Why do we spend so much money sending short-term mission teams overseas? Couldn’t the receiving churches do more, if we just sent them a check?
These questions emerge from time to time from church members with good intentions, but they miss the mark. The cross-cultural mission endeavor holds the potential for unparalleled personal and congregational renewal. Women, men and youth often share testimonies of how a mission venture ignited their passion for God. They tell stories of how they returned to their local congregations to serve and share their faith in new ways. The journeys described often produce transformation of local churches through their global engagement. New priorities, revitalized ministries and strategic partnerships emerge because they realize that the world is their parish. Ultimately, both the sending and the receiving church experience greater blessing than a check alone could ever generate.
In December 2008, while studying in the Beeson Pastor program, I participated in a mission trip to Tanzania. In the midst of an intense year of study, this excursion afforded the cohort an opportunity to serve and minister in a different culture. In Tanzania, my passion for the Lord was refreshed. During our team’s stay, we offered two leadership conferences and preached in local churches. In the first conference, pastors and leaders filled a small village church to capacity. Many had ridden bicycles or walked for hours in the heat to attend the conference. They came anticipating what we would teach them. However, some of the greatest lessons flowed from their lives and witness to edify our leadership team. In our presence, they offered gifts of passionate worship and dedicated service to the Lord. They sang and danced before the Lord with their whole being. They demonstrated great hunger to learn and grow in their leadership, attentively receiving the teachings of each day. Even though I had spent the previous fifteen years as a missionary, God utilized this brief exposure to another culture to stretch me further. The times of worship with the people of Tanzania provided a means for my faith to be enlarged and invigorated. Once again, I was reminded of God’s greatness.
Last January, God afforded me another opportunity to behold the transforming potential of a short-term mission experience. Steve Martyn traveled with a group of 22 seminary students to Costa Rica for a course on servant leadership. The students joined over 40 pastors and leaders from the Methodist Church of Costa Rica for this time of learning. During the week, students joined with Costa Ricans for small-group reflection times. These gatherings provided a unique opportunity for cross-cultural engagement. The students positively influenced the Costa Rican leaders by modeling relationships of trust and vulnerability. The Costa Ricans challenged the visiting students with their deep faith and passionate pursuit of God. Testimonies shared by the students revealed dynamic conversations, heartfelt prayers, and significant bonding occurring across cultural boundaries within the small groups. These elements dynamically influenced the personal transformation experienced by many of the participants in the week of studies.
Worship provided an additional highlight for the week. Rodrigo, a Costa Rican pastor, and Alex, a student, led the group in worship. Months after the trip, Alex shared that one of his most memorable experiences was the time spent leading worship with Rodrigo. He said, “We led worship in both Spanish and English, sometimes alternating, sometimes singing in tandem, and it was one of the most exhilarating worship experiences of my life.” Rodrigo expressed to the group that the shared worship was a unique and powerfully uniting experience for him. The implications of this event were particularly important for Alex. He shared, “I work with inner-city youth and have a heart for racially diverse churches, so seeing that kind of complication bring such worship was such an encouragement to me.” Truly, our worship transcended cultures and languages, giving us a glimpse of Heaven.
Other seminary students shared their story as well. Karla wrote,
“My whole life was changed. … I tasted Heaven in a way that I have never experienced before. I will spend the rest of my life working to create environments wherever God places me that will enable the Kingdom of God to manifest itself like it did last week.”
Reflecting on his experience in Costa Rica, Paul penned these words:
“Costa Rica helped me remove boundaries in my life and see all people as God’s children. … I have become a person who is more able to open my heart to others and have become more compassionate. … I have come to realize that some of the things I thought were so important in life and must be done are no longer that important.”
Janet revealed the unique place the mission field played in allowing her to find herself living out God’s purpose for her life. She wrote,
“I feel that I am most in God’s will when I am working, in concert with Him, to be with someone when they come to the ‘end’ of his/her self and are transformed by Christ who awaits them. And this so often happens when on the mission field.”
All these experiences demonstrate how the cross-cultural mission opportunity provides the space for renewal and transformation. A friend once shared with me his need to connect yearly with the body of Christ outside the United States to keep his faith fresh and alive. In the book of Revelation as the biblical canon draws to a close, the apostle John offers a glimpse of a great multitude from every nation gathered to worship the Lord. This image of God’s people from distinct backgrounds and cultures worshiping together provides a theological framework to better understand the power of the students’ stories. Through their worship and personal engagement with the people of Costa Rica at least for a moment, they glimpsed the Kingdom of God here on earth. The natural result of their experience was the renewal of faith and the birth of a new vision for life and ministry. As we move forward in our Christian journey, may we avail ourselves to this pathway for renewal by moving outside of our comfort zones and encountering people different from ourselves who also form part of the great Kingdom of God.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Asbury Herald.