Steadfast in the City–Short-Term Mission Trips

March 26th, 2012 Post by

In a recent post here on BJS, a link to a video was displayed where a young guy with Fisk-like energy critiqued the phenomenon of “short-term mission trips.”  The video largely criticized the self-serving goal of some of those who take the trips.  He railed against the kind who seek some super-spiritual experience while treating their parents horribly, neglecting those in their own backyard, etc.  A further point was made that the thousands of dollars raised for the trip could go directly to the missionary, instead of laying it all on the counter when you check in with Delta Airlines.

A commenter on the thread named “Rob” wrote: “I have an idea: how about asking a career missionary to comment on the video?  How about asking your ‘Steadfast in the City’ blogger to give his comments and critique?”

Well, Rob, ask and ye shall receive.  As the urban missionary to Philadelphia, and one who opens the city as a destination for mission trips, I will respond to the video with my observations.

My first impression of the video was that it was unnecessarily condescending.  Sure, young people expect some strange things regarding mission trips, but many times these kids are emulating others.  Kids expect unrealistic things all the time; it’s part of childhood.  A 15-year-old often mimics the behavior of those around him/her as they are trying to find their own way in life.  When American Evangelicalism is out to entertain the participant, it’s no wonder the mission trip is treated like an opportunity for another mountaintop experience.  So I tend to cut the kids a little slack, and save the critique for those who teach and encourage their expectations.  The antidote to this issue is to impress upon people (young and old) that charitable actions are simply what Christians do.  Your brother is in need, so you provide for him.  Traveling to Philly to help me doesn’t mean the volunteer’s own neighbors are neglected; in fact, a trip could encourage them to see the need in their own backyard.

The video makes it seem like missionaries like me would benefit most from your money.  Yes, you can donate money; we often struggle to raise funds, and I can mark a date on the calendar when my family of four could be short a paycheck.  The financial side of mission is a reality my wife and I knew full well when we were sent to this city.  If you would like to donate to domestic Confessional Lutheran mission, you can do so HERE.  Donating money to our organization provides for the ministry in Philadelphia, and it also feeds and clothes hundreds, even as we seek to provide shelter for the homeless, plant churches, and care for all.

But money isn’t the only need.  I need your hands.  I actually need these short-term mission trips.  In the Philadelphia area, there aren’t many LCMS churches from which we can draw in my mission’s infancy.  I need a church painted, two buildings remodeled, a garden planted and poor to be comforted.  The realities dictate that I need more people, and some will travel some distance to get here.

In fact, your BJS “Steadfast on Campus” blogger Rev. John Wegener brought over twenty college students from his campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa to lend the hands I need.  They stayed a little less than a week, crammed into Pastor Fisk’s old parsonage.  While here, they painted a church, feed and clothed the homeless in a downtown park at night, and sold a street paper to raise funds for the homeless who are on their way to independence.  The paper, published by a non-profit organization but written by the homeless, was so impressed with Pastor Wegener’s group that a homeless man is writing an article on them to appear in a future issue.

I’m not sure what expectations the students had, but I promised no mountaintop experience.  Many took photos, but I caution visitors from taking photos of the poor, since I don’t want to be seen as the kind of pastor who will profit from displaying a homeless man’s misery.  I think the students had fun, all while offering a service to my ministry that I desperately needed.  They worked alongside over a dozen homeless men, got to know several by name, took the opportunity to ask questions, and learned about the real people behind a hardened stereotype.

An added bonus for me was the opportunity to connect with some people from the Midwest.  Originally from Central Illinois, I never could have expected the benefit I would receive from spending a week with Iowans.  Their presence alone was a comfort to me.  And when Pastor Wegener’s group was in, I had enough people to fan them out across the city (lead by a homeless person) to interact and care for small homeless groups.

So, we need prayers, money, in-kind donations and willing hands.  All of these things together provide for the ministry.  For example, to house the homeless in a transitional housing program, I need my buildings brought up to code—something I cannot do myself.  No, a mission trip will not make you a “Super Christian.”  But the trip could provide a much needed service to a struggling missionary, and provide a needed service so the missionary can forward the work.

Of our needs (money, time, volunteers, etc.), many provide within their vocation.  I treasure our supporters who pray for us earnestly while never sending a dime.  Some send money, but never come out in person.  Some travel here to push a paintbrush and hand out sandwiches.  All of these are important components of the work here.  They aren’t better Christians for it; they simply see a need and offer to help.  And even if they don’t give to us, they have a privilege to provide for Word and Sacrament ministry elsewhere.

