2003 Missions Reflections

This is a sermon I spoke at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary chapel, on February 28, 2017. Actually, I suppose it is more of a testimony than a sermon.


A number of you will be doing internship this Summer: It could be Short-term Missions (STM), it could be church internship, it could be Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Some won’t be officially doing internship, but will be serving God somewhere, perhaps your home church, during the Summer break. You can look at it as a burden… a task you just got to do… Or you can learn and grow through it– become a better person and minister through it. I like the fact that PBTS now requires Interns to give a testimony of their summer. When I was a student, this was not done… and that was truly a missed opportunity.

I am going to use, primarily, the example of a short-term mission trip I joined way back in 2003. That was a year before my family and I came to the Philippines. I joined a group that went to Londrina, Brazil.

Lesson #1. Talk About It.

Talk about your internship. I don’t mean up in front of church showing a couple of pictures of you standing in front of a Buddhist Temple, or dressed in a Highlands costume. I don’t mean a quick little “Praise God” testimonial. I mean find people who have the interest and the ability to understand non-judgmentally what you went through and talk to them about the good and the bad, the miracles and the struggles. That is not always easy to find. When I came back from Brazil, I never had much of a chance to share my feelings about the trip with anyone except family and a couple of team members. Until today…

A couple of years later that happened again. Celia and I, and our kids, went to the Philippines for a year. We promised ourselves we would stay at least a year and then see what God has for us. We decided to stay long-term, but returning to visit our sending church I expected people would be so interested in wanting us to talk about what we had experienced. Surprise surprise, they really weren’t. Sure, they would ask a question or two, but then would quickly switch the topic to something they were more interested in– purchasing a new car, refinancing their house, local sports. So boring… I was really quite surprised. Then a friend of mine, came over and started talking. He said “Bob, I would like to share with you about my mission trip to Belarus… because I know you would understand. I had been in the Philippines for a year, and he wants to talk to me about a 2 week trip to Belarus? But I thought for a moment. He must have had a similar problem of people who did not appreciate what he had experienced. Something important happened in his life and he needed to be heard. He thought I would understand. So I listened. Soon after, friends who did a mission trip to Italy shared about their trip, and we listened. It’s important. Since then, we found two families at our home church who understood and would listen.

Years ago, Randy Friesen, a missiologist from South Africa, did his dissertation on the results of Short-term missions– particularly on the participants. Many of the results were positive. One negative, however, was that participants in short-term missions commonly were less involved in their home church one year after the trip. Why was this? Part of it was that there was no debrief, no evaluation, no follow-up to the trip. The church never helped them put their experience into proper perspective and to integrate that into their spiritual life journey.

The church assumed that the STMers had not changed, but they had. The church sought to put them back in their old roles in the body, but those roles no longer fit. The STMers no longer felt that they fit in their home churches. This is completely unnecessary. Debrief not only helps the STMer understand what they experienced, it helps the church understand as well… and then to work together afterwards.

Talking provides an avenue for personal reflection. We went to Londrina, Brazil to build a church building. We also did some speaking, some music, and two members worked with a children’s ministry.

The local pastors asked a favor from us. People who come up to us will ask us, either in Portuguese or in very very broken English, what we do back in the United States.

American STMers typically don’t like to answer that question, but will give some Christian-ish phrase like “Well, I am just a fellow brother in Christ” or maybe “A sinner saved by grace, just like you.” (Much like the Greenwich commercial: sobreng cheesy.) The Brazilian pastors asked us to answer truthfully. The reason? Brazil has that Portuguese/Spanish belief that professionals do not get their hands dirty with hard work. If you are a nobody, you do menial work… if you are a somebody, you don’t…. that labor is somehow, degrading. The Brazilian pastors said that they wanted to change this attitude. They wanted the people in their church to recognize that all work done for God is honoring. On our team I was a mechanical engineer, but we also had an electrical engineer, an owner of a construction firm, a retired Air Force major, a company manager, two teachers, and more. It actually seemed to work. We did have at least some small role in changing attitudes at the mother church– Igreja Batista Monte Siao (Mount Zion Baptist Church).

