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A Thought About Short-Term Mission Trips

07/06/2012

I don’t think it is too strong to say that we are addicted to stimulation. And we particularly like our stimulation in rapid, short bursts. We want our news scrolling by at the bottom of the screen in 5 second intervals. We like our opinions and stories in 140 characters or less. We change jobs once the excitement has worn off. We don’t like the mundane, the routine, the commonness of everyday life. We need the newer, the bigger, the better in order to keep us engaged. I don’t say this to be judgmental. I am as inculturated in this mindset as the next person. However, I am concerned that we are losing something vital to the Christian life if we don’t resist this strong tide.
Generally speaking, our spiritual Iives are characterized by trying to string together exciting and moving experiences. We long for the next powerful worship service. We want that next great blog post to move us. We can’t wait for the upcoming spiritual retreat and mission trip. These are obviously not bad things, but I am afraid that we use these experiences to catapult us over the mundaneness that fills the majority of our time.
My assertion is that we have substituted “experiences” for “practices” in our discipleship. I believe central to following Jesus is cultivating practices which, over time, conform us into the image of Christ. The way for virtues such as generosity, selflessness, and peacemaking to manifest in our lives is to go about the hard work of engaging in consistent and long-term practices that shape our character accordingly. If I want to become generous, then I might think about covenanting to stop and converse with every beggar I see. If I want to be selfless (and I recognize the irony in that clause), then I could start doing the house chores that my wife dislikes the most. If I want to be a peacemaker, then maybe I should spend significant chunks of time with people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds than myself. I think our churches need fewer experiences and more practices.
What does all this have to do with short-term mission trips? Well, I wonder if the rise in STMs over the past 20 years is, in some way, connected to our stimulation addiction and desire for the next “spiritual” experience. It is a lot easier to “experience” God and be moved spiritually during a two-week campaign to an exotic place than to commit weekly, for months or years, to serve a hot meal to local homeless people. We might feel righteous when we do door-to-door evangelism in a faraway place (this is one aspect of STMs that I have serious reservations about but that’s for another time), but we don’t “get much” from making weekly visits to the nearby nursing home. We feel blessed to step outside of our circumstances for a few days in order to understand the suffering of others, but what about moving our home from our familiar neighborhoods and incarnating among people unlike ourselves?
My desire here is not to evaluate the benefits, or lack thereof, of STMs, either to the participant or the receiving group. My concern is whether or not STMs can serve as a distraction, and a rather expensive one at that, from the cross-bearing practices involved in daily discipleship. And my goal, if I have one, is not necessarily to see a decrease in short-term mission trips but to witness an increase in long-term missional practices.
( Please do not read this post as an attack or condemnation of STMs. It is only a reflection upon a dynamic involved in the rise of STMs that I have not heard addressed in the various responses and reactions.)

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10 comments

  1. I just want to know why this topic has “suddenly” come to mind and been so eloquently put into print, just after MY short-term visit with you in Phayao??


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