Recently, I tweeted an analogy that resonated with several missionaries and missions mobilizers around the world:
The difference between missions and short-term trips is the difference between visiting the beach and sailing the ocean.— Joshua Hutchens (@JoshuaHutchens) January 4, 2022
You encounter the same reality in fundamentally different ways. One is relatively safe and fun. The other is dangerous and difficult. #greatcommission
In today’s Field Notes post, I want to take the time to expand on this analogy, as well as to explain what I did and didn’t mean by it.
First, you are not a missionary
Let me unpack the analogy a bit. When you go on a short-term mission trip, you are encountering the work of cross-cultural missions. You are experiencing what we call “the mission field.” However, you should not deceive yourself into thinking that you’ve experienced the mission field in the same way as an actual missionary.
First off, your 2-week or 4-week or even 6-month trip doesn’t make you a missionary. I know some pastors like to say unbiblical things like “every Christian is a missionary,” and I know your trip leaders may have even called you “missionaries.” But despite what you’ve been told, a participant on a short-term trip is not a missionary.
Missionary is a biblical term that defines a specific office based on spiritual gifting in the church. Of course, if you go to your concordance or do a search, you won’t find the word “missionary” in your translation of the Bible. But you will find the word “apostle.” The word “apostle” (Greek: apostolos, ἀπόστολος) simply means someone who is sent out as an authoritative messenger or envoy.
There are two different types of apostles in the New Testament: (1) First are the authoritative 12 disciples, plus Paul, James, and a few others. These were witnesses of the resurrection, and they were sent out personally and directly by the resurrected Jesus himself. These men had special authority for founding the universal Church of Jesus Christ (Mark 3:14; Acts 1:26; Rom 1:1). (2) Second are apostles sent out by local churches to proclaim the gospel, plant other local churches, and teach believers throughout the world. We see examples of this second category in Romans 16:7 (NIV), 1 Corinthians 12:28–29, 2 Corinthians 8:23, and Ephesians 4:11 as well as early Christian literature such as Didache 11:3–6 or Shepherd of Hermas 13:1.
In English today, we use the word “missionary,” which derives from the Latin missio, “the act of sending someone.” The etymology for both “apostle” and “missionary” derives from the idea: “to send.” The only difference is that one is derived from Greek and the other from Latin. Thus, missionary is a Latin-derived synonym for apostle. Why then don’t we call missionaries apostles? We certainly could, and we would be biblical to do so. But I think we shouldn’t because of the unbiblical use of the word “apostle” in the charismatic movement to refer to people who have extraordinary miraculous power.
While the first category of special authoritative apostles are no more because the 12 and the others have all died, the second category of sent out messengers (missionaries) continues to this day. So, just like sharing the gospel doesn’t make you an evangelist or preaching a sermon doesn’t make you a pastor, two-weeks on the mission field doesn’t make you a missionary (or apostle).
Second, you don’t really know the life of a missionary.
Two-weeks doesn’t make you a missionary, and it also doesn’t mean that you know what life on the mission field is truly like. If you’ve been on a mission trip, you’ve had a short-term, carefully-curated experience. Your hosts have planned everything for you, and it is in their best interest that you enjoy your experience.
Your hosts are shielding you, as much as possible, from the hardships they face day in and day out. You are experiencing the same reality, but in fundamentally different ways. You’re at the beach. Your experience has been curated for you to enjoy yourself while serving. Your missionary hosts, however, live on the open seas, enduring all the storms directly.
You shouldn’t feel bad about this difference. It is inevitable. You can never experience a life on the mission field in two-weeks. It’s impossible to stuff an elephant into a jar. So don’t feel guilty. But please do understand what your mission trip is and what it isn’t.
Even though you don’t really know the life of a missionary based on a mission trip, your mission trip can nevertheless be helpful and productive. Honestly, there are a ton of mission trips that just shouldn’t be happening. Mission trips that are actually just Christian versions of voluntourism are harmful to the work of spreading the gospel around the world (but that is a post for another time). In my opinion, there are really only four legitimate reasons for people to ever go on a short-term trip:
- Go on a short-term trip if you are discerning a missionary call. If you think God might be calling you to serve cross-culturally full-time, it is good to test the waters before making a major commitment. If you freak out during your carefully-curated experience, then you will never make it in real life, and it is better to find that out before you upend your life.
- Go on a short-term trip if you have a special skill that can contribute to the missionary’s work. We are blessed when skilled teachers, healthcare professionals, or builders can come and help us in our labors. Unfortunately, too many teams consist of people doing jobs they would never be qualified to do in the U.S. On the other hand, a fully-qualified and skilled individual, using their talents and gifts for the glory of God, can be a great blessing.
- Go on a short-term trip if the missionary has a project that requires extra hands. Sometimes there are evangelistic or compassion ministry projects that we need extra people to accomplish. Note: this is different from your trip forcing the missionary to create an unnecessary project to entertain you for two weeks. (This happens a lot!) Such projects should be something the missionary wants or needs to do, but can’t accomplish without you.
- Go on a short-term trip to serve and encourage a missionary. Sometimes we just get lonely, and what we need isn’t a huge team of teenagers. What we need is 2-3 caring and loving individuals to come give us encouragement, to give us conversation in our own language and culture, to watch the kids, or to help with a repair that has been on the to-do list for 14 months.
A trip to the beach isn’t a bad thing as long as you don’t claim to have sailed the seven seas just because you waded up to your ankles. In fact, a trip to the beach can be a good thing if it strengthens and helps those sailing the seas persevere and thrive.
Come to serve
Finally, I want to be very clear about what I didn’t mean by the beach analogy: I don’t mean that you should treat your experience like a vacation. I was contrasting different ways of experiencing the same thing. I wasn’t telling you to act like your mission trip is a vacation.
In fact, that is the very last thing you should do. When we go on vacation, we expect everything to be perfect. The hotel should be spotless, the pool crystal clear, the food impeccable, and if our vacation doesn’t meet our expectations, we complain and post our bad reviews.
While your host is carefully-curating your experience, your host is not running a resort. There will be bugs. There will be power outages. There will be strange food you don’t enjoy. Don’t complain. Don’t go back home posting your bad reviews, either literally or figuratively.
To your host, all the things you see as difficult are just normal. We live here with the bugs and power outages. These things wear on us, of course, but we have also grown accustomed to them. Our difficulties are much bigger, and our hurts are much deeper. To do the work of a missionary is to do people work. We’ve been burdened and betrayed, disappointed and devastated by people. You can either add to those difficulties or help us heal from them.
It’s not a sacrifice to endure a 6-hour power outage or to eat something unusual. Don’t complain. You’re at the beach. Experience something different with joy. Please, come into our world with love and humility. Come into our world to strengthen us and be a friend. Come because you understand that we are daily dealing with things that you will never face. Come to serve.