A plane ticket never made a missionary.
I’ve heard this quip a number of times in a number of forms from a number of teachers. Indeed, I’ve even used it myself to aid a preaching point.
And the point, of course, is that purchasing airfare to Jamaica (or taking a road trip to Florida) won’t magically transform someone into a missionary. The ensuing one-liner often goes: “If you’re not sharing the gospel over here, you won’t all of the sudden start sharing it over there.”
To be sure, there’s much merit to this idea, which is why so many have verbalized it. It’s a notice to churches and sending organizations to both temper expectations and speak realistically about what’s taking place on many short-term trips. The adage is also a helpful reminder that mission is ever-present—something Christians should be engaged in everywhere their beautiful feet take them. Gospel sharing shouldn’t be relegated, merely, to something you can circle on a calendar.
Very well and good. Having affirmed those truths, however, I offer two rejoinders.
Jumpstarting a Lifestyle
First, there are plenty of times when a short-term trip does make a missionary. Have you thought about that? Get beyond the lovely lilt of our missionary-plane-ticket quote and consider that God can and does use short-term trips to embolden the faith of the fearful. To give tangible models of ministry to the inexperienced. To jumpstart a lifestyle of evangelism in his church.
Many of you may have seen or experienced this work firsthand. I know I have. I had people teach me how to share the gospel, but it was a missions project in California the summer after my freshman year of college that cemented in me a passion for evangelism. Likewise, I knew the Bible talked about God’s heart for the nations, but it wasn’t until I spent a couple months overseas that I caught a vision for multi-ethnic ministry.
This is hopefully taking place in your church as well. Timid high school students step out in faith to engage someone on a beach only to conclude, “Hey, that was easy! There’s no reason I can’t do that in the halls of my high school.” Collegians struggling with the familiarity of relationships at home or on campus in America suddenly gain a new passion after a summer in Africa. After a week of making new friends and having gospel conversations they see it’s no more difficult and no less vital to walk in the same manner back home.
What “makes a missionary” is a heart issue. Only when Jesus is beautiful and glorious to us will our affections be stirred in such a way that we must talk about him. This is the type of work God is up to as his children trust him by traveling to unfamiliar places.
So, yes, people often do gain a missionary perspective on the field and not prior to it.
Second, where do we get off with such pessimism and discouragement? Certainly the heart behind it can be positive: we want to stir up the saints toward a lifestyle of gospel advancement at home before they attempt it abroad. But why not focus on promoting both?
I realize I’m wading into the turbulent waters of considering the effectiveness and efficiency of short-term missions. That’s another discussion for another day, and I’d never advocate an uncritical approach; there is much wrongheadedness and poor stewardship on the mission field that must be corrected.
What I’m encouraging is, well, encouragement. Don’t be the skeptic who sneers, “David, if you didn’t fight with us against Moab and Ammon, you won’t be able to magically”—only to have your sentence cut short by the thud of a Philistine giant’s body. Instead, take every chance you get to encourage the faith of those who want to follow Jesus and tell others about him.
If you have the opportunity to visit with short-termers this summer (sending, receiving, debriefing, supporting), please build them up. Plant a vision in their hearts and minds for how they can fan the flames for gospel proclamation wherever they’re from in this season of life. Challenge them to think about specific persons for whom they’ll commit to pray. Dialogue about specific alterations to perspective or lifestyle that will aid in ministry. Discuss how missions has deepened their grasp of the faithfulness of God and the saving work of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, and how all of that can equip them for the weeks and months ahead.
While I understand the point being made, my ultimate response when I hear someone say, “A plane ticket never made a missionary,” is simply: “Except all the times that it does.”
Let us praise God that it does, and let us pray that it would happen more and more.