When speaking to me and others about the upcoming work of us five new long-term missionaries with the Church in Tanzania, folks have frequently referred to our efforts as a “mission trip.” As in, “James is going on a mission trip to Tanzania.”
Growing up in Kenya I encountered a lot of teams on “mission trips.” A mission trip is a wonderful thing– a group of people sacrifice their vacation to participate in the life of a Christian community far from their own. They construct schools and churches, they feed the hungry, they provide medical ministration, they teach; and more than any of this they come as ambassadors to participate first-hand in work far away. They bring friendship and they build lifelong relationships. We Africans were greatly encouraged by the love that these teams shared with us. Mission trips are wonderful things.
Many career missionaries also go on “mission trips.” Much of the Apostle Paul’s missionary work was in fact a series of prolonged voyages throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean. From his home base on Sitka in Alaska, St. Innocent would get in his kayak or dogsled and make missionary trips to minister to his flock as well as to preach the Gospel where it had never been heard. Our bishop in Tanzania, Metropolitan Jeronymos, constantly goes on mission trips to all corners of his diocese both to minister with his people as well as bring the Gospel to new places.
As long-term missionaries, each of us will certainly embark on many mission trips. From their base in Bukoba, I’m sure that Michael and Katie and Felice will take journeys to provide medical assistance to folks in rural areas. God willing, I’ll be able to accompany the bishop on some of his missionary safaris. And Mama Stavrou is planning all sorts of evangelistic voyages. Plus, every few years we’ll be taking trips to visit the faithful in North America and spread the word about God’s work back home in Africa.
Despite all this, our work in Tanzania is not to be a “mission trip.” Most of us are not visiting Mwanza for a season. Our work is a vocation; we are prepared to spend our lives there. This is mostly hair-splitting; labels really aren’t that important. But here’s why it does matter:
When a person is sent on a mission trip, their supporters promise to be with them for a season. Two weeks. Three months. Maybe even a year or two. During that time, a team of committed parishes, families and individuals prays mightily for the trip participant and blesses them with very generous one-time donations.
Whereas sending somebody on a mission trip requires an intense amount of commitment for a brief time, to send somebody as a missionary requires a more moderate amount of commitment for a sustained time. For a lifetime, if God wills it. Over a forty-year term of service, the supporter who prays for the missionary weekly or donates five dollars every month is a far, far greater and more faithful partner in ministry than the one who wrote a thousand-dollar check or the one who stayed up all night in prayer, once.
We’re not just going on a trip. We’re embarking on a vocation. It’s pretty scary. We need people with us for the long haul. Not performing mighty feats of superhuman spiritual labor, not making huge one-time gifts (though both of these things, given to God’s glory, will indeed work wonders). It is those who take the small steps but don’t stop stepping– those who pray daily or give monthly. Just a little, as they’re able, out of their poverty into God’s hands. It is such people who will change the world.