We’re all one Body.  If all gave only money, where would the volunteers be?  If all only visited, where would the financial support be?  A financial donor cannot say to the short-term mission trip, “I do not need you.”  If everyone was a painter, I wouldn’t survive much longer.  Besides, I’d run out of walls eventually.  It takes the whole Body to provide for ministry in this and every place.

In short, we need all the help the church can muster.  This may mean a trip to Philadelphia, made up of people who need a lesson in Christian vocation.  My setting is unbelievably difficult for me on every angle: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially.  It’s a tiring business, it’s expensive, and I need help.  Some may come out here with a false impression of what a mission trip is, but I hope they are encouraged to come anyway.  They may leave with a renewed sense of Christian vocation that isn’t self-serving.  It’s tough for the church to deal with immature theological views, but to simply discourage those who don’t yet eat solid food isn’t the answer.  How do you get a toddler to behave in church?  Take them to church.  How do you get a 12-year-old to understand the church’s mission?  One way is to drop them off somewhere to work with a missionary who could use their hands.  Hands-on work encourages the child to leave childish ways behind.

Do you want to know ways you and/or your church can provide for my work with Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries?

Prayer: I encourage you to pray for us personally, and include us in the prayers on Sunday.  We have a lot of new and difficult things starting in the near future, all while we continue to struggle with the city.

Financially: You can find information on how to donate HERE.  Your donations pay for a missionary to be in Philadelphia; it’s that simple.  Without financial donors, my work would grind to a halt.

In-kind donations: I need all the socks, blankets and travel-sized toiletries I can get.  You can send them to my home address found on the LCMS website’s people locator (search: “Joshua Gale”).

Short-term mission trip: Now’s a good time to start thinking about 2013.  I have been here less than a year, so much of the trip planning is done on the fly, close to the date of arrival.  Everything is new, and this means plans will change.  I can’t tell you for sure what you would be doing, but think about sending a group willing to pitch in wherever needed.  I’m sure I can find something.

Keep updated: I update the Facebook page for Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries a few times each week.  Share important information and help me get the word out.






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  1. Rob
    March 26th, 2012 at 12:39 | #1

    Thank you, Pastor Gale, first and foremost for your faithful service. I have benefited greatly from your blog posts and hope that , as I work on the East Coast, we might be able to work side-by-side at some point.

    Thank you also for your measured and circumspect words on the topic. I love your paraphrase of St. Paul “If we were all painters/donors…”. I wholeheartedly share your observations about BOTH the over-enthusiasm of youth AND the need to provide them with hands-on, tangible ways to serve.

    On a practical level, if the interchange on the site here can in the end benefit your ministry there, then God be praised for working in His own ways, His wonders to perform.

    Lastly, to all who saw my own snarky comments to the video-blogger on the previous post, I issue my apologies. My own sharp-tongued Old Adam is never far off, even if he is doomed in the end.

  2. March 26th, 2012 at 12:44 | #2

    @Rob #1
    Rob – we try to provide for our readers here at BJS, and yes we pray that Pr. Gale’s writing will help Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries.

    Thank you Pr. Gale for your work and diligence in writing also!

  3. Rev. Gerald Heinecke
    March 26th, 2012 at 14:49 | #3

    I would definitely agree with Pr. Gale that help is needed, but why not call it what it really is, a mercy trip. Pr. Gale and the people of Philadephia need mercy. By all means we need to give as much mercy as possible since we continue to see mercy lacking.

    In this day and age when everyone confuses the office of holy ministry with I am a minister of technology, of janitorial work, of _______ (fill in the blank) Everyone is not a minister. In the case of Pr. Gale is the minister in need of more hands to do works of mercy, feeding, painting, building, etc.

    You are not caring any less by calling what you do a mercy trip. But lets make mission work, mission work, and let them baptize, and teach. For it is almost assuredly going to take more than a week or two for those who really need the pure mission work of being baptized and taught. In this age of the distrust of the Church it will normally not simply be as easy as walking into a town and start converting people by the week’s end.

    Your works of mercy will make way for the opportunities of witness, that is needed to create life together. Your mercy will in turn strengthen your life together with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that you go with to do the mercy trip and in so doing your ability and opportunity to witness to those around you will also increase. Leading to more acts of mercy and greater life together. Man, that Pastor Harrison and his supporting staff are so smart!

