Missions and Evangelism

10 Biggest Mistakes Christians Make on the Mission Field

One of the greatest joys in my life is ministering in foreign countries. Since I surrendered to a call to missions 15 years ago, I’ve visited 29 nations and developed relationships with dozens of pastors and leaders who now consider me their friend and brother. Missions is at the heart of our Christian faith, and I believe every church should be actively engaged in both foreign and local missions so we can advance the gospel of Jesus in our generation.

But just like everything else in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in mission work. I’ve learned from my own mistakes—and I’ve also seen some sad examples of short-term missions gone awry. If you are considering a short-term or long-term mission trip, avoid these pitfalls:

1. Acting like a spoiled American. If you are traveling to a developing country, here is Rule No. 1: Prepare for delays, cold showers, big bugs and scorpions, power outages, unusual toilets, crazy traffic and strange food. Make a decision before you leave that you won’t let one complaint come out of your mouth. Be flexible and gracious. Focus on the positive, soak in the beauty of the country and come home with a renewed gratitude for your blessings at home.

2. Talking down to people. You are not going overseas to teach poor, ignorant foreigners what you know. If that’s your attitude, do everyone a favor and stay home! You are going to serve. Most of what I know about ministry I learned from humble people I met in other countries. Whether you are teaching, preaching, building orphanages or feeding the poor, get under the people and wash their feet. And expect to learn powerful lessons from the people you are visiting.

3. Building relationships based on money. People in poor countries tend to think all Americans are rich, and they will be tempted to look to us instead of God to provide. Don’t wave money around, don’t flaunt expensive watches or jewelry, and don’t hand out cash to everyone you meet. Let your new friends know you want a real friendship with them that does not hinge on finances.

4. Making demands. I know prosperity preachers who expect royal treatment when they go to foreign countries. One man told his host he needed a hotel that costs $1,000 a night—in a nation where most people live in cramped, Soviet-style apartments. The apostle Paul modeled a different approach, and he was willing to live among people at their level (see 1 Thess. 2:9-10). If Jesus was willing to enter this world in a filthy manger, we should be willing to set aside our expensive tastes.

5. Breaking promises. When you connect deeply with a local pastor or congregation overseas, you will fall in love with them and you will want to do everything possible to help them. But don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Always remind them, and yourself, that we must pray for His provision and wait on Him to answer. And if you do enter into a partnership, always honor the promises you made.

6. Taking team members who are not committed to Jesus. I know of a zealous young woman who went on a mission trip to Africa with her church and ended up sleeping with a guy from that country. How does that happen? Anyone who goes with you on a trip needs a background check and a pastor’s recommendation. Mission trips should never be viewed as opportunities for “religious tourism” by immature people who crave a globetrotting adventure. The behavior of your team members should honor Christ.

7. Working with people overseas without thoroughly investigating them. I get requests almost weekly from foreign pastors who want me to visit their church, support their programs or do evangelistic crusades in their villages. In Pakistan, some unscrupulous Christians troll the Internet looking for churches that will send them money. Some people posing as pastors talk naïve Americans into wiring funds for a trip—and then they vanish. If you are going to do mission work, you will need the gift of discernment. Don’t get bamboozled by a con artist posing as “beloved brother Najib.”

8. Using a “hit and run” approach to missions. When I visit a country I almost always end up going back because I build relationships with ministries. This week I’m on my fourth visit to Barranquilla, Colombia, where I am helping to develop a women’s shelter. Mission work should be a long-term partnership. If your church is planning to start a mission program, don’t just scatter your seed here and there. Prayerfully invest in a few places and let the Holy Spirit connect you with those people for a lifetime.

9. Misrepresenting your work. We laugh about the preacher who was “evangelastically speaking” about the crowds he attracted in Uganda. But exaggeration is lying. There is nothing more obnoxious than a Christian who inflates statistics to draw attention or raise funds. If you build your ministry on half-truths you will have cracks in your foundation. Be honest, be accountable and tell the truth.

10. Focusing on numbers. There is huge pressure in missionary work to prove our effectiveness by counting heads. But God’s kingdom is not about crowds—it is about making disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20). Some of my most powerful moments on the mission field were in small meetings where God changed a few lives forever—and then those people changed more lives. I’m not impressed when someone says 5,000 people prayed to receive Jesus. I want to know if those converts were followed-up and plugged into churches for discipleship.

I hope you will become more passionate about taking the message of Christ to the world. But as you pack your bags for your mission trip, leave your unneeded “baggage” at home and go with a humble, teachable heart.

Read more

A Practical Checklist for Your Next Mission Trip

Twenty years ago I prayed a dangerous prayer. I said to God: “Here am I, send me”—and I knew He would take me seriously.

Since that holy moment, I have traveled to preach in 29 countries, and I will leave tomorrow for Iceland. Last year I slept in 58 different beds, some of them extremely uncomfortable, because I surrendered to the call to share Jesus in other cultures.