The time there was strange. The church put us up in a 4-star hotel. Crystal Palace Hotel. Strange… We could have stayed in the host church. It was a big church. We could have stayed at a livelihood center they owned. We could have stayed in a much simpler hotel. Hey, we could have stayed in tents on the construction site. We don’t need to be at a fancy place.

We would get up and have a wonderful breakfast and Brazilian coffee (50% espresso, and 50% milk) at the hotel restaurant. Then we would dress for work, and drop off our keys with the concierge, walk through the atrium of polished marble past bellboys and doormen in perfect uniforms and load up in a van to go to the worksite. We would put in a long, hard, day. Then we would get back to the hotel. We would walk past the doormen and the bellboys in perfect uniforms, while we were covered in dirt and sweat dropping bits of red Brazilian mud onto the immaculate polished marble floors of the atrium. I would go up to the conscierge and say “Dos Sero Seis” (206) to get my room key– I still remember the room number. We did this day after day after day. It was actually rather embarrassing.

But then we would clean up and they would take us to a churroscaria or a rodizio-style pizzeria— absolutely fabulous Brazilian-style restaurants, drink a LOT of guarana (a wonderful Brazilian drink… non-alcoholic in case you were concerned) and then go back to prepare for another day. But all the time I kept wondering. “Do they think that just because we are Americans, we expect things to be this fancy?”

Finally it hit me. I understood. Our partners in Brazil put us in a fancy hotel because they were putting into practice what they were teaching their people. Every work for God is honoring, and everyone serving God is honored no matter what they do. To make that clearer to their church members, they treated us with honor. It makes sense. If you want people to honor someone, don’t just talk about honor… you demonstrate honor. That revelation came to me two months ago as I was preparing for this talk… 13 years late. We need to talk to others, who are interested and have some understanding of our experiences, and through this, reflect on it– learn and grow.

Lesson #2. Respect the Hosts as Experts

One of the former students here at PBTS was telling a story of talking to an American guy who was doing short-term missions in the Philippines. This American guy liked to describe himself as a “cross-cultural missionary” and threw around some fancy terms in missions, but my student quickly, correctly, realized that this guy really knew next to nothing of cross-cultural interaction and missions. This can happen. Many who do short-term missions go with enthusiasm but without knowledge. But even for the best prepared, the best trained STMers, they know less about what is needed in a community than the host.

We were working on the church building, and discovered that there was a 5 meter wide lot right next to the church lot that was for sale. We started discussing amongst ourselves. Maybe our team could come up with the money to buy that plot of land. If we can’t, maybe we could contact people in our church to come up with it. It could be used for parking. They only have parking for like 3 vehicles. It’s crazy!!

That’s not enough. We tell our hosts, and they smile and say that is not necessary. We persist and they say, “Thank you… but no.” We still persist, and finally one of our hosts, the one with the strongest English talks to us and says. “Look. They don’t need that land. They don’t need more parking, and if you did raise money for that land, they would use the money for something else… something that they need more.” So we stopped. And over the next few days, we learned about our hosts. They took us to their prayer room, where they prayed as a group and did their strategic planning. They showed us the master map in which they are sketching out their churchplanting activities. The churches they have completed, the ones presently being established, and the ones planned over the next few years. They talked about why they chose the location for the church we all were building. The location was a bit out of the way, but in 5 years, the new airport would be opening, and the road the church is on will be on the primary road to that airport. During our visit we met the members of that new church and the pastor of that church. Close to two years before they move into the new church building, a pastor and core group had already been established for the church. We realized that the Brazilian Baptists were an awful lot more organized and diligent in their planning than we were in the United States. They knew more about what they have and what they need than we know.

On the final Friday, three days before we were flying home, our hosts said that tomorrow we were going to the hot springs. We said, “No no no. There is so much more that can be done. Sunday is the commissioning of the church building, we want to get more things done.” They said, No. Enough has been done, it is time to rest. They were right. Enough had been done. Short-term missions is not primarily about getting stuff done, it is not about being experts, but it is about relationships that develop with others from other parts of the world. A reminder that God’s church is ultimately a unity despite its diversity, and because of its diversity.