  4. Pam
    March 26th, 2012 at 19:05 | #4

    Thank you so much, Pastor Gale. As we speak, my son-in-law is at CSL preparing for a ministry such as yours. I am forwarding him information regarding your ministry. He and my daughter know full well that they are preparing for a lifetime of dependence upon the generosity and faithfulness of the church body. I thank God that there are people willing to be His hands and feet.

  5. Kim E. Bode
    March 26th, 2012 at 21:12 | #5

    Pastor Gale,
    You have offered your usual common sense wisdom. thanks. Much of my growth during my “know it all” teenage years came when I had my face personally thrown into the face of the human dilemna and the darkside of human life. It is definately worth it. I know for a fact that a short term mission trip really opened the eyes of the two teenagers who saw philadelphia from a totally different perspective.

  6. March 26th, 2012 at 21:44 | #6

    Well said, Brother Gale! I might add that we now have several young voices telling their home churches and families about your work in the city. Thanks again for spending time with our students and thanks to the kind members of St. John, Springfield for their generous hospitality.

  7. Pastor Joshua Gale
    March 26th, 2012 at 21:50 | #7

    Thanks, Kim. It was good to have your group down too.

    John: Just make sure they’re ready to go to Liberia with me in a couple years. We’re all staying at Zogar’s house, he tells me.

  8. David Rosenkoetter
    March 27th, 2012 at 00:41 | #8

    @Rev. Gerald Heinecke #3

    I think we are splitting hairs by parsing the terms “mission” and “mercy.” Preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments in the Divine Service is an act of mercy and a proclamation of forgiveness simultaneously. Okay, if we want to speak of “mission” in the narrow sense, there you have it.

    Yet, a “mission trip” can include all kinds of elements, from human care to, when a called and ordained servant of the Word is there, gathering folks around Word and Sacrament.

    We who are familiar with Pastor Gale’s work among the people the of Philadelphia and the request he is making, know that he’s got his Confessional priorities straight. So, there’s no need to split hairs over “mission trip” vs. “mercy trip.”

  9. Nathan Raddatz
    March 27th, 2012 at 07:44 | #9

    David,

    From the perspective of another inner city pastor who has been out five years (me). The words “mission trip” should be avoided at all costs. It confuses the work and vocation of participants. Rev Gale might say otherwise, but I would avidly disagree with him. Rev Heinecke got it right.

  10. revaggie
    March 27th, 2012 at 10:28 | #10

    I probably should have noted that my definition of local is pretty skewed. I grew up in Texas, how I define local is a bit further than most. If I can get there in about 12-16 hours drive time, it’s local.

  11. Martin R. Noland
    March 27th, 2012 at 13:49 | #11

    Dear Pastor Gale,

    Thanks for an excellent post and for defending the significant work of lay volunteers in the ministries and missions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod! I hope that you know that the vast majority (I mean like 99%) of the people, pastors, and other church-workers of the LCMS support the work that you, and others like you, do. Certainly President Matthew Harrison supports your work! May our Lord bless your work among the downcast and poor of Pittsburgh!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

    ————————————–

    Dear BJS Bloggers,

    I would like to draw your attention to a series of brochures published by the LCMS Department of Human Care, while President Harrison was director of that department.

    President Harrison helped publish a series of treatises that explains why Lutherans need to be involved in such ministries. Some of the Lutheran theologians who authored those treatises include: President Harrison, Martin Chemnitz, Martin Luther, Johann Gerhard, Norman Nagel, C.F.W. Walther, and Theodore Julius Brohm. Here are links to some of the treatises in the series:
    http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=1045
    http://store.lcms.org/proddetail.asp?prod=booklets019
    http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=732
    http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=740

    I encourage you to download one or two, then if interested, download and read all in the series. Series #s are: S14648, S14649, S14650, S14651, S14654, S14656, S14657, S14658, S14659, S14660, S14661, S14662, S14665, S14666, S14667, and S14668

    Also you may purchase President Harrison’s book on the same topics, “Christ Have Mercy,” available here:
    http://www.cph.org/p-505-christ-have-mercy-how-to-put-your-faith-in-action.aspx

    With regard to the arguments about terminology, the word “missionary” is not a Biblical term, so why argue about it? The closest term in the Bible is the term “evangelist,” e.g., Ephesians 4:11. As the Lutheran orthodox theologians understood this term, the only difference between an “evangelist” and a “pastor” is that the former is called by the church to serve in places where a a church has not been planted or established,with the purpose of planting a church. (see Johann Gerhard, On the Ministry, Part One [CPH edition, 2011], p. 156).

