Summer is mission trip season for many churches. Groups of smiling members, young and old, stand in front of the assembled church to report on their trip. They tell funny stories and recount humorous anecdotes about experiences in a different culture. They show pictures on the screen and get emotional talking about people they met and lives that were changed. The congregation listens with joy to the report of another successful mission trip.
Mission trips, like the people who take them, come in all shapes and sizes. Domestic and foreign. Cheap and expensive. Short and long. The longest mission trip I’ve taken was to Africa—it lasted for fifteen days. Fifteen days with thirteen teenagers. It was almost twenty years ago, and I still bear the scars. In spite of the length, I found it easy and exciting to lead. In fact, it was far easier to take that long trip than it is to go across the street or down the block and share the gospel. But why is the world’s shortest mission trip—the one to our neighbors—the hardest one to take? What makes long, expensive, exhausting foreign mission trips more appealing than stepping out our front door to witness to someone on our street?
A Focused Mission
Every mission trip I went on as a teenager or led as an adult has had a very specific purpose. At the very first meeting, someone stood up in front of the group and described in detail the intent of the trip. At the initial meeting, a training schedule was handed out to ensure each member of the group was equipped to fulfill the trip’s purpose. Group members wrote letters to friends and family to raise funds, and in those letters they explained why they were going on the trip. Before leaving, the team met to review the schedule, and the group leader explained how each day’s events contributed to the trip’s purpose. No one was confused about the mission of the trip. No one wondered why they were going or what they were supposed to do.
This level of focus was bolstered by the temporary nature of the trip. The impulsive, undisciplined teenager can stay focused for a week when everything is designed to help them accomplish a single purpose. The shy, introverted student can approach someone and engage them in conversation when they know they will never have to see the person again. The short-term, highly-focused nature of mission trips removes some of the normal barriers to engaging people with the gospel.
Nevertheless, just because short-term mission trips can make it easier to share the gospel does not mean we can neglect the church’s mission when we’re at home. What we do in a compressed, focused way on a mission trip should fuel a life of mission in our neighborhoods and communities. We are called “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), and ambassadors work for more than just a week or two each year. Ambassadors move into a foreign country and represent their homeland all year long. While there may be certain weeks of intense activity, their role requires constant engagement. Likewise, our role as ambassadors for Christ cannot be confined to a yearly mission trip. It should define our daily schedule and govern our interactions with those around us.
An Ambassador’s Commitments
Serving as an ambassador for Christ in your community does not take a master’s degree in apologetics but rather a few simple commitments.
First, commit to being visible. The advent of the garage door has made it easy for Christians to drive home from work, enter their house, and then remain hidden from anyone in the neighborhood. Ambassadors cannot be anti-social. God gives us homes, not bunkers. The early church had every reason to remain out of sight due to the potential for persecution, yet they met daily in the temple and in each other’s homes (Acts 2:46). People saw them, and visibility was a necessary part of their evangelistic witness..
Are you visible in your neighborhood? In your community? Commit to increased visibility. Take walks in your neighborhood. Attend local concerts. Visit the same deli. One member in my church shops at the same grocery store at the same time each week for one reason––she wants to recognize and be recognized by the workers. Most shoppers treat grocery store employees as faceless servants, never really looking at them––certainly not slowing down to learn their names. A commitment to increased visibility can be as simple as paying attention when you shop for groceries.
Second, commit to being social. Once you recognize people, start talking to them. It may begin with a wave and a ‘hello,’ but don’t let it end there. Start conversations with those whom you see regularly. One way to facilitate conversations is through simple acts of hospitality. Invite them over for a cookout or to watch a game. My friend, Mark, recently organized a block party in his neighborhood. It took some work, but it allowed Mark to take the next step in building relationships with those to whom he waved when he took a walk. The block party has led to a neighborhood Bible study. And it’s all because Mark made a commitment to be social.
Third, commit to being interested. Everyone you meet has value as God’s image-bearer, and everyone you meet has a story. No matter their background or life circumstances, this makes them interesting. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.” Everyone in your neighborhood is interesting if you’ll take the time to talk to them.
Start by asking them questions. Then listen to their story. If they have a tattoo, ask them what it means. Tattoos are one of the great open doors to learning about someone’s life. They got it for a reason, and they are usually happy to share that reason when asked. Ask them about jobs, trips, and kids. Listen well and follow up. If you do, you will be given an opportunity to share your story—a story that has a hero named Jesus.
These three simple commitments—be visible, be social, and be interested—can help you live as an ambassador for Christ in your neighborhood. Don’t simply view a mission trip as an event, but as a way of life. When you do, a trip to the store, even a trip to the mailbox, can be a mission trip.