After only two weeks back at college following Christmas break, I and nine others (the faithful few!) set out from North Dakota for Dallas, Texas, to spend a week working with Urban Plunge, doing ministry in the inner city area. Eight girls, two guys, four days in an 11-passenger van, and four days of dawn-to-dusk ministry – you’d better believe it was interesting!
What did my team and I actually do while we were there? Honestly, we did mostly “behind-the-scenes” service, those unpleasant and typically tedious aspects of ministry that aren’t often lauded. We cleaned a shower house and an apartment. We sorted and organized clothes. I dressed the mannequins at a charity store. We sorted and organized clothes. We served at a soup kitchen for the homeless, tutored kids at an afterschool program, and played Bingo with the residents at an assisted living center. And did I mention we sorted and organized clothes?! (That was kind of a theme for us; at one location, our team of ten spent four hours in a 6-by-20-foot space doing that very thing – and we did get on each other’s nerves a bit that afternoon!)
At this point, you are either thinking, “Wow! A mission trip – how exciting!” or “So when exactly did you do ministry?” That’s how most people view missions: either it is something exciting and enviable, or you wonder when the real ministry starts. What is “missions,” then, and what is ministry? What do those frequently-used “Christian-ese” words even mean? What makes those things, those activities, authentic and impactful? What is the standard we must meet in order for them to be “worth it”? Do you need to travel far and preach the gospel message to people whose skin is a different shade than yours or whose language and culture are different? Or do you need to sell everything you own and go cuddle orphans in Africa? Perhaps – but perhaps not.
I really want to break down these questions here and share some thoughts. Missions and ministry and kids – those are my passions (aside from writing, of course!), and I can say with full confidence that I got to experience them all during my week in Dallas. But wait, we really only did the “dirty work” for ministries. That’s not real ministry – right? Not so. You see, ministry, very simply, boils down to this:
ministry = seeing needs and meeting them
That’s it – that’s all. It is no more complex than that. Missions and ministry have at their core the meeting of needs. And missions particularly seeks to meet those needs with the powerful, life-altering message of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Doing missions and doing ministry don’t mean you need to go far from home. If God asks you to give up everything and move to a country in Africa, that’s awesome! But you know what else is awesome? God asking you to meet needs (do ministry!) right where you already are. No matter where God takes you in your life or in this world, you are always called and always able, through God’s mighty strength, to do ministry and live missionally in the place where you are.
I’ve already been a foreign missionary for four years of my life, and I’ve been a PK (pastor’s kid!) for all my life. Basically, I’ve been there, done that. I’ve done more and experienced more than many people get a chance to in an entire lifetime. Right now I’m going to a small (but amazing!) Bible college in North Dakota; I haven’t been in Africa for a year and a half. I love Africa, and I want to move back someday with my own family. But even though I have left Africa for now, I’m still on the mission field – I’m still a missionary. I am a full-time student, but I am also in full-time ministry. How? Because I see needs and meet them wherever I am, and I take all the simple, everyday opportunities to live missionally by sharing God’s truth and grace – praying with people, letting people cry while I hold them in my arms, baking cookies for someone, offering encouragement and a listening ear, or giving out much-needed smiles. Ministry and missions are real and oftentimes raw — they are life.
Ministry and missions are simple – but they are not easy. They are beautiful, but you have to first let our Heavenly Father open your eyes to the needs around you before you can begin to meet them.
When I let five-year-old Marguerite “do” my hair at the afterschool program then cuddled her on my lap, that was ministry. Her finger-combing was tear-jerking for me, but she was so delighted. My whole trip was worth it for that moment.
When I chatted with a mentally handicapped man during Bingo, that was ministry. I don’t think people usually talk with him much, but he was obviously longing for some conversation and companionship. My whole trip was worth it for that moment.
When my team spent over twenty-some hours throughout the week “debriefing,” talking about our experiences, praying for each other, and sharing what God was doing in us, that was ministry. It was amazing not only for my team but also our facilitator, Andrā, who was totally blessed by our passion for the Lord and our commitment to serve selflessly. The whole trip was worth it for that.
The whole trip was worth it for the people we got to meet and pray with; it was worth it for the ministries we blessed with our labor; and it was worth it for the God-orchestrated fellowship that my team had as we served side by side (very literally in most cases!). It was worth it for the things God did in us and through us on the trip. But let me tell you why it was worth it. It wasn’t actually “worth it” because of what happened – that was all always in God’s hands. It was worth it because we stepped out in obedience to the voice of our Father and let Him open our eyes to see the needs around us.
After we returned to North Dakota and I was enjoying the manifold comforts of a warm shower and a bed (and probably experiencing withdrawal after spending so many hours in extremely close proximity to my nine team members), I was praying for the people we’d met on the trip and thanking God for all that He had done in us and through us. I prayed (and this is word-for-word from my journal), “that lives would be changed because of our service on the trip.” And immediately I flinched. My motives were right, but my methods were all wrong. God began to speak to me in that moment. My service change lives? Hello! Is my name Jesus Christ? Did I live a sinless life, die out of love for the sin of broken humanity, and rise again in victory over sin? No. So why pray that my service changes lives?! I should be praying that, through my obedient actions, I was (and will continue to be) a carrier of God’s presence and a facilitator of His Holy Spirit, who is already at work in the hearts of people.
Let me share one wonderful thing that God keeps showing me:
The beautiful thing about ministry and missions is that we are only responsible to be obedient to God and meet the needs before us; the outcomes are His responsibility.
Transforming lives is His job, not ours. I don’t know about you, but that makes my heart feel light and free. I can do full-time ministry and live missionally every day of my life and leave the impact in His capable hands. I love what Paul says regarding the spread of the Gospel message:
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but it is God who gives the increase….Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 3:6-7; 4:1-2)
My dear friends, let us be faithful caretakers of the priceless Gift we have been given, Jesus Christ, and live outrageously obedient to Him who first loved us and draws us near through His kindness. May we learn to live missionally and do ministry by simply meeting the needs around us.
Father, open our eyes to see the needs; open our eyes to see as You see. We give you all the glory and all the responsibility for outcomes; we will be faithful in obedience and extravagant in love. We can do no less. Amen.
Here is a brief glimpse of my team’s ministry in Dallas: