Monday, August 5, 2013

Meaningful Mission Teams

On a recent Sunday, the pastor led the congregation in praying for a mission team headed to Costa Rica.  As I looked at the group of 10-12 people gathered on the platform, I was reminded of all the teams that came to work alongside us in both Venezuela and Mexico.  Those were wonderful, exhausting, life-changing events…and I enjoyed every team. 

We set up our mission team events/experiences like most others: We stayed in ‘adequate’ housing, wanting our team to be close enough to the reality of the land in which we lived, but comfortable enough so they could rest and would want to return someday.  We provided local transportation—an experience often more exciting that Six Flags!  We made sure our visiting team could enjoy enough of the local food to say they had really experienced life in our country.  And, we made sure to take half a day or so for the team to see a little more—to do a bit of the ‘tourist thing.’  After all, some would never be back, and they’d want to have some visual reminder in their homes of that adventure ‘way back when.’  But, we also did something differently with our mission teams in Venezuela and Mexico. 

What did we do differently?  It begins here: I believe that Jesus came in the flesh because it was important to be like us and to be with us.  In fact, there are many times in our lives that our presence is the most important thing.  There are times that we simply need to “be” there.  Our words are not as important, our skills are not as important—what matters is that we are there.

This belief led us to do that ‘something different’.  After the usual ‘mission team’ discussion with the local congregation, I would then announce two things.  First, we would insist that for every mission team member coming from the U.S., the local congregation would need to provide someone from their group.  If the US team was eight persons strong, the local congregation would need to provide eight people to come be with the team each day.  If the US team was 14 strong, the local congregation would need to provide 14 people.  Some of the nationals would just pass out water bottles, some would carry off trash and refuse, and some would work side-by-side.

(Yes, I usually got the same reaction from them that I’m probably getting from you—But what about the language?  We don’t understand their language!  What about the project—they’ll only get in the way?)

That’s when I would announce the second thing:  The project is not the most important thing; relationships are more important than projects.

I recall one afternoon in Venezuela sitting under a tree with a fellow from Georgia.  It was looking like we were not going to completely finish the project.  He said to me, “Jon, I've been on half-a-dozen mission trips in Latin America.  I've always done these construction projects.  We'd go in, execute the project, leave--mission accomplished.  But…I have to tell you, this is the first time ever that I've actually gotten know the people.”  He was quiet a moment.  “I don’t care that we can’t finish this project—this has been the best experience of my life.”

Mission Team:  Americans and Venezuelans working together...dirty, tired, and completely happy!
I've come to believe those mixed up, people-intensive mission trips really are what being the church is all about.  People on both sides quickly learn enough from each other to communicate—it always happens.  People on both sides learn to do things in new ways—everybody enjoys some good take away.  And, people on both sides end the week with new friends from half a world away.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”