The Rev. Joshua Gale wrote a fine article here on BJS in response to the discussion on short-term mission trips. He wrote from the perspective of one who received help from a group of college students who were on spring break. I’m writing from the perspective of the pastor who was with those students.
First, just to clarify, our spring break trips are not intended to be “mission trips” in what we would regard as Lutheran mission work. Lutheran missiology is long-term. This is why Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries (PLM) called Rev. Gale to serve as a missionary in Philly and not a group of college students for a week. Rev. Gale is working extremely hard (he’s already on his third pair of shoes in less than a year!) to establish a pulpit, font and altar where he will preach and administer the sacraments for the years to come. And, ideally, other pastors will serve that congregation after him.
I suspect that the terminology “short-term mission trip” is used among Lutherans out of ignorance of a better phrase. Or perhaps some may refer to “short-term mission work” as anything done to aid long-term Word and sacrament ministry. When we use this terminology in Lutheran circles, we simply cannot be referring to the establishment of Word and sacrament ministry. I mean to say, we don’t send a group of college students to a place for a week to give handouts and say, “Jesus loves you” and then leave with the expectation that a church will pop up.
Second, a spring break trip with the primary focus of mercy is still a spring break trip. It’s not just a mercy trip. It’s a fun, vacation trip too! It’s a trip that gives the students an opportunity to learn more about each other (the good, the bad, and the smelly). It’s usually a trip to see new places and learn new things. It’s a trip where Lutheran students can meet other like-minded Lutherans and talk theology! And, more to the point, this trip is full of poor miserable sinners who are a bunch of spiritual beggars even as they bear the name Christian.
But won’t these students be tempted to see these works of mercy as meritorious? Sure.
As with any good work, the temptation follows that we believe we are better Christians because of it or that it makes us pleasing in God’s sight. I can understand the concern here. It surely is a great temptation when you can tell someone that you are going on a mission trip to some faraway place. That’s a good work that pretty much negates your entire history of sin and makes you a saint in the eyes of men! You can go from drunken fornicator to perfect WWJD Christian. But the Lutheran students will not (should not) be hearing this from the pulpit or in the liturgy. The students are continually directed to Christ in His Word and sacraments as the only means by which we are made saints sola gratia.
Another similar concern that we have with these trips is that the students might think that they are primarily givers than receivers of mercy. They might be tempted to think of the life of a Christian as one no longer in need of Divine Service, or that a church is centered around activities rather than the Divine Service. For this reason, it is emphasized among us that the Sunday morning Divine Service is central. The life of mercy to the neighbor is the freedom of the Christian that flows out of the mercy received through Christ and His Word. As John Pless notes, “Mercy is a fruit of the preaching of the crucified Christ” and he adds:
“Mercy received from Christ Jesus through faith in His promises is handed on in love as those whose lives groan in the travail of this fallen world are shown mercy. The Lord Christ clothes sinners with the dignity of His blood-bought righteousness and these sinner/saints are agents, individually and corporately, to restore human dignity to fellow human beings whose lives are deemed worthless by the world. Mercy extends from the newly-conceived child to those for whom death is only minutes away. Mercy embraces the nearest neighbor as well as those whose lives are hidden in the jungles of Indonesia or the slums of Nairobi” (For the Life of the World, April 2008, Vol. 12, Number Two; p. 25).
You don’t have to leave your home to have mercy and compassion on your neighbor. One who attends the weekly Sunday service receives unmerited mercy and, in turn, shows mercy in many and various ways throughout the week.
In Philadelphia, our students attended Divine Service as receivers. They sang, “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” They received the third article gifts as Christ served them in His liturgy. And from there they worked with Rev. Gale in support of his long-term mission work, went to a basketball game, played cards, did some sightseeing, and enjoyed Philly cheese steak.