At the age of fifteen, I went on my first mission trip. I traveled with a group from my local church to Bemidji, Minnesota, where we worked with a local pastor and his family hosting a week-long vacation Bible school. The attendees were Native American children who lived on a nearby Reservation and varied in age from pre-schoolers to teens. My job was to work with the “littles.”In addition to the giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, “Babe”, located in the small town square of Bemidji, I have a number of vivid memories from the trip. The local tourist shop sold t-shirts declaring the mosquito to be Minnesota’s state bird, I had a secret crush on the young man who led the mission team and ended up heart- broken for a brief period of time,and I experienced a miracle. On the last evening of VBS, while sharing the Gospel with a group of children and their parents, I was stung by a wasp. Though painful, I said nothing about the sting and continued to focus on my message about God’s great love. As a child, I was highly sensitive to bee stings, yet I experienced no side effects – no swelling, no itching, no nausea – nothing.
According to today’s mission team trend, the group I was privileged to partner with was not successful. We did not build any sustainable projects. We did not start any businesses hoping to boost the local economy. Instead by bringing clothing, food, toiletries, and toys we probably took away from area businesses. We also raised the bar and did things that the local pastor would not be able to maintain. In my mind, however, we were extremely successful. Hungry children were given food. Clothing was distributed to those who could not afford even thrift store prices, and, most important, numerous people heard the saving message of Jesus. I think the children, who received toys for the first time in their lives, would say that our brief period with them was extremely successful,and for those who received Christ as their Saviour the success of a band of travelers from semi-rural Ohio cannot be measured.
My husband and I currently live in South Africa. We are the founders and directors of Strong Cross Ministries, a non-profit organization that provides support for local churches and missions organizations. We build sustainable projects that include gardening, animal husbandry, and sewing just to name a few. We provide business training for entrepreneurs and are starting to process micro loans. We also focus on supporting local businesses and boosting the regional economy. We have tried to adapt to local customs and have not tried to Americanize the people we serve. I am convinced, however, that mission work is so much more.
Missions is first and foremost about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The humanitarian side of being a Christian includes providing food, shelter, and clothing to the poor. The spiritual side of Christianity includes sharing with the spiritually-deprived about the hope we have here on earth and the eternal hope we have in heaven.
Each year we sponsor U.S. mission teams. They are a valuable asset to our work in South Africa. They provide training, financial gifts, goods, and services that are valued by us and are well received by the local people. We have explained to the people we serve that Americans pray for them, want to meet them, and help them with both natural and spiritual resources. Ministry sometimes looks different when we have guests, but we don’t see that as a bad thing. Over the years, we have learned to educate American teams about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. The translators who assist us also help visiting mission teams to aid and not hinder the work of the Gospel.
For us, mission teams help in numerous ways. U.S. guests minister to those we serve and those we serve minister to U.S. guests. Future missionaries are born on the mission field. Callings are sometimes birthed for future supporters and prayer warriors by hands-on experience. In part, traveling and serving Jesus is about helping others. It is also in part about growing in God and ministry encounters. Most importantly, however, it is about the Famous One, who created the world and travels even to bottom of the sea.
A vision for Africa was birthed in my husband’s heart because of spiritual adventures told to him by an uncle who served in Mali. My vision for Africa was birthed by seeing a map of the continent. Together our vision was confirmed when we made an exploratory trip to South Africa and saw first-hand the need for the Gospel to be shared.
When thinking about the “yes, no, maybe” of missions teams, please consider the following:
Is the journey about those going, those receiving, and most importantly about Jesus being glorified?
Is there adequate instruction and on-going guidance for everyone involved?
Is the individual or the organizational host reputable?
Is the agenda two-fold: humanitarian aid and, even more vital, spiritual assistance?
Is there a local person or ministry available who can provide on-going and hopefully sustainable help to those the mission team serves?
Is there follow-up provided for the mission team that will explore future callings, areas of service, and ways to grow in sharing the Gospel?
Is the ultimate goal for people to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour?
“The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions. The nearer we get to Him, the more intentional missionary we become.” (Henry Martyn)