goes gradually fades back into normal American life. The congregation may not get the full impact because there is little opportunity to communicate and because of a failure to think clearly about what needs to be communicated. Not too long ago I heard a missions trip report that included no mention of giving, one appeal for prayer, and several enthusiastic appeals for people to go on trips. The primary result of most trips is more trips.
Mission trips are a means to accomplish mission work on the field, to enlighten and disciple the ones who go, and to influence the congregation back home."
I’ve never heard anyone say that their church’s regular missions budget (outside of giving for mission trips) has grown because of their mission trips. I'm sure it has happened but it doesn't appear to be a general expectation. It is clear, however, that an increasing proportion of many missions budgets is going to help support the trips. One of my friends told me that their church had notified a long supported missionary couple that they wouldn’t be able to support them any longer because they needed the funds for more missions trips.
While most new missionaries have taken mission trips, there is little evidence of a surge of new long-term missionaries.
An increasing number of churches are making trips a major part, sometimes the primary part, of their missions ministry. Others are using trips not for doing ministry but primarily as a discipleship tool. One young leader in a mega church told me that the reason they do mission trips is merely to disciple their people. There is no doubt that mission trips can be an effective discipling tool but subtly mission trips are becoming something we do for ourselves rather than a means of stimulating greater missions involvement and effectiveness in the world. When we find ourselves “using” missions as a tool for our own benefit, or doing missions in a certain way because it provides a means for personal involvement, and not to accomplish something for Jesus out in the world, we have gone off course.
The challenge is to do mission trips in such a way that they are productive on the field, they disciple the people who go, and they stimulate the congregation to greater missions commitment. This is no small challenge.
Church leaders always have to decide how to best use limited resources for Kingdom benefit. Which takes priority, investing in promising and productive missions strategies or supporting and caring for current long-term missionaries?
Historically congregations have been connected to missions through their missionaries who are their primary concern. Some churches idolize missionaries, the people who gave up everything to live for Jesus in far away places in the world. The support and welfare of their missionaries is their number one priority. One pastor told me, “We have never missed a check for our missionaries, and as long as I’m the pastor we never will.” They may have little idea what the missionaries are trying to accomplish, but their prayers are on behalf of the missionary and rarely the people they serve. They would not think of asking whether a missionary is effective or their ministry is strategic but whether he is safe and healthy.
Many churches do not have specific missions goals and priorities. Until recently the most common church goal was to raise as much money as possible for missions. Less attention was given to what was accomplished or attempted with the funds raised. Local church lay leaders are often unaware of various parts of the world and know little about cultures and mission strategies. They support and trust missionaries and mission organizations that have their own goals. The church missions strategy is a collection of the strategies of supported missionaries and organizations.
Many churches have lost touch with a number of the missionaries they support. Few people know them and they have little idea of what or how they are doing. New missions leaders may want to evaluate their missionaries but they may have unreasonable expectations. Is a church entitled to evaluate the ministry of someone with whom they haven't communicated and of whom they have only perhaps 5% of their support? Further, what standards apply? Could you use the same standards to evaluate your church? Others are highly critical of missionaries whose results aren't dramatic. They seem to assume church growth in a difficult environment should be rapid and dramatic like it happens to be in their church. One young missions pastor in a large suburban church told me their elders were considering disengaging with their missionaries in the 10/40 Window. They wanted to take a “high impact” approach like their ministry in the Canada. It seemed to be a new idea to him that “high impact” might look different in the 10/40 Window.
Becoming more strategic while taking care of our missionaries is a major challenge."
Occasionally a new missions committee takes their responsibility to become better stewards of missions resources seriously and they develop a good strategy. Wise leaders will consider the input of, and the consequences to, their far away and dependent missionaries. Alternatively, missionaries who may have pioneered the missions ministry in the church or been long time workers from the church may be unceremoniously dumped because they don’t fit into the new strategy.
Increasingly church leaders recognize that the congregation has become disconnected from missions and they work to get more people connected and involved. With fewer and time-limited services, there is little opportunity to help the congregation to learn to know all the missionaries on their roster. Even the missions team can't keep up. This leads to a desire to reduce the number of supported missionaries so that the church can focus more heavily on the ministry of a few. The same reasoning makes it difficult for new missionaries to obtain support unless they are highly regarded members of the congregation.
