Randy Nabors- Director, MNA Mercy Ministries and Founding pastor of New City Chattanooga and the New City Network.
For some reason I have two stories about mission trips and mission teams that have to do with Harvard University. Once I was in Cambridge, MA speaking to some leaders at a church about mercy ministry. A young lady, whose father had taught at Harvard Law, leaned over to me and told me that she was now a teacher in the inner city because of me. She told me she had come down to Chattanooga on a mission team to visit our Hope for the Inner City ministry and it had redirected her life. At another time, in Tulsa, OK, I met a man who had just come back from acquiring a Master’s degree from Harvard, centering on Urban Studies, and he told me he had now come back to Tulsa to head up a Community Economic Development Ministry. He told me it was a mission trip to New City Fellowship in St. Louis that had started him on this journey.
We have actively used mission teams to help our ministry in Chattanooga for 34 years. Over that time thousands of young adults, teenagers, and families have spent a week or more with us, and some of the churches that have sent them have continued to send teams over and over again. In turn these teams have helped us to share the Gospel with thousands of inner city children, helped many widows, elderly, and poor people repair and improve their homes, and they have learned about cross-cultural ministry and worship. They have worked under and alongside African American leaders and been exposed to a part of America that most of them have been used to avoiding. Some of these young people came back to become a summer intern with us, and some were deeply affected in terms of their faith, and their direction in life.
We, as a church, have sent many of our own people out on mission, and as part of mission teams. We have sent our young people to do inner city ministry in other urban and poor areas. We have sent disaster response teams to many different places. We have sent inner city young people, who struggled with their own poverty, to do ministry in places where the poverty was much worse than anything they had ever experienced. We have always sought to involve those who came to us, and those we sent, in direct evangelism and to work under indigenous leadership in other places.
We don’t believe in “drive-by mercy or evangelism,” we are not attempting to encourage “mercy tourism.” Mission teams cannot replace an active local church or substitute for it being involved in its own neighborhood. We believe in building and supporting the local church, both our own and in other places. So teams come to help the ministry of our church, and our church in turn seeks to train them and expose them in evangelism and ministries of mercy to the poor in a cross-cultural setting that they can take back home. One of the congregations that sent mission teams has planted a church in their own city because of what they learned here with us, and we have sent teams to help them and saw people led to Christ who became part of their church.
Some criticize the whole idea of mission teams and we admit there can be problems, and we have certainly made our mistakes. Mission teams don’t eliminate poverty, teams in fact can be made up of well-meaning folk but do damage to our ministry through cultural insensitivity or an unwillingness to humble themselves. Some teams we have had to send home. It is obvious churches and youth ministries have their own goals and agendas in sending teams, and we work hard at helping them understand they come here as servants and not saviors, and we are not simply a vacation location. Their value is in helping the local church achieve its ministry, evangelism, and mercy/development goals.
We confess that we “ride ‘em hard and put ‘em up wet.” They have worked hard, slept rough, sometimes been a bit scared, but usually fed well. Their funds have helped us hire and sustain ministry. In terms of money for missions it is a truism that “money follows mission” especially by personal experience. To think churches or folks would just send us a check because we ask is a bit naïve, but after personal exposure and involvement an emotional investment takes place.
Mission teams have worked best when our own people have been involved and participated in ministry alongside those who have come to us, usually when small groups have taken a week to do Bible clubs alongside them. Overall it has been a multifaceted ministry; to the community, to our church and for our people who have hosted them, and to the teams and churches that send them. I believe it has made our connections stronger as both a denomination and Kingdom wide. I am certainly humbled by the stories I mentioned at the beginning, when I see those people living out a life of ministry and service, in the name of Jesus, because of a few short but very intense days of ministry among us. Thanks be to God for any good that has come about, and thanks to those of you who came, and who go.