Missionary travel is biblical. Ever since the Lord called Abraham to leave Ur, God’s followers have been hitting the road to carry His message to foreign places. (And many, like the prophet Jonah, have resisted the call!) The early disciples carried the gospel from Israel to the entire known world in the first century without the benefit of airplanes, smartphones and credit cards. So today we have no excuse when it comes to fulfilling this amazing global assignment.

Perhaps you are preparing to go on a short-term missionary journey this summer. A mission trip can change your life, but it can also turn into a disaster if you fail to plan. Here are a few reminders to help you prepare.

1. Don’t go alone. Jesus sent His disciples two by two. It is best to go on mission trips in teams. There have been times when I flew alone and met other people in the country I was visiting. But my preference is to always have companions with me. And a mission trip is a perfect opportunity to take disciples with you so you can mentor them along the way.

2. Be sure you are covered in prayer. It’s vital that you have intercessory support while you are on a missionary trip. I always send a prayer letter to my supporters before I leave, and I give them specific information so they can pray effectively. It’s also a great idea to have your pastor and other church leaders lay hands on you and pray before you depart. You will feel the support!

3. Get the right documents. You can’t travel outside the United States without a valid passport. You may also need a visa in your passport depending on what country you are visiting. To find out if you need a visa, check out the country’s embassy website. In some cases you will have to mail your passport to the embassy with a fee. In other cases you simply need to pay a fee at the airport when you arrive at your destination.

4. Get your shots! Some countries require travelers to have certain immunizations. Go to the U.S. State Department website to find out if you need these. It’s cheaper to get these at your local health department than from a doctor. You will receive a yellow health card with official documentation of your shots. Keep this card with your passport on all trips. Do not be foolish and presume that God will automatically heal you if you didn’t protect yourself from disease.

5. Pack wisely. Find out from your hosts how they want you to dress. In some countries preachers are expected to wear suits even though it is extremely hot! Don’t assume you can dress however you want. Be sensitive. You should dress in a way that honors your hosts. (In some countries it is considered inappropriate for men to wear shorts, for example, or for women to wear pants.) Also, be sure you research what type of electrical plugs are used in the country you are visiting. If you don’t take the right plug adapter, you will not be able to recharge your phone or other devices.

6. Take the right amount of cash. I avoid using my credit card in developing countries because some vendors will steal your number. Determine before you leave how much cash you need, and store the cash in a concealed pocket. Go to a bank to exchange currency. It is unwise to use currency vendors on the street unless your host is with you and he feels the rate is good.

7. Take interest in the people you are ministering to. Mission work is incarnational. To be effective you must identify with the people. Eat with them, laugh with them, be affectionate with them and serve them. Set your cultural differences aside and be relevant. I do this by learning some phrases in the local language, learning facts about the country and eating the local food. I also try to build lifelong relationships and I stay in touch with the people after I get home. Never engage in “hit and run” missions. Stay connected!

8. Learn to use a translator. If the people you are visiting do not speak English, you must depend on a good translator when you teach or preach. Usually your hosts will provide the translator—but you should make sure this has been arranged before you leave. You may have the best translator in the country, but if you don’t know how to speak properly using a translator the people will not benefit from your message. Speak in short, clear phrases or complete sentences, and then let the translator translate. Don’t use slang or American expressions. And don’t scream or be theatrical. Remember: The people need to hear your translator, not you.

9. Prepare your heart to be a servant. The last thing the world needs is a spoiled American traveling to a developing country. We are called to deny ourselves as we follow Christ. Don’t make demands when you are with your hosts. It is wonderful if you have hot water in your shower, Internet access or a nice bed. But don’t go expecting to be comfortable, and don’t complain about anything when you are there. You might suffer a little from heat, mosquitoes, broken toilets, thin walls, noisy roosters, leaky roofs or gross food, but I promise those inconveniences won’t kill you.

10. Be flexible! In most foreign countries, especially in the developing world, people think differently about time. Church meetings start late. Schedules change. Transportation is unreliable. Electricity goes out often. It is easy to get frustrated if you are used to American efficiency. You must learn to relax and rest in God. Your hosts may tell you the meeting starts at 9 a.m., but don’t get upset if everything is two hours late. This is the reality of the mission field. Remember the old adage: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be broken.”

And finally, when you return from your trip, it’s important to debrief. Don’t just jump back to your office job. Take some time to process. I minister to many abused people when I travel, and I hear a lot of horror stories. I also see a lot of poverty—and this can weigh heavy on my heart. It’s important to talk to some friends about what you experienced after you return.

Don’t just bottle up your feelings. What did you learn? Share what troubled you. Cry if you need to. Be open and let God speak to you about what you saw during your trip. He will expand your compassion so He can love a broken world through you.

Read more