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We stood at the edge of the garden as the cook staff harvested greens for the evening meal. The head cook turned to me and asked what I thought of the meals. My answer was gracious and mostly true. The meals were interesting and very much appreciated but not exactly what I was used to. Then he asked the question that caught me off guard. “How do our meals compare with what you have in America?”

Standing in that small garden on the grounds of a missionary training college in Nairobi, Kenya I struggled to explain American culture. How do you explain microwave ovens, single serving packaged soups and drive through fast food to someone who spends the entire day preparing meals from freshly harvested greens and scrawny live chickens? Likewise, how do you explain the culture of Kenya (or any foreign country) to comfortable, driven, self-absorbed Christians in the United States? What I discovered is, you can’t. Not completely. Not sufficiently.

We’ve all seen pictures of people in need and video clips of the suffering in third world countries. There’s no doubt that Christians in America know in their heads that there are people dying of starvation, poverty and disease all day, every day. It’s very true that the generosity of the American church is unmatched in the world. There is a vast difference between knowing there is devastating suffering and feeling the pain so personally that you’re driven to do something about it. There is an enormous chasm between sending money and going yourself.

For thirty years Group Workcamps Foundation has seen the impact on people’s lives when they travel just a few hours from suburban comfort to the desolation of a Native American reservation or into the hills of Appalachia. (You’ve seen it in your young people…remember the trip you took last summer?) There is, and always will be, more need right here in our country than we will ever be able to meet. But as the world shrinks it’s becoming increasingly urgent, in my opinion that those who’ve been so richly blessed by God get out of this country to gain some perspective. And in growing numbers that’s what’s happening. Christians are no longer content to drop their check in the plate or send it off in the mail. More and more want to follow their dollars and make a difference in person. International short-term missions are growing fast. There are options for individuals, groups, teens, adults and families.

There is also an argument growing about the necessity and effectiveness of such trips. I’m not here to argue, but I’m happy to share my opinion that going on international short-term mission trips is quickly becoming an indispensable component of any church that’s hoping to strengthen and deepen people’s relationship with Jesus. Yes, we could send the money we spend on airfare, lodging, meals, etc. to the ministries in other countries and help them be more effective. But, until you’ve been there would you? Can you honestly say that you could get ten people from your church to donate $2,000 each to benefit a ministry in South America they’ve only seen in pictures? That’s over and above their regular contributions. I’ll make an educated guess that you’re more likely to get ten people who will raise $2,000 each to go to South America so they can get personally involved in making a difference. And I’ll guarantee that those ten people will be changed forever in ways that’ll bring greater long-term benefits to that mission in South America than just sending cash could ever do. When it comes to touching people’s hearts going and doing beats sitting and sending hands down.

Fred belongs to the church I served in the Chicago area. He was a successful storeowner carrying on as the third generation running the family business. He accepted an invitation to spend a week in Honduras on a short-term mission trip. Upon returning home he sold the family business and became consumed with serving the Lord in missions. He worked for Joni and Friends delivering wheelchairs internationally and now serves with World Gospel Outreach helping more teams get to Honduras. There’s no way to measure the impact Fred is having for the sake of the Gospel. But I’m certain that he’d still be behind the counter at his television repair shop and video store if he hadn’t left the country for that one week.

Who in your youth group will have their life turned upside down? Who in your church will launch the next great missions organization? You’ll never know if you never go. There are lots of great mission organizations that are making international short-term missions possible. Find one with a strong reputation, good financial accountability and strong indigenous partnerships in the countries they serve. Then GO! An international mission trip isn’t something you should tackle on your own because of the complexities involved. Connections in country and strong relationships are a couple of keys to success. Group Workcamps Foundation is expanding internationally building on thirty years of experience providing excellent mission trips. After years of service in Canada, Mexico and Belize Group Workcamps is moving into Peru with a trip specifically designed for adults set for April 2007. This is a smaller event that’s limited to 50 participants. If your ministry’s ready to go global, you might want to check this one out at www.groupworkcamps.com. Sending even one or two people from your church could be the start of something very big. No matter where or when you go, international short-term mission trips can’t really be considered optional for your church any longer.

P.S. If you’re wondering how you can impact the adults in your church from your position as a youth minister, consider this. In the last church I served the youth ministry was about the only group that went on mission trips initially. Over time adults began to get involved, first on our trips then on ones of their own. Today that church sends youth and adults on domestic and international missions several times a year. If you’re passionate about going on mission trips, share that passion with the adults in your church. Develop cross-generational excitement about this ministry and, as so often happens, let youth lead the way.

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