Good? Bad? Ugly?
I’m a big believer in the benefits of taking teams on short-term ‘missions’ trips to connect with a church in another culture. 100 years ago travel would have rendered this impossible but now it is easy.
I’ve been a part of short-term teams myself, both within the UK and Europe. Instrumental in my own involvement in cross-cultural mission was an Operation Mobilisation ‘Love Europe’ conference that gathered thousands of young people to inspire them with God’s global plan. At the end of the conference we did not go straight home but were sent in minibuses to some of the unreached population centres of Europe to preach Christ on the streets, a fun but challenging ‘micro-adventure’ that stretched me in many ways.
More recently, over a 12-year period I’ve led 8 church-based teams – about 70 people – to connect with the church in nations and cultures very different from our own. I’ve also received visiting teams while serving churches overseas. Now, as a leader of a ‘sending’ church, I’ve have been able to observe some of the benefits cross-cultural teams can have on their return.
Not always ‘plain sailing’
Short-term teams provide all sorts of positive opportunities, both for those who go and give, and for those who host them. But there are undoubtedly some pitfalls, hence ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’. The aim of this short series is to underline and encourage the good, to acknowledge the bad and to caution against the ugly.
Most of the teams I’ve led have been to a local church in Nepal, led by my good friend John Pradhan. He will also contribute as a church leader who has received and hosted teams. I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives and my hope is that this will encourage you to participate in or to facilitate such a team.
Next time we will start to look at ‘The Good’
Short-term teams can literally be life-changing. They provide a whole range of opportunities in terms of discovering God in fresh ways, becoming engaged in a deeper way with His big plan, developing relationships and becoming more like Jesus. You don’t get that from 2 weeks on a beach in Ibiza! There is also a cascade of very valuable benefits to both the sending and receiving church or churches. Let’s look at some of these.
1. A bigger vision of God
We all have the tendency to settle for a safe but restricted view of who God is based on what is familiar to us. Left to ourselves we flatten out our image of God and end up with a fixed view of God that’s easily transferable and eminently safe. All the colours on the canvas have dried, the frame is well and truly in place and our view of God hangs in its allotted place within the well-trodden corridor of our hearts and minds. Then God calls us to step out of the familiar and the safe, and takes us into unfamiliar, untrodden places.
Living for a few weeks in an unfamiliar culture forces us to see God in fresh ways. The familiar, framed view of God that we have grown so accustomed is challenged. It’s not that we add our own innovative ideas to who God is, but that we discover afresh aspects of who he has revealed Himself to be.
Crossing cultures is a means through which God unsettles some of our paradigms and leads us into a fresh appreciation of who He is. At a very basic level this may be the discovery that he is not the archetypal emotionally restrained Englishman. Perhaps he’s not as interested in neatness, privacy and punctuality as we’ve assumed. Even brief cross-cultural experiences can expose all sorts of deep and hidden assumptions that we’ve lived with including about God Himself. We can find that the God who has been predictably familiar can even at times turn out to be hardly recognisable. We see and discover God in fresh ways.
That is good!
2. A better view of ourselves
Cross-cultural experiences can be incredibly self-revealing. Other cultures often act as mirrors that help us identify things about ourselves and the cultural assumptions that we’ve adopted which would otherwise remain hidden. This can lead to gratitude as we begin to appreciate the ways in which the gospel has shaped the structures and transactions of our own culture and society. For instance, we enjoy a net of support in our own society, however imperfect, in contrast to many societies where no such net exists.
The flipside is that our individualism may become evident in contrast to who God calls us to be, exposed by a culture that doesn’t just talk about the value of community but lives it out. We receive overwhelming hospitality in contrast to our rather half-hearted attempts to work out what the Bible says about opening our homes to God’s family. We share in jubilant and sometimes tearful worship, making our own restrained expressions of excitement seem somewhat deficient. The challenges associated with being in unfamiliar situations can stimulate for personal growth.
That too is good.
Next time we will continue to explore some of the good features of short-term mission trips.