For many Christians returning from short-term missions trips, it’s hard to settle back into “real life.” We’re bursting with stories of redemption and renewal. We’ve witnessed the faith of the persecuted and the joy of the poor. We’re resolved to live generously after encountering sprawling slums and rundown orphan homes.
My first trip to India sparked a passion for global missions. The second planted the desire to adopt—a dream that came to fruition 12 years later. The third challenged my faith when I met the wife and daughter of a martyr.
I’m not the only one who’s had this kind of experience; every year, many of us return from cross-cultural outreach zealous for Christ’s expanding kingdom.
When these trips are approached with discernment, God can use them to strengthen those we serve and produce lasting fruit in us. But amid all the good fruit, it’s not uncommon for short-term trips to yield a particularly bad one: we can come back disillusioned with our neighbors and resentful of the mission in our own backyard.
Temptation of Jonah
The more our hearts soften toward orphans, widows, and the poor, the more calloused they can become toward the lost in our neighborhoods. When we see people driving expensive cars or pushing shopping carts heaped with clothes, we’re tempted to feel disdain towards their materialism. When we perceive their discontent, we’re tempted to scoff at their lack of perspective. When we see the “churched” reject the gospel after years of faithful teaching, we feel irritation rather than sorrow, and we long to return to the unreached villages of our missions trip.
When I returned from my third trip to India, I thought I’d be more prepared to re-enter life in the United States. I’d done it before. I knew the temptation.
But when a woman in my workplace started complaining about financial struggles, I was exasperated. I knew the kind of house she lived in and the shopping habits she maintained. With each complaint my mind flashed back to disabled children begging on the streets of Mumbai and bone-thin women transporting bricks on their heads in a remote village. I struggled—and often failed—to have any compassion for my friend.
As we encounter daily reality after short-term missions trips, many of us are tempted to adopt attitudes reminiscent of Jonah. He didn’t want to go to a specific people; we don’t want to stay with a specific people.
We long to follow God and pour out our lives for the mission—just not the mission here. I’ve often thought, Anywhere, God! I will go anywhere for you. Send me to the slums, send me to the orphanages, send me to the refugee camps. Send me to any people but them. Just don’t keep me in the suburbs.
Like Jonah, the poison of self-righteousness runs in our veins. We desperately need an antidote.
Jesus Sought You
The only remedy for a Jonah-like superiority complex is to remember Jesus’s compassion to save you.
When I essentially tell God I’ll serve “anyone but them,” I’ve forgotten my own story. I am one of the people with the good life. I grew up in a loving home. I received a good education, married a godly man, and live in a safe place. I’m healing from no trauma, no tragedy, no extreme trial.
Yet even with all of these advantages and privileges and luxuries, my life would be hollow without Christ. More importantly, without Christ, my future would be one of horror, earthly privilege swallowed up in eternal despair.
Regardless of our backgrounds, each of us has received salvation because of our Savior’s deep compassion. We know firsthand it’s possible to have a house in the suburbs and a soul bound for hell. This humbling truth should shatter partiality and stir us to be faithful witnesses to whomever God places in our lives.
Jesus Sought Poor and Rich
We should have an earnest compassion for the poor, oppressed, and unreached. But the gospel is a gift for every sinner, not just those who suffer physically. The same Savior who reached out to prostitutes and healed widows also sought tax collectors and Pharisees. He made disciples of poor fishermen and educated doctors. The promise of salvation and the inheritance of the kingdom is for anyone who calls on him (Rom. 10:12–13), and he desires all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3–4).
Knowing this, can we continue looking at our neighbors without compassion? Is their relative luxury and ease worthy of our apathy? Granite countertops can’t fill empty souls any more than bursting wardrobes can save them. Our neighbors need to be forgiven and adopted through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what’s most precious to him. It should be what’s most precious to us.
Jesus Sends Us into All the World
Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world (Matt. 28:16–20). Mission isn’t just “over there”; it’s here. Your middle-class suburb, urban neighborhood, or small rural town is part of God’s millennia-spanning plan to make disciples of all nations.
If our passion for cross-cultural missions diminishes our love for our actual neighbors and fellow citizens, we must repent. Repent for caring about those in Syria but not those in our States. Repent for praying for those in poverty but not those in power. Repent for interceding for those enslaved by men but not those enslaved by greed.
As we return burdened for children in Romanian orphanages and women in Cambodian brothels, we must diligently petition God to increase our love for those next door, at work, and on the Little League field. Only then will we joyfully proclaim Christ wherever God in his wisdom and goodness calls us.
Author’s note: This article was first published at The Gospel Coalition