Lesson #3. Have Proper Priorities

On the final Friday that we were there, we were concreting the floor. This was no simple thing. It is a large church and was designed stadium-style so much of the floor was sloped. In Brazil they build backwards. Roof first, then the walls, and finally the floor. But it seems to work.

They used to build smaller churches but found that the membership would exceed the building capacity within 6 months. My task was to shovel sand for the concrete. I was partnered with Cesar, a Brazilian man. We developed a bit of a competition.

Who could go the longest shoveling sand without taking a break. It was hard. Cesar was a good worker… but I kept going, pacing off of him. I felt tired, I wanted to quit… but I told myself that I wasn’t going to lose, I had to win. On and on it went. But I refused to give up. I kept looking at him and screaming in my head, “Why don’t you stop!!” Finally… Cesar put down his shovel, grabbed a water bottle, and sat down. I kept going ten seconds longer just to make it quite clear that I had won, and then I rested.

Do you think I felt good about that victory? Truthfully, not that much, for a few reasons. The first reason was that Cesar was twice my age. Literally. I was 38 at the time and he was 76. Second, he was half my size. I was 100 kilos. He might have been more than 50 kilos, but certainly not more than 60. Third, is that Cesar did not know that we were competing. I didn’t tell him we were competing and since he did not know a single word of English, it would not have helped if I had told him. In fact if he knew that we were competing, he probably would have just kept going until I was taken to the hospital. So NO… I did not feel all that great about winning. And perhaps, fourth… competition is not really a good motive for missions anyway.

But we struggle sometimes, because we bring our strange quirks and motives into missions. It is uncomfortable feeling like little children, unable to communicate. It is embarrassing to need help with some of the simplest things. I remember the first time I had to use the CR in the Philippines. I went in and could not figure out how to make the toilet flush, nor the shower to work. I had to ask for help. It’s frustrating. These stresses sometimes bring out the worst in us. We bring our pride, our selfish goals, our ignorant expectations into our missions. Frankly… we can’t really do that much about it. You can’t remove your attitude and prejudices and lock them in a drawer at home while we travel on mission. They come with us.

But some motives have to be set aside, or we must be set aside. Barry Philipps, a missionary that visits PBTS periodically, wrote a book on short-term missions and he tells a story of a guy he knew who joined a short-term mission team who clearly came with the intent of exploring the potential wonders of international dating. His behavior, in fact, sabotaged ministry work in the area for years. Another, appeared to think his role is to be taken care of hand and foot like he was staying at beach resort. The local hosts were too kind to complain, publicly, but the following year when the same church wanted to send a team, the hosts had to tell the US church that this one guy will not be accepted back and that the church needed to do a better job of screening applicants.

Some other motives are not as bad as long as they are not given priority. For those who want to experience “new places and adventure”– no problem, but that should not be your highest priority. For those on internship, getting credit so you can graduate… no problem, but that really shouldn’t be your highest priority either. What about the Great Commission? Should that be your highest priority? At risk of being controversial, my answer has to be NO… the Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I feel like if that is your priority, much of the rest of the chaos that is missions will become more clear.

So for upcoming 2017 Interns, here is my advice:

  • Talk about it. Share concerns, questions, and insights, before, during and after your internship. Reflect on your experiences, open to gain new insights from it. Find those that are able to understand, and willing to listen non-judgmentally…. rejoice with you, grieve with you… pray with you. Don’t wait 14 years.

  • Respect the Hosts as Experts. Are they experts? Maybe… maybe not. But they know their community better than you do, and are the long-term presence there… so work with them, not over them, and not against them. Be a learner.

  • Have proper priorities. Loving God through serving others needs to take priority over the other motives that we tend to bring with us. But acknowledge that you have other motives and desires. If you take care of what is most important, there is a pretty good chance that the less important things will turn out okay.

And if you want a fourth bit of advice. Try to have fun… but even if you find it miserable (and that does happen sometimes)… be ready for God to still use it to transform your life and the lives of others… flowers for ashes… making all things beautiful in His time.

Thank you for taking the time to listen.

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