In reaction to the criticism that "churches only want your money," raising money has become an almost taboo topic in churches. In days past churches enthusiastically raised funds for missions. When people in the congregation were approached by individual missionaries for support, it was understood. As one fundraising missionary told me last week, "Young people don't have supported missionary models visiting and having dinner and being touted at church anymore. Support-raising, except for mission trips is foreign and odd."
The most natural forms of congregational involvement are mission trips and projects in the community. These require a great deal of planning and management. Many missions leaders are so busy with organizing these complex involvements along with their other church responsibilities, that they have little time to think about how or whether these high-involvement projects contribute to the larger goal of world evangelization. Becoming more strategic while taking care of our missionaries is a major challenge.
When David Mays taught in the Perspectives Course he would begin by asking if God has an end goal for the church and the nations. By lesson 7, the students gave him good answers from the Scripture: God desires that all nations hear the gospel, that reproducing churches be established in every people group, that God be glorified by all peoples, that all nations worship, etc. When we ask similar questions to church groups, the answers are less clear, much more nebulous. When we ask for a definition of missions, the answers are all over the map. It is obvious that church leaders do not spend a lot of time establishing the context for pursuing the Great Commission or its goal. It is our assumption that missionary efforts represent our obedience to disciple all nations. This is a very broad mandate, but it does have a goal, an end point. Perhaps this has been taken for granted but it is no longer common knowledge.
At one time missions was “foreign missions.” Our nation was assumed to be Christian - at least nominal Christians - and there were many in other nations that were not Christian. Missions was considered "taking the church where it isn't" and evangelism meant "growing the church where it is." As our culture has become less and less Christian, the need to evangelize our own culture has become increasingly apparent.
In addition, people from every language and nation have come to live among us so we have “cross-cultural missions” at home. But culture isn’t limited to nationality. We are increasingly a country with multiple cultures, many of them less affected by the Gospel or with greater social needs than others. Even the unchurched people who grew up on your street have a different cultural worldview. There is no longer a clear distinction between missions and other church ministry. For most people missions has come to be defined by whether the ministry occurs on church property.
“Local missions” is part of most missions budgets. It is not uncommon to find up to half or more of a church’s missions budget designated for ministry within Canada or within the church’s own community. Someone wrote me that their church board has mandated that they spend no more than 50% of their church budget on foreign missions.
Since the missions budget is about the only budget available for supporting ministry outside the church, para-church organizations present their ministries as missions. I have thought of the church as a building with one window. The missions department has the office with the window. Outside, above the window is printed: "Funds available. Apply here." Many people who work for Christian ministries consider themselves missionaries, even if their ministry supports almost exclusively middle-class American Christians. A gentleman who was principal of a Christian high school was indignant frustrated that the a host church wouldn’t support the needs of the school from its missions budget. The fact that the school primarily serves the children of Christians from his church did not change his perspective, nor does it affect the perspective of people in churches. Recently a young man wrote, “I am presently leaving a 15-year career in corporate finance to become a missionary with ____ Financial Ministries.” An organization that provides legal support for Christian organizations refers to its agents as missionaries. Church leaders often have pet projects and organizations they would like to have funded from the missions budget. One missions pastor smiled when he described his church’s missions budget as the wastebasket because it receives all the requests no one else wants to fund.
Increasingly missions money is used for ourselves. In one church the missions leader appealed for people to get involved in two missions projects. One was building a house for an elderly member of the church. A dozen years ago I observed missions budgets listing a maximum of 5 or 10% to be used internally for missions promotion and education. It was very common to see rudimentarybasic, even shoddy,low-quality missions promotion in very nice churches. For years I advised missions committees to do higher quality promotion because people judge things as important if they look important.
But missions leadership in many churches has been handed off to a generation that is comfortable spending more money. Missions promotion and education have escalated in quality and cost. The missions budget is also called upon to provide funding for outreach activities undertaken by other departments and ministries. In one church, a Sunday School class hosted an outreach barbecue on school property across the street. When no one showed up, the class asked the missions team to cover their $500 loss.
