But the reason this is the best kind of mission trip isn’t because I like all these plush things. It’s because I’m not pretending to live the kind of life that most people in a developing country endure every day. It’s easy to go on a mission trip and experience for one week the kind of challenges that most people on earth face—limited food and clean drinking water, inadequate housing, and no luxurious amenities at all. But that’s just a week. And then what? It’s too easy for me to convince myself that I’ve done something to improve the world just because I’ve pretended to live in poverty for a week. And, even though that week might get my attention, pretty quickly my attention to that poverty and those who inhabit it fades.
The real work of being on a mission trip isn’t what happens in the course of a week. It isn’t a merit badge for charity that you get after enduring hardship for a short time. The work to which modern missionaries are called is the work of genuine relationship. We’re here to love these people and to let them love us back. We’re here to check in on our friends and share some of the work they are doing in this place. We’re here to celebrate and laugh and share pictures of our families with each other. We’re here to tell stories from the twelve months since our last visit and to recall legendary stories from our previous visits. In other words, we’re here to visit with our Christian family, and it’s really more of a vacation than a “mission trip.”
I don’t mean that the work done on a mission trip isn’t supposed to be hard work. There is physical exhaustion. There is sweat and occasionally blood. We sleep soundly and rise a little sore. And there are plenty of good missionary adventures that involve rough accommodation. You don’t have to live in luxury to do God’s work—that’s for sure. But you can’t confuse the conditions you inhabit with the work you’re called to do. When I get back to the States, the stories I share should be of people I’ve met—new friends whom I love and hope to see again and for whom I will remain in prayer all year long. I shouldn’t get lost in self-indulgent tales of hot, sweaty, mosquito-filled nights that I endured for the sake of the gospel.
In today’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” For me to believe that the kingdom of heaven is filled with lots of people who aren’t just like me I need to know those people and love those people. Coming alongside someone’s poverty and then leaving it behind won’t do it. I can’t appreciate the diversity of the kingdom if I only engage it one week out of the year. That’s why I’m here. And that’s the reason I’m thankful for an air-conditioned bedroom (well, one of the reasons, anyway). I won’t get distracted by the hardships I’m facing so that I can devote myself instead to the hard work of getting to know how big the kingdom really is.