Our student ministry center has, hanging from the rafters, a collection of flags. Each one stands for a place we have taken students on mission trips or where students in our ministry have gone before. We have several from around our area, one from Boston, and some global flags. Each flag represents a life-long memory for students and adults, but more so an opportunity to be a part of God’s work among the nations and our neighbors. It echoes the words of Piper in Let the Nations Be Glad where he declares that worship is the ultimate act, and missions is secondary – that one day we will all gather with all the nations and praise the Savior, and there will be no more need for missionaries or missions offerings or awkward yard sales to raise money for short-term trips. All will be set before the Throne of God in worship.
Through all that I get asked one question “Why take students on mission trips?” To that question, I usually give 4 answers:
- To teach them what it means to love God – So often we think of love as sentiment or a feeling towards someone, but love always carries an active sense to it. The feelings are there of course, but the action of love is what truly demonstrates it. Jesus hits on that when he says that the evidence for faith will be the love His followers have for one another (in the context of service). dcTalk hit on it with their song Luv is a Verb, Paul describes love as active in 1 Corinthians, James describes love in terms of obedience (doing the Word), and Jesus defines the greatest love as active (laying down His life). So loving God on missions means action. Love for God is always intersected with love/service to others. Love for God means holding the hand of a homeless man fresh off a bender who needs to hear about how Jesus is the only thing that can give him the freedom he craves. Love for God means picking up trash in a decrepit neighborhood for the sake of a church seeking to share the Gospel with those who live there. Love for God means doing humble service like scrubbing toilets, serving meals, coloring with a child showing her that not all adults will yell at her and that Jesus loves her, and moving chairs in order to allow others the opportunity to share the Gospel.
- To give them a heart for the nations & neighbors – When we read the Great Commission and hear missionaries share, we often think of it in terms of the nations. And yes, that is so true. There are over 6,000 people groups who are unreached, and countless billions around the world who will die and spend eternity in a Christless Hell. That should break our heart, and should spur us to board airplanes and fly to the remoteness of the world for the sake of Christ. But, the county we live in is 40% unengaged with the Gospel (and we live in the buckle of the Bible belt!). The United States is the 4th largest unreached nation on the planet, and other nations are sending their foreign missionaries to us! When we read the Great Commission and the call for the Gospel to go forth to all Creation, we mustn’t think of it as linear [we start locally, then we’ll plant a church in a nearby city, then plant one in NYC, then we can start overseas]. Instead, we should read that command as concurrent. We have a responsibility to the ends of the earth and at the same time to our local context. It means little if we’re willing to board a plane to share the Gospel if we won’t serve in the food pantry in our hometown. We push missions, have missionary testimonies, support missionaries, and make it a central part of our student ministry for the simple fact that around us are billions (who look like us and who do not) who do not know Christ.
- To give them a burden for their schools & friends – Sometimes getting away from the distractions of everyday life can be a catalyst for God to really work. One of the things we always do on mission trips is set aside some time where we talk about how things will be different once we return home. I’ll ask them to identify people, projects, and opportunities they might have to apply what they have learned, done, and experienced while on the short-term trip. Going on short-term trips is a great exercise in trusting God, but more so it’s an eye-opening experience. When students see the great needs out there, it shows them how great the needs are here. By doing missions and removing the distantness of them, it becomes the starting place of students recognizing that the “mission field” is no further than the places God already has them.
- To show them how they can be a part of God’s work – The final goal and aim of taking students on mission trips is to expose them to what God is doing to reconcile people to Himself through Jesus. To demonstrate that I try to do different things with different ministries on each trip. So from door hangers to cleaning a park to running a block party to serving a homeless shelter to prayer walking for a crack house to close down (yes, you read that right – ministry in Memphis!) to serving under-resourced churches, our goal has been to develop a comprehensive understanding of the Missio Dei. Most of our students aren’t called to be vocational missionaries, and so in doing these short-term trips and projects my goal is to equip them to be missionaries in their businesses, as they teach, as they serve as policemen, and as they get married and have kids. Each trip is, I hope and pray, the catalyst for a lifetime of service in the Kingdom of God, whatever that might look like for our students both now and in the future. My prayer whenever we have taken a short-term trip has been simple
God, show them what it is You have for them and how this can be the beginning of a life lived for Your glory.