In a way I’m reluctant to talk about mission trips—those short-term ministry outings beloved by evangelical churches in which they send lay people to regions of the world in need of specific ministry needs—in this moment in history.
It feels like the world is reaching a boiling point. Uncontrolled immigration, economic collapse, international terrorism, the decline of western influence and political upheaval fill the news all day, every day. And the governments we expect to solve the problems seem powerless to do anything. In this kind of environment what do our churches here in America expect to accomplish by sending a few people to do things like leading a Vacation Bible School in Haiti? Or digging a well in Madagascar? Or building a concrete block church in Peru? Or conducting an evangelistic campaign in Indonesia? Or providing a two-week medical clinic in rural Vietnam?
These small gestures of gospel love that mission trips convey can feel trivial and hopeless when measured against the scale of the crises erupting all over the world. What good can it possibly do to teach a child in a Nigerian village that Jesus loves her while Boco Haram—protected by corrupt government officials—threatens to enslave all the village unless it converts to Islam? Evangelical churches devote a lot of resources to going into the very areas most affected by the world’s crises and we sometimes wonder about the effectiveness of it all. The natural inclination is to focus on the political, economic and cultural issues precipitating the crises, the macro-trends, and see the micro-trends of individual lives as irrelevant to solving the larger problems.
That would be the natural inclination. But two factors speak powerfully against it. First, if anything has been proved over the last two decades, it’s how that approach has proved disastrous. Political and military remedies to the world’s crises have made them worse. Today’s situation in the Middle East is a prime example but not the only one. I’m not saying government intervention is always unnecessary. I’m just saying that its track record in recent times doesn’t leave me with much confidence that things in the world will get better the more that government is involved.
We in evangelical churches should never feel that small things like mission trips make no difference. In fact, the opposite is true. A single person who comes to faith in Jesus can lead to a family that comes to faith. And a family that comes to faith can lead to a group of families that comes to faith. A group of families can lead to a village. A village to a region. A region to a nation. You can call that process whatever you want: organic development, bottom-up leadership, the natural flow of human improvement. The Bible calls it the Kingdom of God.
The second reason evangelical churches continue to send out mission teams is much more direct: Jesus commands us to do so. We believe our purpose is defined in God’s Word, and when Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” he means us. This is what distinguishes us from the culture around us, and the part the culture doesn’t understand. For us, to lead one person to Jesus is a fulfillment of our purpose. For the surrounding culture, that level of concern and investment for individuals over the larger group is incomprehensible.
Later this week I’ll join a small group of volunteers from our church and travel to a Muslim nation in Central Asia for a week of gospel ministry. Like the other groups our church regularly sends to the region, we’ll connect with partners there for an evangelistic outreach that includes everything from long conversations while drinking chai (tea) to distributing gospel-filled computer chips to serving as hosts on evangelistic dinner cruises. Christian mission in such hostile territory requires not only great passion but also unusually high levels of creativity and technological innovation.
It’s a mission trip, like those carried out by evangelical churches across the country every week of the year, a trip that dares to carry a message of hope to a few people in the middle of a dark and desperate part of the world. Our conviction is that politics, armies, news media and religious leaders can’t bring peace. Only Jesus can do that, one person at a time.