It was the summer after 9/11. Looking back, I can’t quite believe that we went. Everything and anything to do with airports and security was tense, and everyone was on high alert. So much was going on in the world, and yet our church still commissioned and sent out five different groups of teenagers to five different countries.
I was part of a team that embarked on a 10-day journey to China, a country I knew nothing about. I had no idea that I would fall in love with this people and place, or that God would bring me back another three times. I also had no idea how God would use these trips as formative moments in my life.
God taught me a lot during these short-term mission trips. The lessons I learned still affect me today; they inform how I live, how I relate to people, and what I put my hope in:
1. Seek to Understand Others
Right off the bat on my first visit to China, I learned the importance of knowing and studying cultural differences. Whether it has to do with manners, food, or dress, there is great value in knowing about the people we will meet.
Before our first trip, we were required to read Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. Taylor was an early Protestant missionary to China, and he did something that seemed revolutionary at the time. He dressed like the Chinese. This was because he wanted people to feel comfortable with him—and it worked.
If the goal of our mission trip is to know people and build relationships so that we can share Jesus, we need to be respectful of our cultural differences. If we go on a mission trip and either impose our cultural niceties, or worse, dismiss theirs by not taking the time to learn them, we will have no foundation for Jesus-sharing. I had to learn the hard way that in China I shouldn’t eat every single bite off my plate because it implied that I hadn’t had my fill. I learned that chopsticks are for eating, and shouldn’t be used for drumming on the table, as it implied I wasn’t happy with the chef.
In everything that we do, we should seek to break down barriers between people, not build them higher. If we want to build stronger relationships with people, we need to take time to understand their customs and learn with humility. This also applies beyond mission trips. Wherever we are, there are people around us who are different from us. Instead of assuming that we know better than them or that their behavior should conform to ours, we need to walk in humility, understand their perspectives, and affirm their worth and value as persons made in the image of God.
In a world and time where there is much civil unrest because of differences—cultural or otherwise—among people, we would do well to exercise humility and seek understanding in our own homes, schools, and communities.
2. Always Check Our Motivations
I’ll forever remember this moment: One of my group members was holding an orphan child in her lap, and for some reason he needed to leave. Instead of letting him go when he needed to, the group member kept him there, crying, while she insisted on getting a picture just so she could post it on Facebook when she got home.
Something about this just struck me as wrong. This was supposed to be about the kids, their needs, and how we could help them. Instead, it very quickly became about getting the perfect picture to show the world. I think that we need to seriously check ourselves when it comes to short-term missions. Why are we going: what is our heart and motivation? What good are we hoping to accomplish? Will our being there benefit them or is it more about us? What if we went and worked, but with zero recognition or evidence?
A lot of us struggle with what I would call “mock humility.” While mission trips are certainly not the only place this happens, it seems to be a breeding ground for it. We want to serve, but we want the picture to prove it.
Jesus was well aware of our temptation and desire for recognition. He addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Later in the same sermon, Jesus reminds us that we should be seeking His kingdom. This is about His name and renown—not our own.
Again, this temptation isn’t only present on mission trips. This is true of our everyday life. I’ve struggled with this at work, feeling as though other teachers receive acclaim and praise for something they did, while I don’t get recognized for the things I’ve done because I tend to be more quiet and behind the scenes. I especially feel this as a mother. Moms do so many things that are behind the scenes, and that no one will ever know about.
To combat this need for recognition, we need to remind ourselves that we are not after the approval of man. This must be a daily, moment by moment surrender. This is a discipline we’ll have to practice, and we’ll have to be intentional about it. God is the one we aim to please; He is the one who sees our work, even the work we do in secret.
3. Help Others Develop Kingdom Vision
During my time in China, we had the opportunity to worship at a local church. And the picture of kingdom-life came alive for me.
When we entered the church, they seated us so that we could mingle with others in the congregation instead of sticking to our own team members. I sat next to this lady who sang her heart out during the hymns. Most of the hymns I didn’t recognize, but one I did. It was the hymn, “Just As I Am.” We stood next to each other; she was singing in Mandarin, and I was singing in English, but we were singing the same song, the same message, to the same God. I remember thinking that this is what heaven must be like.
Psalm 86:9 says, “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name.” That day, I got to see a glimpse of a day when people from every tribe, every tongue and every nation will gather and bow and sing to the One who is worthy. This moment ignited in me a longing, a yearning for the day of Jesus’ return, when He will make good on His promises.
Those promises became very real for me in my years in China. That first trip, when I sat in church with that sweet woman, cemented in me an interest in the nations, in encouraging people to get out of their bubbles and comfort zones to experience God’s world and people, and to look forward to the coming kingdom. It’s what brought me back to China another three times. It’s why we support my dear friend who has committed to living in Papua New Guinea and sharing the gospel there. It’s what led me to do the work I do today—for the last seven years, every spring I’ve taught about 100 teenagers a year about the five major world religions. This is all rooted in the conviction that it is important to know the people around us so that we can introduce Jesus and the kingdom to them in a way that they can understand.
It’s been eight years since I’ve been to China. I think about the people there often, and I very much hope to return one day. I would love to show my husband and daughter this place that impacted me so much. But until I can return, I don’t have to put these lessons on hold. God didn’t just work in my life and change my perspective when I was on the mission trips, He is still actively speaking into my life where He has placed me. And so today, I’ll look to my mission field as a teacher, a wife, and a mother. I’ll seek to encourage others by affirming their worth and value, to check my motivations and serve for the One, and to always keep the kingdom at the front of everything I do.