When Non-Believers Go On Mission Trips
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” The same can be said of mission trips.
I work for a short-term missions organization in one of the largest cities in the country. We essentially provide existing ministries with a volunteer base during the summer. We partner with soup kitchens, shelters, storehouses, churches, community gardens and more. The volunteers tend to be groups of students, families, churches, and organizations from across the country with a desire to serve in the inner city. They are mostly suburban and affluent.
Many who come on our trips are believers with a genuine heart to serve the city. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone and in my experience, it is common to have more non-believers on a trip than you would think. We don’t require that people be believers in order to do a mission trip with us but everyone knows who we are and what we are about, and thus know what they are signing up for.
It is rare we receive outright atheists but our non-believers take different forms. There are the people who simply come because it will get them school credit and be a good resume booster. Others just want a cool, decently affordable trip to New York City and serving for a few hours a day is simply the price they have to pay (this is sadly the posture of many of the adult leaders). Then there are those who grew up in church and are steeped in church culture. They have spent their entire lives doing church things but have had no true heart-transforming experience with the Lord.
Jesus once said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Our actions and words are a direct indicator of the heart’s condition. Over the past few years, I have seen some ugly hearts from both students and leaders.
Most of our groups are from upper middle class, suburban, majority white churches. These groups have limited exposure to the city. Everything they know about New York City has been learned through television and movies. They also hear the news and are taught the city is a big, scary place, full of dangerous people. They don’t know the stories of the city’s hard-working generations of families or of the 6,000 churches that have been working and continue to do so.
There also tends to be a very specific ideology about poor people and people of color. Our groups tend to be the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type with the “we worked hard and you should too” mindset.
Often times, while they do come to help, the belief is poor people are where they are because of the choices they’ve made. There is no framework for years of systemic oppression, being the only breadwinner and losing your job, or having a crippling illness change everything for your family. Everyone is always surprised to learn the average age of a homeless person in New York City is just 9 years old. No matter what your ideology, you can’t blame a 9-year-old.
One of the unique things we do on our mission trips is prayer tours. We walk through different neighborhoods in different boroughs and highlight the current issues to pray for them. This past year, we added a stop for Black Lives Matter. This is our way of highlighting the need for racial justice and reconciliation in our city. That didn’t go well. Here are a couple of responses we received:
- “Isn’t the problem that black people are insubordinate and just need to listen to authority?”
- “We felt as though Black Lives Matter was being pushed on us.” (This is in response to our closing words: “You can stand by and let these injustices continue to happen or you can do something. Now let’s pray.”)
I wish our problems with racial insensitivity ended there. One group leader from the deep south had to be asked to stop saying the N-word. One girl cried for 3 hours because she didn’t feel safe in our neighborhood and although she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, the place just felt “sketch” and made her nervous.
And finally, one leader, referring to black people, said she doesn’t know how to speak to “them” sometimes. It’s exhausting.
The purpose of a mission trip should be to serve those in need and hopefully share the hope you have in Jesus. Often times though, our groups don’t want to do any work they deem as not valuable. If the task is to sit in a warehouse for a few hours and take the tags off of clothing that will go to someone in need, it’s met with resistance. Because, often times, it just doesn’t make for a great photo op.
In the end, I truly struggle with just how big of an impact these trips have on the students and leaders who come.
At the end of each week when I debrief with students, the feedback I receive most often is they appreciate their stuff more at the end of the trip. If all you get out of a week of serving the poor and marginalized, learning about systemic injustices and the need for change is that you appreciate your toys more, then we’ve failed.
The behavior we experience from these groups has sometimes almost cost us a ministry partner. We had a group of students this past summer carve their phone numbers into a table with the message: “call us we’re white.” The words racially-insensitive, vandalism, and patronizing come to mind. It took a lot of pleading but thankfully, we did not lose that partnership.
But what about the students? This conduct isn’t something you pick up overnight. These are behaviors learned at home, hearts that haven’t been transformed by the power of the gospel.
That is the biggest issue. When non-believers go on mission trips, they lack the ability to communicate the true hope we have in Jesus. We need to put food in people’s bellies and clothes on their backs and we also need to tell them about this Jesus who ransomed us. If you can only do the first half but not the second, it’s like starting a race and not finishing.
This is personal for me. Looking back, I am one of those they would come to “save.” I was (still am) one of the broken and needy in the city. If I were to come across some of these groups back then, I would want nothing to do with their Jesus. My poor, immigrant, hard-working, black family would be appalled and offended by the ideologies and rhetoric that’s often spouted about our laziness and need to “get it together.” That is probably what hurts the most.
There is a better way. The gospel must be central to why we do what we do. That goes for us as an organization, and for the groups who choose to partner with us. The purpose of a mission trip is to make the name of Jesus known.
Jesus commanded us to go out and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). On a short-term trip, the discipling part is hard but the foundation for that work can be laid. It is imperative you and your group know and believe the gospel beforehand. While we don’t limit our trips to believers, the most effective and God-honoring trips will be done by those who are seeking to make his name great.
On a practical level, if you are going to go on a mission trip anywhere, make sure you are educated about the place and the locals. Do your homework. Come with a humble heart and an open mind, ready and willing to listen to the city. There is a lot to learn from the people you aim to serve if you would listen.
Seek to glorify God. If our goal is to see people come to know Christ then we must start with love. We must be humble. We must be willing to know those we want to know him. Warm hands serving soup with a cold heart is not going to turn anyone on to the life-saving message of our Savior.