Our trips are typically called "mission" trips. This is a longstanding tradition both of this and many other churches rooted in Matthew 28:19-20, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Mission is loosely equivalent in this sense with evangelism--i.e. telling people about Jesus and helping them to convert to the faith.
This may be a noble goal, but in the 21st century things look a lot different than in the first. In the first century Christians were the minority, largely persecuted, and wholly without political power. To compare Christians in the western world today with Christians in the time of Paul is naive. Things have changed dramatically. That doesn't mean that Jesus' words don't matter or aren't true--I believe they very much are--but it does mean we have an added level of responsibility when it comes to how we do mission. History has laid bare the terrible repercussions of Christians (both well-intentioned and not) who have traveled to places across the globe in the name of spreading Christianity only to enslave or destroy civilizations by uprooting the social structures, turning children against parents, pushing people off their land, or literally taking people as slaves, all in the name of the gospel.
The shadows of colonialism loom over every mission that the church undertakes and the power dynamics change everything. As people who have a good deal of power by virtue of wealth, health, and various structures that maintain our quality of life, we have to check ourselves when we go out into the world to tell people about Jesus. Are we doing this for them or for us? Are we controlling them to get the response we want?
These are questions for travel abroad but also at home. When we go on trips in the United States we pick out places in need, but we have to check our motivation. The legacies of slavery loom over urban America; the long shadow of the Doctrine of Discovery falls on our native reservations. Are we just perpetuating more of the sins of the past?
This brings me to the correction. Service. This is how much of the church has course-corrected from our past. No longer do some churches go on mission trips; rather, they go on service trips. The language-change is obvious. We aren't going to tell people about Jesus first but to do good things for people in need and if Jesus comes up all the better. I much prefer service to mission for this reason, but service trips have a downside to them as well.
Too many times I have seen service trips that are about going into certain places and providing a need--say, a house or a school or painting a house or whatever--that the people in that place don't actually want. Worse still, the group doing service may be taking work from people who are willing to do it in that place already. Service trips are sometimes--not always, of course--built on the same power structure that befalls mission trips. We become the saviors going into a place in need of saving. This is simply not how any of this works.
The problem with "service" trips is that they function out of the premise that we are going somewhere to share our blessings with those less fortunate than us. That sounds noble (who could possibly argue with it?), but the assumption that others are less fortunate can be unfortunate. Who says they are less fortunate? Them or us? What needs do they actually have? What do they want us to provide? Are we really welcome at all?
The reality is that short-term service trips don't always do a lot of good if the goal is to change a place for the better. It's not even that they're a drop in the ocean of need; it's that they might actually be misdirecting water from the ocean. They sometimes do more harm than good.
So what's left?
The differences between a "service" trip and a "servant" trip are subtle but I believe they are hugely important for the way we serve as the church. Whereas a service trip presupposes we are going to do some kind of work for somebody else, a servant trip is about simply going where we are sent, listening to those we encounter there, hearing their needs, their wants and desires, and finally asking, "What can we do for you?" only when the relationship is built. It's not assuming a need but it's being open and jumping in at the first opportunity when one arises.
Servant trips direct their compass alongside Mark 10:35-45 which reads:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’Greatness is being a slave by choice--choosing to be servants to the true master, not assuming what is to be done but going forth into the world to love on people so much that they ask you why. Why are you doing this? Then it becomes a moment for evangelism; for telling them why. You lead not with good deeds but with listening, with walking alongside, and you follow it up perhaps with service and lastly with evangelism. Servitude is giving up our expectations for the sake of those we are going to serve. It's what they want that matters; not what we want to do for them. Servitude works for the 21st century because it is about giving up the power that we have for the sake of others who may not be needy in the way we imagine after all. Our work might not have the fruits we imagine and it might be even less than a drop in the ocean of need, but it will do something entirely different that we never expected: it will change us. Sure, it might change others too, but in this backward world where Jesus says the least will be greatest you may be surprised to find that the real mission work that needs to be done is in your own heart and it takes getting out there to discover it.
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’