I believe our affinity to STM trips is becoming more of a cultural Christian right of passage instead of being part of our ministry as followers of Christ.
Let’s do something different. It’s not that STMs are wrong, but it’s our priority placed on them (more than a billion dollars annual) and what we do while on them that obscures our vision of the Kingdom of God.
With great emphasis I have stated that the Kingdom of God has no “short-term” and is always moving, always loving, and always serving. Let’s be a part of the mission of God for the long-term. Yes that sounds cliché, but it’s the very thing we, as Christ’s followers, are called to do.
I believe Paul had a very good idea of what this meant. Remember his conversion story in Acts 9 while on the road to Damascus? What’s interesting is he doesn’t ever refer to it as such. In Acts, Luke records a few of Paul’s post-conversion speeches and he mentions being baptized and the Lord saying his sins would be washed away, but the context is more about Paul’s commission than conversion. Paul knew that if Jesus was the Messiah everything had changed: Torah, Judaism, Sabbath-keeping, and his worldview would all need to make space for Jesus, the long-awaited Christ. Therefore, he (Paul) would use the same passion and energy he had in upholding the way of Judaism in order to make the announcement that Jesus had fulfilled the Law and the Prophets as the Messiah. We see this fervor in his letters, especially Galatians, as he forcefully claims that he received the revelation of the gospel by Jesus himself in order to preach Christ to the Gentiles (Gal 1:11-15).
There’s a lesson there for all of us.
We rarely think of our conversion stories in this way. Maybe for many of us who followed Jesus at a young age, it was difficult and too complex to think about. However, the NT writers knew that following Jesus (conversion) was only the beginning and not the culmination of faith. There was ministry to do. God had made his announcement of salvation to the world, and believers were called to be part of the redemption process of the world. God uses his people to minister to families, friends, neighbors, and strangers. He has given believers a specific context, unique gifts, and opportunities to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
I contend that we can very easily narrow the mission of God and our own ministry with our obsession with STMs and travel. It’s ironic that a STM trip would actually narrow our view of God’s work in the world. STM trips are designed to maximize the experience of a specific mission work in a new context in which, by the way, the local missionaries have been nurturing and serving for many years. The opportunity to be a part of a group that focuses on the immediate needs of a particular people ushers in feelings of happiness, unity, and camaraderie that are memorable but not easily reproduced afterwards. What is true of STM trips is that people have needs and God is using groups and the local missionaries to meet those needs. What is also true is that STM trips do not correlate to more missions interest or future mission workers upon arriving back in the USA. To this end local churches must make local evangelism and outreach the priority. Churches will do well to remember what priest William Temple said, “the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Our God is calling families and churches to serve people every day. There are opportunities in the ordinary seemingly mundane routine of life to serve and to be a blessing. I fear that STMs can cause our view of the Kingdom of God to always only be those “mountain top” experiences instead of relishing in God’s work through the church on a daily basis. So let’s do something different! Let’s be the local church that as a family of God experiences reconciliation while serving the community. Let’s invest in the long-term! Plant more churches, serve the inner-city, invite neighbors to share community, and look for ways that God can be glorified in the ordinary. Our God is always moving, always loving, and always serving. So let’s join in.