Reaching Your Community: Short-Term Mission Trip or Sold-Out Missionaries?

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In the last generation or two, the primary way that churches and ministry leaders in our (Western) culture have attempted to reach people who don’t yet know Jesus has been to build strategies around an “If you build it, they will come” approach. The church building was the hub, and we only had to wait for people who wanted to know about Jesus to come and find us.

I’m not saying that such an approach was never effective. However, the approach reveals something about how Christians have tended to think about our place in American culture, and still do to some extent: to do ministry well, we have to get people to come to us.

Here’s the question: Is that paradigm the way we’re supposed to reach people?

Most Christians would say that they have a desire to reach people in their communities for the sake of Jesus. And most churches include that sentiment in their mission, vision, or values statements. In fact, I would guess that there are very few churches in our culture who don’t do something each year to reach their communities. The issue is, there are really two ways to go about reaching and serving our communities in Jesus’ name.

1) The Short-Term Missions Approach

When a team goes on a short-term mission trip, there are usually four stages of the trip:

  1. Decide on the trip location and work with local leaders or a missions organization to plan the trip;
  2. Trip participants sign up for the trip, raise money, and prepare to go;
  3. The trip lasts for 1-3 weeks, then the participants return home;
  4. The team returns home, debriefs and celebrates the trip, and tells those at home all the good things that happened.

When done with (and in submission to) the leadership of local leaders at the location the short term mission trip is serving, short-term missions can do much to encourage boots-on-the-ground leaders, provide a resource that requires skilled workers (such as medical care or teaching engineering techniques), and break the hearts of the short-term mission participants.

But short-term mission trips alone don’t really do much to reach people around the globe. Short-term trips can do a great job supporting the long-term missions work already being done, but we can’t organize a couple of short-term mission trips each year and claim that we’ve done a great job reaching people around the globe who are far from God.

So why is it that when it comes to reaching our communities, we often plan a few events each year to serve and reach those in our neighborhoods and call it good?

God has used many events—Vacation Bible School, work days in our communities, and even Fireproof movie nights—to make an impact in people’s lives. But doing a few events that serve our community each year and saying that we put a lot of passion into serving our communities is not much different than organizing a short-term mission trip to Mexico every summer and saying that we are passionate about international missions.

Thankfully, there is another approach.

2) The Long-Term Missionary Approach

I have friends named Clint and Missy.

(I doubt they ever read this blog, but just in case they do, hey, guys!)

Clint and Missy live in Poland. About six years ago, they moved there from Nebraska to start a church. They didn’t speak the language. They didn’t have any connections there. They just raised some money, gathered a team, and went.

Six years later, there is a church in Gdańsk, Poland called The Gospel Church. Clint and Missy now speak Polish. And God is doing some very cool things in Gdańsk.

It has not been an easy six years for Clint and Missy, or for their team members who moved to Poland with them. But they did it—and continue to do it—because they are invested. Clint and Missy are so embedded and invested in their city of Gdańsk that every day brings an opportunity to serve or love someone who does not yet know Jesus. Here are the general stages that missionaries like Missy and Clint typically go through when they leave their home and become missionaries in another culture:

  1. Discover that God is asking them to move to another country or culture to minister or plant a church;
  2. Prepare to go there;
  3. Go and live there.

Our strategy for reaching people in our own communities really shouldn’t look much different. The only difference is that we already live here, wherever here is for us.

But here’s the problem: Most of the people in our churches—and perhaps many of us who are leaders in churches—don’t see themselves as missionaries who are here to make an impact in our communities for the sake of the Gospel. At best, we see ourselves as short-term missionaries who every now and again find a way to connect with or serve our communities. Then, we go back to business-as-usual.

What if we saw ourselves—and helped those in our churches see themselves—more as invested, long-term missionaries in our communities?

What if our events were designed to build relationships with and bridges to people in our communities who are far from God?

What if on Sunday mornings, we actually expected people from our communities who don’t yet know Jesus to show up? And not because they somehow heard about our church or drove by, but because they received a personal invitation from someone at our church?

And what if we welcomed those guests the way we would welcome honored guests into our home instead of designing everything on Sunday mornings around those who are already part of our church?

What if we asked ourselves how we are doing at making an impact in our community more than we ask ourselves about how our budget is doing?

What if we really believed that when Jesus said to go into the world to make disciples, going into the world was meant to include our own neighborhoods and communities?

What if we imagined that God had dropped us into the town where our church meets with no building, no budget, and no connections, and we had to find somewhere to start reaching people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus—and we actually started there?

That sounds like a pretty cool way to do church.

Let’s get going.

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