Rethinking the Mission Trip

Last night I watched the 40th anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). During the show they did some looking back. Some of my favorite sketches featured Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. The sketch was so good that eventually a movie was made. It was a tale of redemption for Jake and his brother Elwood, who go on "a mission from God" to the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. I might be stretching history a bit, but I do find it interesting that the movie came out in 1980, about the same time that short term mission trips started to become popular. DOOR, the ministry I work for, began in 1986 as an effort to organize the growing number of groups that were coming to Denver’s Westside to do service.

The groups that arrived came with the purist of motives. They wanted to help the poor people of West Denver. These motives were where often chock full of stereotypes and assumptions. The poor were brown, uneducated, unable to do for themselves, and didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Mission trip was about giving something to the Westside that the Westside couldn’t get on its own.

Over the years we, and other similar programs, began to see the fallacy with this way of thinking and doing. By the late 1990’s DOOR adopted the tagline to “see the face of God in the City.” This was our effort to recognize that God was already present in the city. It was our way of challenging participants who talked about bringing Jesus to the city.

Recognizing that God is in the city also exposed prejudices. Just because people look different does not imply that their faith is any less vibrant or real. A person’s physical location, in our case the city, says nothing about someone’s ability to achieve educationally or think theologically.

In the last few years there has been another shift in our thinking about the Mission (or Service) trip. Why invite outsiders to the city? If all they want to do is have us reaffirm their stereotypes of urban folks, then all we are is tour operators giving the client what they want.

Where does this leave us? Well, I am a huge believer in the Mission trip. I do wish I had a different word than “mission,” but that is for another discussion. We, particularly young people, need to take these trips because there are very few places left where people are afforded the opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of their faith.

For the most part people of faith only gather together with those who share their stereotypes, worship preferences, theology, and understanding of God. A mission trip, when done with thoughtful intentionality, provides a place to reflect and think about your faith with those who are different. Sadly, when it comes to faith beliefs and differences we are still an intolerant people.

If you are a leader looking for a mission/service trip make sure you find a program that isn’t going to reinforce all your preconceived ideas of what mission is and what the needs of the people are. Find a program that is less concerned with service and more concerned with who you will interact with.

Finding ways for your group to sit in a circle of “differences” and be challenged will produce good fruit back at home!

Embracing Difference & Green Chili

It has been almost 20 years since I made a significant career and life change. Back in 1994 I was pastoring in a church where almost everyone looked, thought, and believed like me. In many ways this made being a pastor “easy.” For the most part my convictions and stereotypes were identical to the people in my church. We knew which political party to vote for, where to go for lunch, what neighborhoods to live in, and the best school district for our children. We all agreed about right and wrong and had a common understanding of what a sinful lifestyle was.

By the start of 1995 many of my tight definitions and convictions about faith and life began to erode. Moving from a monoculture (suburbs) to a multicultural (city) world began a change. Everything I thought I knew about God and the life of faith was put to the test. In the city I met a God, apparently my God, who wasn’t predicable and certainly had no respect for my well thought through theological conclusions or understandings. It was almost as if God was showing me God’s rebellious and mischievous side.

In the city I found myself working with people who claimed “Christianity” but held convictions that opposed what I thought where no-brainers, the basics. At first this was hard. How could someone claim the same faith as me and vote for the other party, or embrace a lifestyle I understood to be wrong? For a while I put up a fight. When I look back on it now, I sort of thought of myself as an urban martyr for Jesus. I suspect that Jesus was mildly humored by this impulse.

I probably would still hold to the martyr perspective if I hadn’t encountered green chili. Not just any green chili, but Denver west-side green chili. For those of you not from Denver, it would be money well spent to travel to Denver and sample some of this culinary delight. As a Mennonite from Canada my primary way of adding spice to food was to reach for the salt and pepper.

Green chili comes in many varieties and everyone seems to have a unique family recipe. Regardless of the recipe, it is fair to say that green chili is significantly spicier than adding salt and pepper. At first this chili was a shock to my taste buds. From a certain perspective the spiciness was sinful. Over time I came to understand green chili as simply different from the foods I had grown up with. Today this difference has become tasty and enjoyable.

Leaning to embrace and accept different foods has only served to increase my eating enjoyment. I still like the food I grew up with, but learning about other foods has expanded my world. 

I have tried to take this lesson about food into my faith world. Just because someone sees their faith differently than I do, this does not immediately make them sinners. It just means they are different. Learning to embrace and appreciate those differences only serves to expand my understanding of God. In a sense it serves to make my faith spicier. Trust me, spicy is good.

If as people of faith we can learn to table judgment and embrace difference, the Good News of the gospel would actually be Good News.

Thursday Night

In the parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14) Jesus tells the story of a banquet where no one shows up. Finally out of frustration the host orders the servants out into the roads and lanes to invite anyone without plans for a meal. I am not completely sure who hung out on the streets in Jesus’ day, but I suspect they were people with nowhere better to go. Today we might describe them as poor, homeless, vagrants, and even strangers to avoid. For the past decade I have been attending a church that lives this parable regularly, especially on Thursday evenings. Prior to attending His Love Fellowship Luke was just telling an interesting story; I never connected it to reality. After all who in their right mind opens their doors to just anyone? The very meaning of the word stranger suggests the idea of unknown or even dangerous. Everything about American culture tells us to avoid anything that could be dangerous. We tell our children to run from strangers. Strangers are not to be trusted.

