Many of us have a hard time imagining life in another country. Americans often assume other places—especially Muslim countries—are more dangerous than the good ol’ U.S.A. When fellow Christians learn about where my family used to live, the most common question I receive is “Did you feel safe there?”
My initial response, if I can’t stop myself, is to chuckle. Because I’ve heard the exact same question multiple times from international friends who are curious about life in the United States: “Do you feel safe there?”
While my American Christian friends imagine the Muslim world to be a playground for terrorists, people from other countries can easily view the United States as a haven for gun-toting psychopaths who shoot up schools and ravage city streets. As one Kurdish woman once told me, “I’d be too scared to ever visit your country.”
Of course, as someone who’s lived in both worlds—in the globe’s Mideast and America’s Midwest—I can testify that both perspectives are largely false. To understand a place and its people, you need more than news snippets or short visits. This is one reason I take the initial impressions of short-term missionaries with a grain of salt.
‘I Can Feel the Darkness’
I’ve been on short-term ministry trips on multiple continents. While not always the case, they easily foster a kind of professional tourism providing alternate experiences akin to visiting Epcot’s World Showcase. These trips don’t commonly correspond to real life—much like the observations of their cross-cultural participants.
Whether in Buddhist, Catholic, or Muslim countries, I’ve heard essentially the same remarks from short-term missionaries: “I can feel the darkness here.” Surrounded by lostness, they’re struck by the overwhelming need. They sense a deep spiritual force, a dark power that’s tangible and almost terrifying.
Now, I’m not here to question every person’s spiritual sensations. But it’s possible they’re simply experiencing cultural dislocation and confusion that leads to internal discomfort. When we’re in a foreign place where we understand little, our bodies are easily disoriented, producing feelings of powerlessness and anxiety—a “darkness” many aren’t used to in their home country.
If we assume the rest of the world is so dark and depraved, we may not be looking close enough at the spiritual state of our home nation.
Also, if it’s dark forces and spiritual lack these short-term missionaries are noticing, it might be telling if they’ve never felt that same lostness in Peoria or Portland. More than likely, they sense those things overseas because they’re attuned to them, not because such darkness is absent elsewhere. In fact, if we assume the rest of the world is so dark and depraved, we may not be looking close enough at the spiritual state of our home nation.
‘The Believers Are So Unified’
Another common phrase I’ve heard from short-term missionaries is more positive: “The believers here are so unified!” Christian from America, tired of petty disagreements and denominational squabbles, arrive in other countries primed to celebrate the joy and fellowship they find in local churches. When they show up for Sunday morning, all they see are smiling faces, singing congregants, and believers who fellowship around the Word and the Table.
Of course, there’s a deep irony here. Because any non-English speaker visiting an Anglo church in America would likely witness the same things. It’s only as you know the language and the people, as you’re aware of their struggles and see what happens during the week (or what Christians post on social media), that you have a sense of the reality and maturity of their faith.
The challenges of Christian life and community are the same everywhere. Now, my children will tell you that Christian fellowship was sweeter for them living in a Muslim-majority context. And I’m prone to agree somewhat. But their observation also proves my point, because our children were often unaware of the congregation’s gossip and lies, the division and distrust, the spiritual apathy and occasional apostasy.
The challenges of Christian life and community are the same everywhere.
Any American Christian who traveled to visit our house church in Central Asia on any given weekend would have walked away inspired by the power of the gospel. She would have celebrated a gathering of called-out-ones in the middle of a Muslim nation. However, what she wouldn’t have is a genuine sense of how challenging it was some Sundays for that same church to demonstrate any semblance of joy or unity or hope.
It’s been said that short-term trips are an effective tool for recruiting future missionaries. That’s probably true. But my concern is that these cultural interlopers should base their assumptions—and their future plans—on reality. If they’re going to cross the seas simply because the people are so needy or because the Christians are so wonderful, they may be surprised when they show up and find out otherwise.
But what does this have to do with the rest of us? Is this just an opportunity to critique short-term trips? No, I think they have a purpose and place in mission. I also think these lessons have something to offer all of us—a kind of reality check for everyday life and ministry.
We should recognize that just as confusion breeds fear, familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps some of us should walk into worship this week with eyes to behold the miracle that is the Christian church. We’re prone to seeing the worst among us. But Christ’s Bride is beautiful. And whatever joy and fellowship we share is truly a spectacle worth celebrating, one that catches the watchful eye of angels.
Some of us should walk into worship this week with eyes to behold the miracle that is the Christian church.
Perhaps we should also walk out those same church doors with eyes open to the pervasive evil all around us. No matter where we live, we’re surrounded by darkness and lostness, by principalities and powers, by wickedness and the works of Satan. If we’re moved by the needs of the nations, we should be similarly sparked by those in our neighborhoods. It’s there where many of us will find ministry opportunities that last for a lifetime.