    With regard to the issue of “missionaries” being involved in “mercy work,” the Lutheran orthodox theologians understood that the deacons in the New Testament were involved in both “Word and Sacrament ministry” and “diaconal work” at the same time. Gerhard, in the same work, writes: “Although the office of deacon was especially ‘to minister to the tables’ (Acts 6:2)–that is, to provide the faithful with the necessary sustenance in that community of goods–nevertheless the office of teaching was not completely removed and kept apart from them . . . If along with serving the tables, the office of teaching had not been committed to the deacons at the same time, what need would there have been, in the election of deacons to look for men ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom’ (Acts 6:3) Surely such great gifts of the Holy Spirit and such wisdom–that is, so thorough a knowledge of heavenly doctrine–would not have been required for a mere ministry to ‘the table’ (Gerhard, On the Ministry, Part One [CPH edition, 2011], p. 93).

    So, at least our orthodox Lutheran forefathers did not make a great separation between “mission” and “mercy”, as we seem to do.

    Finally, besides the fact that ministries NEED VOLUNTEER HELP, both here in the US and around the world, short-term trips are very important for exposing young people to the spiritual and material needs of people in this country and for the talents that they may have to fill those needs.

    “Servant events,” or whatever you might call them, impress upon young people that they might have the knowledge, skills, and attitude to serve full-time in church-work. These can be life-changing events, even if the young person does not enter full-time ministry. These events can change the young persons’ view of what the church is here for, and how they fit into that purpose, and if not entering church careers, they will contribute as laymen to the church’s work for the rest of their lives. Whether such events contribute to such awareness and change depends on the organizer’s intent and planning.. That is why you want to send your youth to LCMS (or WELS or ELS) “servant events,” not to events hosted by Liberal Protestant groups (e.g. ELCA) or by American Evangelicals.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  12. March 28th, 2012 at 11:26 | #12

    @Martin R. Noland #11

    Surely such great gifts of the Holy Spirit and such wisdom–that is, so thorough a knowledge of heavenly doctrine–would not have been required for a mere ministry to ‘the table’ (Gerhard, On the Ministry, Part One [CPH edition, 2011], p. 93).

    While I really like Gerhard, and am into a fourth, excellent book of his at present, I think he slipped a cog on that point.

    “There arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Acts 6:1

    It might take men “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to deal with a touchy problem like that.

  13. Carl H
    April 2nd, 2012 at 21:15 | #13

    Another thoughtful discussion of short-term trips is here:
    http://www.moneyhelpforchristians.com/short-term-mission-trips-worth-the-cost/ .

    In college, I went on a week-long trip to a children’s home in the states. During the day we helped re-roof the cottages. When the kids got back from school, we devoted our time to them. The experience was a blessing.

    —-

    Soon after finishing college, I went on a 10-day trip to Latin America with a group of Christian professionals in my field. We visited a struggling Christian service organization helping a community of people who were living off a municipal city dump. There were more moments of blessing than I have time to recount here. But a few readily come to mind:

    Two poor little girls in ragged dresses were supporting a third girl between them who had a very badly scraped knee and was limping along. They approached us for help. We could not speak their language. The service organization was closed. None of us had first aid equipment. With my pocket knife, I cut away a dangling flap of dirty skin. And with a canteen of water I tried to clean the wound as best I could while a team member fetched some antiseptic ointment and gauze from blocks away. By the time we were done, the little girl was using a name for me that I learned later meant something like “dear one”.

    On another occasion, through a translator, a very poor boy and a couple of his friends prayed with us: “Thank you God that you have given these visitors love for You and have made them rich with the means to come and help us.”

    I heard a group of destitute children singing joyfully in a chapel service held in a large shack, and considered that discouragement otherwise brought by the Enemy was being thwarted in that place by more than a sense of hope. The Enemy was being defeated by sheer joy in the Lord. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.”

    As I observed the chapel service, I stood in a doorway where I could see buzzards circling overhead above the city dump. And as the children continued to sing, a voice from somewhere spoke to my own anxieties: “The joy that you hear is for you, too.”

    It was customary for these poor children to end their prayers joyfully with, “Cristo vive!” Christ lives! I will not forget that.

    Seeing how far a few dollars and a little human effort could go in that place, no one on my team was particularly eager to go home as we prepared to leave that country. And I told them I would never say, “I’m hungry,” again.

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