Many people criticize short-term mission trips, saying that they are nothing more than glorified vacations – sightseeing tours with occasional service projects. Even I myself have to admit that in the months prior to the World Race, the more I learned about missions, the more I questioned the validity of short-term mission trips. As I began to gain a perspective of God’s heart for people all over the world, I began to understand that the role of a missionary is to build relationships and make disciples of Jesus within a local community.
But with the World Race, this seemed like an unachievable task. Being a missionary to eleven countries in eleven months? How could I ever learn the culture and get to know the people and have them open up their hearts to me and share the gospel and see them come to Christ, in just a few short weeks? As I was exploring various service opportunities in other countries, someone asked me if it wouldn’t be better to serve in one country for multiple years, such as the Peace Corps? Wouldn’t that be a better way to make a difference in the world?
That was a good question, a question that I didn’t have an answer for. At the World Race training camp, I asked Bill Swann, one of our leaders, how we can really hope to make a difference in a community in one month. He answered: “When you build relationships with another person of a different culture, there is an exchange that happens. You learn something from them, and they from you. The experiences you have together mold you and shape you, and both people are never ever the same.”
This brings me to just one week ago, the last day of our ministry in Transnistria. I felt discouraged. We had taught a lot of English, passed out a lot of invite cards, and did a lot of ministry. I had sensed that at the beginning of the month that God had a specific plan for us being there, but nothing truly extraordinary had happened. Despite this, in my prayer time that morning, I felt God speaking to me: Never underestimate the power of even one conversation.
Our English conversation class in Victory Park, Tiraspol
That afternoon, one young man rushed into our English class. His name was Dima, and he had been attending our biweekly English conversation practice for university students in the park. I remember being surprised that he was there because he didn’t know about the ongoing English classes that we had been teaching. We asked him how he got there, and he told us that as Alyssa prayed for him the day before, he felt like something happened in his heart. When he woke up in the morning, he had a strong sense that he was supposed to go to the Expo center, which is where we were teaching English. We were astounded to hear how God had led him to us that day…then some of the boys on our team sat down and shared the gospel with him. That afternoon, Dima prayed that God would come to him and help him and change him. Dima told us later that as he was praying he felt like he was flying, that someone was holding him up. He thanked God for sending us to his city that month, and expressed how our conversations together had changed his life. We had the opportunity to interview Dima, and here is his story:
Then it struck me: Who am I to think that I can only make a difference in the world if I serve in a country for two years? Thinking this way puts God in a box. Who’s to say that one month, one week, or even one conversation can’t change a person’s life?
I realized that Bill was exactly right – Every single person we meet leaves footprints on our hearts, and impacts who we become. When we see God work through the people in other cultures, not only do their lives change, but ours do as well because God breaks us in the midst of the brokenness we see. It’s striking when you go on a mission trip, thinking that you’re going to change the world, but then you realize that actually you are the mission.
As short-term missionaries, if we try to learn the culture and get to know the people and share the gospel and see them come to Christ within a few short weeks, we may become discouraged by the overwhelming task ahead of us…because that’s not our role. Our role is simply to sow seeds – to come alongside what God is already doing in a local community and multiply their disciple-making efforts. This means we will plant a lot of seeds and sometimes we will reap what others have sown. Many times we won’t see the fruit of our efforts. And that’s OK.
So, whoever you are, whether missionary or doctor or dishwasher or stay-at-home-mom, there is one global strategy that God has used since the beginning of time: Love. This is the first and best way to make a difference in the world. Indeed, the bible says that the world will know that we are Christians by our love (John 13:35). So today, will you let Christ’s love permeate your every thought, and allow every interaction with another person to be seasoned with grace? Throughout your day, will you continually ask God, “What can I do to serve and honor this person in front of me?” This love is how we will make disciples of all nations, and show the world who Jesus is.