Without clear and understood boundaries for missions, a healthy missions budget is a temptation for any church leader with ideas. If a project or program can somehow be tied to outreach, the missions budget becomes a potential source of funding. Youth excursions have been converted to mission trips and are supported by missions budgets. In one church the missions committee budgeted funds for a youth missions trip. When the youth raised all the money they needed for the trip, they asked for (and received) the same funds for a retreat. When church leaders planned a community service project for cell groups, the missions team was asked to cover the cost of the lunches. In one church children were asked to give money to missions “for children who don’t know Jesus.” The funds were used to purchase playground equipment for the church, presumably to attract those children.
The missions budget is increasingly becoming a “miscellaneous budget.” One must ask what priority “miscellaneous” will continue to enjoy have in the church. Purpose-driven institutions try to focus their resources on their primary purposes and it’s easy to see that “miscellaneous” spending should be small. A missions chair wrote, “The leadership at our church has been arguing that everything the church does is ‘missional.’ Therefore, it is inappropriate to expect that a given percentage defines a "healthy, vibrant" church.” Missional is good. And it should maintain an appropriate balance between 'our world' and the rest of the world.
Even while the prosperity of the North American church grows, the challenge also grows to increase, or at least maintain, outreach ministry focused on the peoples and nations with the greatest needs and least access to the Gospel.
For a long time, many evangelical churches focused on serving believers within the church and reaching the nations abroad. Occasional revival meetings were meant to revive the faith of nominal Christians in the neighborhood. But reaching the community was not a major focus. However, iHhdf n the last three decades, there has been a long overdue movement to reach our communities. Most of the recent books I have read about the Church focus on how to reach your community and grow your church.
Many of these books begin with the Great Commission as stated in Matthew 28:19-20. Working from the New International Version, they suggest that the “heart” of the Great Commission is to “make disciples” and they apply this to reaching your community. What is often missing in these books is discipling “all nations.” Cross-cultural missions is taken for granted, off the radar screen of the book, frequently limited to a passing mention in a page or a paragraph or a sermon. Not too long ago I proposed “The Great Commission-Driven Church” as a workshop title. One pastor said to me, “I’ve studied the Great Commission Church and taught on it and I was hoping for something more global.” It seems that the Great Commission is now commonly thought of primarily as local outreach by many church leaders.
Pastors and church leaders seem to be looking primarily to mega-church models for how to do church. These model churches usually have a missions program, sometimes an outstanding missions ministry, but it has not been a major feature of their books and conferences. One person involved in missions told me about returning with a van of church leaders from a mega-church conference. One of the leaders said to the other, "Why are we putting so much money into missions? Did you hear them talk about missions?" This needs to be changed. We need to pour ourselves into the world.
New church plants are nearly all focused on reaching their unchurched community as you might expect. They are often slow getting started in missions. Several years ago I asked the receptionist of a young church plant, “What are you doing in missions?” “We are a mission,” she replied. In a recent book about effective church ministry the authors reported putting their teenagers to work “on the mission field” on Sunday morning. He was referring to having them work in the church programs. Recently one young church planter was asked what his church was doing in missions. “We have a miscellaneous budget line item for that kind of stuff, “he responded. Another young seeker church of more than 1200 people reported a missions budget of 1% in 2004.
Doing church in a culturally relevant manner is increasingly expensive. It is difficult for churches to maintain the percentage they used to give for missions. Large churches with large budgets have huge internal expenses. Churches of more than one thousand in attendance rarely give more than 20% of their regular income to missions. Younger large churches not infrequently have missions budgets of 5% or less. A large church in the Chicago suburbs has designated 80% of their missions budget for expanding their multi-campus sites. Traditional churches with large missions budgets are spending more on staff and facilities. Becoming more seeker-oriented means spending increasing dollars on facilities and accouterments for a more hospitable and pleasing place for secular people. Almost all churches are facing these pressures in order to be acceptable, if not competitive.
The non-negotiables are changing. At one time the missions budget was sacrosanct in many churches. Now, as one worship pastor told me, “We have two media projectors in the worship service. Each projector has two bulbs. Each bulb costs seventeen hundred dollars. And if one blows, you gotta’ replace it.” A volunteer technical assistant in a church of six hundred told me, “In five minutes I could write down two million dollars worth of sound equipment we need.” Many younger churches desire to do more missions, but missions must wait on higher priorities.
