Icons of Heaven

Witnessing God’s Future in Short-Term Mission

Kurt Rietema | Mar 23, 2016

Photo by Kahori Yagi

Every Friday night we made magic in that Mexican town.

American teenagers defied gravity, sliding up palm trees and zigzagging after-Christmas sale lights across the church courtyard. Mexican youth retreated briefly to the kitchen, performing an ancient alchemy on trays of tostadas, each one laced with a deadly kiss of salsa.

Rodolfo emerged from his laboratory with a playlist that left us all entranced. One pinch of Ice Ice Baby, a dash of Camisa Negra, a hint of I Like to Move it. Sparks flew. One more musical chair was removed. Laughter enraptured us as the limbo stick tripped up the last remaining gringo.

Perhaps most significantly, differences would dissolve between two groups of people who, less than a week before, had been strangers to one another. Our dance parties were enchanted. Live embers from heaven burned in our hearts. Like John’s vision on Patmos, we saw the first heaven and earth disappear—all of the pain of poverty, the injustice, the spools of razor wire scarring the desert—everything that separated us was gone. The holy city seemed to descend out of heaven, making its home in the church courtyard, the incandescent orbs of light like throngs of angels, the pulsating music like anthems from every nation. If only for the briefest of moments, the world was made new.

There was no “them”, there was only “us”.

As a youth worker you may have felt something like this before. You’ve seen it in the Instagram pics of the girl in your youth group with a swarm of dark-skinned children around her. These photos can provoke a mixture of reactions within us. On the one hand, they feel so helplessly cliché, like mission trips are nothing more than a rite of passage for white kids, passing off a long “savior” tradition to a new generation.

But on the other hand, there’s something about these experiences that feels so right that we struggle to write them off entirely. There’s something about those photos that feels like God’s kingdom come. It’s like our mission trip photos are icons of heaven—of God’s future breaking into the present.

Seriously, why are we going a mission trip again?

Many of us realize that simultaneously there is something both so good about what our young people see and experience on mission trips, but also so fundamentally broken. If we’d turn the tables and 30 kids from Mexico would show up at our church doorstep wanting to share the gospel in our neighborhoods (through translators) and paint our houses, we might smirk at their earnest intentions. But we’d also marvel at the naiveté of believing it could be so simple to share the gospel cross-culturally without any relationship, or that any teenager is somehow qualified to come anywhere close to a roller and paint brush.

Many of us have accepted that maybe youth mission trips aren’t really suited to fulfill the Great Commission in 7 days or less, and as far as relieving the physical poverty of others goes, our activities are no more than Band-Aid solutions, sometimes actually stripping away what little dignity that people in poverty already feel.[1] So what are we to do with mission trips? Ignore the problems? Quit doing them altogether?

Neither of those options seems to be the answer. If there’s ever been a time that we’ve needed shared spaces where the rich and the poor, Mexicans and Americans, whites and blacks, Muslims and Christians can come together and see each others’ humanity, that time is now. Our broken world needs places where young people can have face-to-face encounters with those they’ve been taught they should fear or never trust. We need opportunities to look into the others’ eyes and to encounter the child of God in them—children who have the same dreams, hopes, and anxieties and fears that we do. And when we do this, to recognize that there are dark forces that work to keep us separated, to elevate some and oppress others, to make us think that some lives matter more than others. We need formational learning experiences like these to teach youth that reconciliation is not a distraction from the gospel, but is at the very heart of God’s kingdom.

So maybe we don’t need to abandon mission trips altogether, but we do need to thoughtfully reframe them.

The real value of a mission trip

Mission trips do something that not even our best-crafted four week studies ever could. They capture young people’s imaginations with all of their senses. We could talk about God’s heart for the poor until they all fall asleep, but the problem is that’s not how youth or any of us learn. Descartes told us, “I think, therefore I am,” and ever since we’ve had this false belief in Western understanding that if we think rightly, we’ll act rightly. This has been our primary mode of approaching discipleship with young people.

But Augustine believed that at our core, humans are not fundamentally thinkers but rather lovers. And for anyone who’s ever worked with young people, we already know this to be true. For better or for worse, they obey the desires of their hearts before those of their minds.[2] Teaching kids to love those who our world considers unimportant doesn’t come about by giving youth rules or ideas about how we should treat people with equality and fairness. It comes about by playing Red Rover with a kid in the public housing complex. It comes about when they’re making homemade tortillas with a woman whose husband reluctantly waded the Rio Grande to earn a decent wage. It comes about over a cup of tea in a Bedouin tent.

What if this was the real value of a mission trip? Six months after a trip, teenagers are going to forget what the VBS was about and they’re going to forget that insightful morning devotional you prepared. But they’re not going to forget the solidarity, the connectedness, and the communion they felt with someone so totally “other” than them. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” What if the real value of a mission trip then isn’t teaching young how to share their faith, how to work as a team, or how to lay a concrete block? Perhaps the real value is to cultivate in young people a yearning to bridge the vast and endless sea of poverty and privilege that alienate us from one another. It’s a longing to be reconciled, to find communion with brothers and sisters from whom they’ve been long estranged.

