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Go as a Pilgrim, Not a Hero

By Tucker McPherson

Celtic Christians used to talk about spots they called “thin places,” areas where they felt closer to God. For them, these hillsides or coves were areas where the membrane between heaven and earth was stretched taut, where believers could almost feel the hand of God just on the other side.

We read about such thin places in the Bible—where God came down to meet us. Jacob wrestled with an angel near the ford of Jabbok, Moses talked with God on Mount Sinai. It’s strange that God often met His faithful in wild, unfamiliar places—mountains and valleys far from home. And perhaps that’s still true today. Sure, we can find thin places as close as a corner church or a neighborhood park or even parked on your bed in your very own bedroom. You probably know a few. But when we travel outside our comfort zones—when we venture out to unfamiliar places to seek out God—we often meet Him in unexpected and extraordinarily powerful ways.

Almost two million Americans from 40,000 churches and other groups go on short-term missions (STM) trips each year, and many of those 2 million do such trips year after year. These journeys can be great catalysts for spiritual growth and renewal and conduits for fellowship. But sometimes, if you’re not careful, they can morph into little more than a vacation that doesn’t do you or the people you’re trying to help much good.

What Are Short-Term Mission Trips?

These short-term trips really are contemporary versions of an ancient Christian practice called pilgrimage. (Perhaps we should call them STPs.) A pilgrim goes on a journey to meet God in a faraway place, hoping to return a different person from the one who left. In medieval times, Europe in particular was crisscrossed with pilgrimage routes, with the destination usually being a notable church or site of a saint’s relics.

Pilgrims had no illusions that they were going to “change the world” by their pilgrimage, but they surely did hope that being exposed to the world, and to the stories of the faithful saints, would change them. They were much more than tourists who travel simply for the fun of it (though medieval pilgrimages were often, appropriately, convivial and joyful affairs). Pilgrims travel for transformation. And that’s a very good thing.

Like medieval pilgrims, too, short-term teams travel together in community, where we actually depend on one another to make it through unfamiliar and challenging experiences. In a pervasive culture of individualism, that too is a very good thing. When and where else will most of us embrace a shared life of prayer and work for a week or more, sharing cooking and cleaning, tears and laughter, in such close quarters? In a nonstop world of distraction and diversion, STMs force us to focus and pay attention.

The Thing We Do Best

When you start to awaken to the huge investment in and uneven returns from STMs, it’s natural to ask whether it wouldn’t be much better simply to raise the same amount of money and send it to our partners overseas as cold, hard cash. But leaders from other countries would much rather open the doors to short-term missionaries than simply receive a check in the mail. They see the real potential of STMs: not the chance to get a wall painted, a latrine built, or even a VBS taught, but to develop lasting relationships with other Christians.

In fact, so highly do most hosts value relationship, they simply cannot imagine that we would spend all this money and expend all the effort that goes into a STM for anything other than building a lasting, deep friendship and partnership in the gospel.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind when you head off on a short-term missions trip. While your church or sending body wants you to build a schoolhouse or paint a church or conduct a Bible school, the people whom you’re being sent to want … you. They want to share their stories with you, and you to share with them. They want to walk and talk with you about the gospel, the thing that brought the both of you together in the first place.

Sure, you have a task to perform—to create something tangible that has, hopefully, lasting value. But when you go on a missions trip with the right attitude, you’ll often find that the most lasting, most valuable thing you’ve done is to come seeking out those thin places with sincerity and humility. And to search for those thin places together.