Short term missions: a thing we did while being Youth Pastors. It involves taking a group of high school aged kids to a different location under the premise of obeying The Great Commission. The underlying goal is to “reach the lost”, but generally is it is the high school aged kids who are “reached”. Doing anything as a group that involves a challenge and requires working together to overcome obstacles and achieve a common goal changes you and bonds you together in a positive way, usually. Short mission trips are valuable for that reason. The sleep deprivation and struggle for harmony amongst ourselves is worth the pay off of deeper love and appreciation for one another and for God. Kids come away pumped up and ready to change the world, and a month later crash. Between my husband and I we probably led a half dozen or so of these trips.
But the one I want to talk about is the one we did with our own children in Russia. Yes, we did eventually go to Russia. I ended up obeying God after all. It was after the fall of Communism in 1992, so the danger factor was pretty much gone and no one was going to write a book about my martyrdom. We suffered the way that first-world-country people suffer though. There was nothing convenient about living there.
We lived for two months as locals, in a seven story apartment building. There was no air conditioning and the temperatures that summer were in the 90’s. The mosquitos were prevalent which prevented sleeping with the screen-less windows open. Our children, ages twelve, fifteen and sixteen usually all slept in the stuffy living room on two fold out couches pushed together. But they eventually started taking turns sleeping out in the cooler open deck. They would wrap themselves up in a thin blanket to keep the mosquitos from biting. My husband and I, to delay the sweating, drenched our top sheet with cold water before lying down at night.
We stood in line to buy bread. We stood in another line to buy unpasteurized milk. We stood in another line to buy eggs. We stood in another line… and so on. The chicken someone gave us, unbeknownst to me until after it was cooked, still had all its guts inside. Food was not necessarily scarce, but it was difficult to come by. There was none available on Sundays. We had no paper towels, waste basket liners or bathroom cleaners. The American coffee maker that was donated to us blew up. None-the-less, it was the adventure of a lifetime and we wouldn’t trade it for the world.
We went with a group of about sixty people who stayed with us for the first two weeks, doing outreach type stuff: street dramas/witnessing, and visiting hospitals, orphanages and schools. When they left, our “job” was to build relationship with two pastors of a church that the mission organization that “sent” us had contact with. We had an interpreter who was a godsend. We couldn’t have done it without her patient daily help. That bond was deep.
Neither my husband nor I are motivated to “get people saved”, but we are interested in mentoring or discipling. There were plenty of opportunities to do this and it was great. We met some incredibly amazing and friendly people, mostly teenagers. We spent lazy afternoons with some of them by the Kuban River. Our kids learned new dance moves from a group of young street dancers. We shared picnics by lakes, meals in homes and played a few American football games. We sang with and for each other for entertainment, privately and with our new friends. Some of them we are still in contact with. That’s what Facebook is for, right?
My husband was determined that we, as a family, have a daily worship and prayer time together. Making this happen was like pulling teeth. I confess it was my teeth that were most resistant. He persisted though and eventually we all realized that was the most valuable thing that we did. We vowed to continue this practice once we got home, but dang it… American culture won out in the end. One thing I loved about living in Russia was that my children could be children there. In the U.S kids grow up before they are ready.
But there were two things that happened in Russia that changed our perspective on missions. Number one occurred during our initial encounter with one of the pastors we were supposed to build relationship with. We met with him and one of the first things he said was, “We wish you American Christians would just stay home and send us the money you used to buy the plane tickets to get here. That would be so much more helpful to us.” What?!? Yes. “You think you are preaching the gospel and thousands are getting saved, but you don’t understand our culture and what we’ve been though.” He continued to tell us how the American preachers offer Bibles to everyone who comes forward to receive Christ, and when most people go forward it is not to receive Christ. They are going forward to get something for free. And they don’t care if it’s a Bible, they just care that it’s free. Oh my goodness! Are you serious? What are we doing here? He then told us that there was a vibrant underground church that was more than capable of reaching the lost of Russia and the real need was money to buy the necessities for living. We were embarrassed. We apologized. But we continued meeting with this pastor and his wife and twelve children, and soon became close friends with them. He forgave our ignorance, and the mission organization we represented gained some respect from him.
The second eye opening experience was toward the end of our stay. We were out and about and suddenly a tour bus pulled up and let out a bunch of American short term missionaries. We, by then, felt like we had assimilated into the culture. This most definitely wasn’t true, but when we saw these Americans pour out of the bus effusing giddy delight, and tearfully expressing their love to real live Russians, we were like, “You don’t even know us! How could you love us?” We didn’t trust these Americans. They were greenhorns. They knew nothing. Their enthusiasm would last for the two weeks of their short term mission trip and they would go back home and report excitedly about the amazing things that “God had done” on their outreach, without having any idea what the lasting effect of their exhibition in this foreign country was; whether positive or negative. We knew this because we had done it ourselves.