On earth as it is in the Trinity

But why does this matter? Why would we want to cultivate a yearning for solidarity with the other? What’s the point of merely building relationships across cultural divides? Why is this worthy of the thousands of dollars our church invests in mission trips?

It matters because it cuts to the very heart of who God is and what it means for us to be image bearers of God. When young people long for this kind of connection, when they hunger and thirst for justice, what they’re really longing for is to participate in the very life of God’s communion. They yearn to know the kind of life-giving relationships of giving and receiving that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience with one another. Because at the heart of the Trinity there is no hierarchy. There is no pecking order. The Father is not greater than the Son, nor is the Son greater than the Holy Spirit. They are distinct, but they are one.

In short, the Trinitarian community is everything that the disappointing social lives of young people are not. On mission trips, when young people experience solidarity with others instead of division, when they exchange fear for trust, when they feel a tug to serve others rather than to jockey for power, when they experience embrace rather than exclusion, it’s not merely a human connection that young people are making. Rather, it is a taste of the very life of God’s communion. It is God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

What we often overlook is that to be image bearers of God is to be made in the image of a Trinitarian community. The Trinity offers a pattern for personal and social life. Youth know in their bones that people are wired for love, for community, for giving, and for equality. But their experience of the world is often one of love only for those just like them, of competition, of using others for their own ends, and of accepting the inevitability of a world where some will always be winners and some always losers.

Sometimes on a mission trip, magic happens and that logic is turned on its head. Young people get a sense of how poverty, racism, and inequality steal, kill, and destroy this self-giving community for which people are made. The acts of solidarity they perform on a mission trip—playing games with kids, sharing a meal in someone’s home, laughing out on a soccer field—become protests to the world’s logic. These seemingly insignificant acts are not a distraction from mission, but the very essence of it. It’s the work of God to bring a fragmented, stratified humanity back into participation in the life of the Trinity. It’s a reordering of human relationships to more properly image God in the world. They are icons of heaven, of God’s future breaking into the present.

But does this mean that in the end mission trips are really just self-serving? Do we forget about the real needs of people in communities we visit by reframing the purpose of mission trips in this way? In the short term, these acts of solidarity aren’t going to eliminate hunger and homelessness, nor should we shy away from providing immediate relief by offering food or housing. But issues like these are too complex to be solved by acts of charity on a mission trip. Hunger, homelessness, and extreme inequalities aren’t unfortunate accidents. They are the predictable results of unjust policies and economic practices that have gone on for centuries. Poverty and privilege are bound up with one another.

In the long term, pockets of injustice are rooted out by people with a God-breathed imagination who set out to build a different kind of social order and a different kind of economy where everyone can participate. Our students can be those kinds of people. But it means that perhaps the most dramatic change that needs to take place isn’t the character or work ethic of the poor, but the imagination of a new generation of young people who will occupy positions of power and make decisions that can make life look either more or less like life in the Trinity.

It begins when their imaginations are hooked by a glimpse of heaven on earth.

What might this all mean for you in thinking about your next mission trip or whether or not to do one at all?

  • Reframe your reasons for doing a mission trip in the first place. You’re more than likely not bringing the gospel to a place where no one has heard the name of Jesus, and even though your relief work might take the edge off of poverty, it isn’t going to eliminate it. Create a mission statement for your trip with leaders, parents, and youth. If they come to easy, church-y answers, complicate them by raising questions like the ones in this article to challenge deeper reflection.
  • Make magic. Keep your schedule open enough for these unscripted moments for youth to make positive connections with people in the community you’re visiting. These connections can upend stereotypes they might hold. Communicate to your hosts that “success” includes seeing life from their shoes and communing with locals.
  • Don’t attempt to make a big impact. At least not in the community you’re visiting. I know, everyone else has told you that the only reason you should go is to make a big impact. But this attitude reinforces the idea that you are the heroes and they are helpless ones in distress, and it undermines the faithful work of churches and community leaders who have been there long before you arrived and will be there long afterwards. Focus on learning how you can be advocates, not on accomplishing some project that they could do themselves if they had the resources. That said, make sure your work does have a big impact in shaping your students’ imaginations for a world made right. Ultimately, this can have an even bigger impact in your partner community.

In part 2 of this series we’ll explore how short-term missions are not only icons of heaven, but sometimes can be icons of hell. On short-term trips we might witness the devastating effects of what happens when people reject their obligations to care for the most vulnerable. We see hell on earth. These traumatic experiences of poverty and inequality can awaken young people and give them the spiritual energy to build a more just world that looks more like life in the Trinity.

[1] For more on maintaining the dignity of partner communities in short-term mission, check out Toxic Charity and Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions.

[2] See James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a more expansive discussion on how desire plays into identity.

Kurt Rietema

Kurt Rietema has been leading missional journeys both domestically and internationally for Youthfront for more than 14 years. His work in Kansas City includes youth social entrepreneurship, immigration advocacy, and creating just housing and lending partnerships for immigrants.

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