Hit the road

A couple of weeks ago, I had a lengthy post about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program and why you – yes, you – should join me there next summer. If you missed it, I’d consider it a personal favor for you to read it now. I’ll wait here until you get back.

Anyway, I was walking at the rec center today, thinking about that post, and realized there was one issue I meant to cover and didn’t cover in great detail, although I sort of got got close to it a couple of times. It’s a pretty big issue, one I’ve encountered whenever I talk about Mountain T.O.P. or whenever I talk about my foreign mission trips. It’s more relevant than ever right now, because of the tough economy.

People from all over the eastern U.S. come to Mountain T.O.P. camps, but sometimes when I talk to my own friends and neighbors here in Tennessee about it, I get a response – sometimes implied, sometimes stated outright – that it makes no sense to go to Grundy County (or Kenya!) to be in ministry when there are needs right here in our home county.

It’s exactly right that we have needs, serious needs, right here at home. We see that more clearly at the holidays than at any other time of the year, although the needs themselves are year-round.

But the first point I want to make is that it’s not an either-or situation.  Listen to the very last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his ascension:

Acts 1:8 (NIV) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus calls the disciples to be in ministry in their home city, in their region, and beyond.

It needs to be said, immediately, that what you do on a mission trip, domestic or foreign, is not a substitute for, or an alternative to, being in ministry in your home community the other 50 or 51 weeks out of the year. And, in fact, many of the people I know who are most passionate about short-term missions are also heavily-involved in various ministries, non-profits or community outreach in their hometowns. One of my good friends from both Mountain T.O.P. and LEAMIS trips, Jan Schilling, is a great example of this. One week, she’s in Kenya making charcoal; the next week, she’s back home in Smyrna working for Habitat For Humanity or an animal shelter or doing some other type of volunteer work.

The “Mountain T.O.P. song,” which the ministry has adopted as its theme song, makes allusions to this; we can’t live on a mountain top, but we can take our mountain top experiences home with us and share them “in the valley below.”

It’s also important to note that there are different types of needs in different places. I would never make light of poverty here at home, but then again there’s no comparison between being poor in Bedford County and being poor in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi. The poorest person in Bedford County has access to clean water, free school for the kids, emergency room care, and various types of public assistance. People in Kibera live in tiny huts, crammed together like sardines, with filthy water running between them, in constant danger of being attacked or robbed.

Grundy County is much closer to Bedford County than to the Kibera slums, but even in that case the needs are different. Poverty in Grundy County goes back decades, and there are conditions which are short-term hardships for us but a way of life for them. There are cultural differences, geographic differences and vicious cycles that apply in the mountains that make it different from life here at home.

In some ways, it’s not a matter of one person being needier than another. You’d go crazy if you tried to rank or prioritize the needs of every cultural subgroup in Tennessee, much less Planet Earth. But when we recognize that there are different types and levels of need, we recognize the value in exposing ourselves to different cultures and different types of ministry.

Short-term mission work takes nothing away from local ministry. But I’m going to go further than that: I think short-term mission work enhances local ministry.

The primary purpose of a short-term mission trip is the ministry being conducted, the people being served. But an important secondary benefit of a short-term mission trip is that it often serves as a time of spiritual development and refreshment for the volunteers themselves. I know it has served that purpose in my life; I sometimes feel selfish for going on such trips, because it seems as if I get more out of them than I put into them. There is something about the process of separating yourself from your regular routine, immersing yourself in intense Christian community, making obedience to God your primary focus, that can be powerfully inspiring and uplifting. As a former Mountain T.O.P. board member, I’d like to think that Mountain T.O.P. is organized and operated in ways that maximize this effect, but it’s by no means unique to Mountain T.O.P. or any other specific organization.

I think that process requires getting away from your regular surroundings. If you lived in Grundy County, I’m not sure Mountain T.O.P. would have the same impact on you as a volunteer. Frankly,  I think you have to get out of town to get the full impact of being in short-term mission.

If that sounds interesting to you, get in touch with me or go to the Mountain T.O.P. website for more information.