During the spring of 2021, I discovered 127 Worldwide through a blog on Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Intersect Project. The blog, titled “3 Things Your Next Mission Trip Is Not,” opened my eyes to challenges that plague traditional short-term mission trips even before I ever crossed a border.
Not long after reading the piece, I researched 127 Worldwide and found more resources and information on short-term missions. Because 127 focuses on their relationships with advocates and partners, I found a library of resources related to healthy engagement in cross-cultural settings and learned a number of things that will guide my first upcoming overseas trip with my church.
1) Westerners are advocates, not savior.
One of the first things I learned is that when visiting a vulnerable community, respect for both human and cultural dignity is critical. While short-term mission trips often include humanitarian work, I am discovering the importance of remembering that we are not the main people who can provide this work. Short-term trips can accomplish more by working alongside local leaders in a community rather than doing the work alone.
Additionally, because I’ve never left the country before, I don’t believe I will truly understand the scale of global poverty until my eyes witness it. The importance of being extremely cautious of what I give others, especially children, has been stressed in order to avoid the unintended message that Westerners are the providers. I know that I am not savior nor provider and have not been sent to fulfill this role, but to introduce them to the One who is.
2) I am not the only one to help.
In visiting vulnerable communities, I have learned the importance of remembering that vulnerability does not equal helplessness. Even the people we serve have something to contribute to me. Going into a new environment, I will need to remember that while I know the message of the gospel, I don’t hold the answers to everything. I will not know about the lives of the people in the communities we visit or their stories, but other local ministry workers and pastors do. Redirecting everything back to the local church can create a sense of community and champion the church as the place where people can find relief and help. While my local church is providing the opportunity to visit this new community, the opportunity for ministry and discipleship is ultimately granted through the global church by the local leaders who serve in that context.
From the stories told by my missions pastor, friends, and other 127 advocates, I know I’ll travel home with many more friendships than I arrived with. I have also learned however that trying to remain the center of these connections is not always healthy or helpful. With no guarantee that I will get to return to the villages we visit, I recognize the need for humility that seeks to platform local leaders and churches instead of myself. I know that I can continue to serve the body of Christ there by praying for their ministry for years to come and that I can look forward to the day when we’ll all be reunited in the new heavens and new earth. That type of connection is far more valuable than promises that I will come back and see them again.
3) The gospel is the message.
As Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out and spread the gospel in Matthew, he tells them to teach the world what he has commanded:
“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.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
In order to teach what Jesus has said, I have to be well equipped with what the gospel is and how to share it. Learning about the culture of the place I am visiting is important to respect cultural boundaries and to discern what is the best way to share the gospel in this specific context. As we are changed by the gospel, it runs through every portion of our lives and should be reflected in what we say, wear, do, and even the places we go. Knowing how to spread the gospel verbally is crucial for this trip and everyday life. My life is to be a reflection of God, and the mirror of my life should not be perfect but clean enough for people to see who Jesus is and what he has done to wipe away the dirty and broken parts.
It is not my intention to create a critical view of short-term missions as I’m about to embark on my first one. However, from the past few months of preparation, these ideas have further solidified the importance of the commission we have been given to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. I know it will not be an easy task, because following Jesus was never meant to be easy, but it is a task that should be taken ever so seriously because it has the potential to impact people for eternity.