Every Thursday night my church opens its doors to everyone, even the stranger. They have been doing this for the better part of 20 years. If you were come and visit on Thursday you would be offered a meal, probably smothered in green chili. No questions asked. After supper you would be invited to a bible study where new friends and family would share the good news of the gospel and pray with you. To top everything off, before you left you would be offered an opportunity to visit the food pantry. All of this happens because this is a group of people who take church seriously. They are just naïve enough to act on what Scripture says – to feed the hungry, offer a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. All of this is simply offered regardless of the person’s social standing, appearance, ability to pay, or past.

Isn’t this what church is supposed to be? A gathering a people who ignore the fears of culture and simply act on the words of Jesus. There are those who might describe this kind of person as a “Red Letter Christian.

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.


Wednesday has become one of my favorite days of the week.  A little over a year ago, I was invited to start attending the weekly pastoral staff meeting at the church my family attends.  Pastor Phil felt that I had a unique “urban perspective,” given the amount of travelling I do.  It is true that my job provides me with the opportunity to visit with many different urban pastors and church leaders every year. To be perfectly honest I went to that first meeting thinking that I had something to contribute.  Within 10 minutes those thoughts disappeared.

(Before I go further, I need to tell you about the church our family attends - His Love Fellowship.   It is a Hispanic congregation of about 450 attendees with multi-cultural tendencies.  It is located on Denver’s West Side and by every definition is an urban church.  So it should come as no surprise that my Anglo family is in the minority.) 

Before arriving at the first staff meeting I was feeling confident.  After all I wasn’t new to the West Side.  15 years of working with DOOR had taught me a thing or two about the urban reality.  My experience wasn’t just in Denver; I was (am) the National Director of an urban education program. In addition to Denver, DOOR also works in Hollywood, San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

It was the 11 minute mark of my first staff meeting when it began to dawn on me.  I wasn’t the one who was going to offer perspective but rather it was my pastors who were going to offer me perspective.

One of my most significant realizations in the past year has to do with a trap Anglos easily fall into - thinking we understand urban reality.  In my case I thought that 15 years of urban ministry had transformed me into a “real” urban person.  In some ways this is true.  But in many other ways it isn’t.  I will never know the pain of being looked down upon because of my skin color.  I have never had to live with other folks thinking that I am needy, poor or uneducated simply because I am not white.

My reflections could go for quite a while. However, today I want to talk to other Anglos who have felt a call to urban ministry.  One of the biggest temptations you will face is to start your own thing.  We couch these temptations in all kinds of spiritual language.

“God has called me to plant an inner city church.”

“I have been lead to work among the urban poor.” 

It is not my purpose to challenge that call.  However, I want to offer some advice.  I wish I could claim to have learned this the easy way.  Before you can bring Jesus to the city, you first need to figure out where Jesus is working.  One of the best ways that you can do this is to resist the temptation to start your own thing.  Spend time getting to know the pastors and leaders who are already on the ground working and ministering.  My guess is that they will not be doing things your way, but that is OK.  Don’t even consider planting a new church until you have spent at least five years in a church that is already in the neighborhood.


“Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”

These were the first words that Patricia said to me after we had been introduced. It happened during my first week at DOOR. Larry, my predecessor, was taking me around Denver and introducing me to the various agency coordinators and leaders I would be working with in my new role as the DOOR director.

Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. It would be fair to say that she was a person of strong convictions. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.

Her words were hard to hear, because I did want to make a difference. Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time.

After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues, and I had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless. It didn’t make any sense to waste away my abilities for 10 years.

Patricia’s words have been ringing in the back of my mind ever since that first day. I have come to understand this advice as being challenging and good.

I give leadership to a program that promotes short-term experiences. People come to our DOOR for anywhere from a day to a year. One of the biggest battles we face is with participants who—like me—want to make a difference. After all, they have taken time out of busy schedules to take part in DOOR. They don’t want their time or money to be wasted. I understand and respect this.

There are times when short-term volunteers can make a huge difference. Those who went to the Gulf Coast to rebuild following Katrina come to mind.

But for the most part, authentic ministry takes time—lots of time.

One of my closest friends is the pastor of the Denver Inner City Parish. He has been a part of Denver’s west side since 1965. He came to Denver from Elgin, Ill.; working on the family dairy farm was not in his blood. As an 18-year-old he escaped to Denver to attend college. It was during his first semester at Denver University that he began to develop an interest in the west side. Before long, he found himself on the organizing committee for the parish.

44 years later, this kid from a dairy farm in Illinois has become the people’s pastor on the west side. He stuck around and earned the right to speak into the lives of Denver’s westsiders

Every time someone participates in DOOR, I feel a tension between their desire to make a difference and the time it takes to earn the right to make a difference. I am not sure that this can be resolved in a few easy steps. As a matter of fact, I want participants to feel this tension.

Vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick.

Mutual trust takes time.

There is no swift way around this.