Twenty-five years ago, church purpose statements frequently specified "reaching the world.” Current purpose statements are shorter and less specific. The world is not clearly stated. As someone said, "a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." Missions is treated as a program rather than part of the church’s purpose. There is a huge difference. One missions pastor told me, “In our church, missions is one of 125 ministries and it must compete with all the others for pulpit time, resources, and volunteers.” In highly professional, time-delineated worship services, time is not available for missionaries to tell their stories. Brief interviews or video clips must suffice to let church people know they are involved in missions. Many churches are reducing the number of missionaries they support so they won’t be overloaded in trying to keep themselves and their people informed.
The effort to reach our communities deserves to be supported and applauded. How to retain and build a focus on reaching the rest of the nations at the same time is the challenge.
This week we are looking at the first challenge facing the church – Keeping Lostness in View. The challenge here is whether or not to keep ‘lostness’ in view or to fight against practical universalism.
As churches and congregations continue to be concerned about being a less threatening place for non-believers and about our image in the culture, we are careful how we use legalistic and harsh-sounding words like "evil," “lost,” “sin,” and “repentance.” These words are awkward for non-Christians and somewhat uncomfortable for many Christians who would avoid coming to terms with the stark possibility that people could be forever lost. At least 20 years ago, Roger Greenway, perhaps the premier missiologist for the Christian Reformed Church, said in a workshop that the exclusivity of Christ is the pivotal issue for evangelicals. A mobilizer from an evangelical denomination told me that he had conducted an informal survey in Sunday School classes he taught in his churches. More than half the people had admitted they couldn't really say that people without Christ were lost. A lady came up to me after a workshop and said her denomination had "taken evangelism out of missions." I’m afraid many Christians just wouldn’t be able to agree that those who haven’t heard or don’t know Christ are lost.
I have observed that Christians and non-Christians, the saved and the lost, look much alike. When I look out my window in the morning and see my neighbor going to work, he looks a lot like me. I may spontaneously think about the value or condition of his house, his family relationships, his job, the new things he has, or the make of car he drives, but I’m not very likely to be reminded that he is lost and in need of the Savior. I wonder if my life looks any different to him. It is not always easy to remind ourselves that people are in two very different camps, those that know Christ and are going to spend eternity with Him and those that don’t and aren’t. We just don’t tend to see people as “lost.”
As Stan Guthrie said in an editorial in Christianity Today (CT, January21, 2008), there is a hole in our holism. Personal evangelism is a much tougher sell than giving a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. It is much easier to put together a short-term team to drill a well or build a church than to do door to door evangelism or to do radio distribution.
When we see pictures on television of people in troubled places in the world, we are likely to be reminded of hunger, the repressive effects of totalitarian governments, environmental destruction, and the needs for education, political stability, freedom, moral restraint, clean water, good food and medical care. We are much more likely to observe the physical needs of people than their invisible spiritual needs. Young adults seem to be increasingly responsive to such needs. I asked a missions class at a Christian University about their career plans. Most were anticipating ministry in urban areas and meeting social needs or working for social justice. No one mentioned evangelism or church planting ministries.
The missions movement has been criticized, and perhaps rightly so, for 'saving souls' and neglecting the conditions and systems that keep the bodies enslaved. What we are seeing in churches now is perhaps a correction to that omission. The danger is that the pendulum never stops at the bottom. I don’t seem to hear as much talk about the priority of reaching lost people, even in missionary reports. The reality of the spiritual world seems hazy. What we see in churches today, we will see in missions tomorrow. A lack of passion about sin, repentance, lostness, redemption, the necessity of salvation, and the transformation of both the private and public life, may be reflected in missions tomorrow. The theme that is taken for granted in this generation may be lost altogether in the next.
We must not lose sight of the fact that people are lost. People are eternal. They are going to spend eternity with God or outside His presence. They must be introduced to Jesus. This must be a major component of our missions plans and ministries. Our many humanitarian ministries must not neglect the evangelization and discipling of the lost among all nations. As Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, " These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."
Personal evangelism is a much tougher sell than giving a cup of cold water in Jesus' name"