Let me start by saying I am deeply humbled by my over 3 weeks out of the USA in 2013 (with the potential of at least one more trip possible). Short-term missions trips teach me as much as they serve to teach the pastors, elders, deacons, and lay leaders in the local churches abroad. Here are a few things I learned while overseas:
1) The leaders (also students of mine since I taught pastors and church leaders) who invested in these trainings are serious. Their commitment level puts almost all of us, Americans, to shame. They are sober-minded and hold the church in high-esteem. It was beautiful to see and refreshing to teach so many willing students who longed to hear the Word of God NOT the ideas of mankind (Col. 2:8) and many of them have thriving ministries due to God’s faithfulness and their humility.
2) When I talked about the 12 Step concepts of addiction as a disease to the Russians, they replied: “That sounds like heresy” and is certainly “not biblical.” I was taken aback at their quick discernment. What these men and women had was an understanding of the TRUTH of the Bible first and everything else must be evaluated against the truth. I promise you (and I know some of you do not believe me but I am not lying) that I presented these ideas neutrally without emotion and without bias as best I could because I had an ulterior motive: I wanted to see what they would say and if they had been exposed to these ideas – and to what degree. So I didn’t want to lead them in any direction. Their response was that they had not had a lot of exposure to the disease concept and 12 Steps but when informed, they quickly refuted its so-called “biblical roots” as they claim (though it came from a religious group, it did not originate from the Bible but from man’s ideas – most agree the steps emphasize a works-based righteousness, encourage idolatry, and do not emphasize the supremacy of Christ).
3) People in other countries are poor compared to Americans yet more content and often more joyful. They have less time and less comforts yet they seem more grounded and grateful when you have conversations with them. They are not “spoiled” or consumed with self which is refreshing, too. The believers I met were so down to earth, humble, and willing to serve without grumbling. Thankful hearts were exhibited to me even when they did not realize I was listening for gratitude. It was not fake.
4) They love the Word and want to OBEY it. I think Christians in the Southeast say they love the Word but many really don’t want to obey it, at least that’s been my experience. “Yes, the Word is true and I believe it but I’m not going to do that _____ – it’s too hard and the Bible couldn’t mean that” is what I often hear from counselees and believers in churches in the Southeast. It’s a “I believe but don’t make me do anything about it” brand of Christianity that falls short of radical commitment to Christ.
5) Church services are very similar in the USA and in other countries. Singing, testimonies, prayer, and sermons are the standard. The prayer time is different in Russia and Romania in that they allow congregants to pray out loud and everyone listens without the help of a microphone. It was precious to hear women and men praying from all over the building. Also, it was not uncommon to hear 2 or 3 sermons in each service! That was a nice feature because it allowed different men to preach so you were not hearing simply from one man, one voice. A friend of mine often says, “How much can one man be an expert in anything,” and his point is that it is nice to hear from different members of the body along with different pastors teaching.
What I learned most of all is that I have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of spiritual growth to be doing. Jesus is so patient with me and I must be patient with others.
-Mark (grateful to Jesus for His enduring love and mercy for me and for showing me how devoted Christ followers live overseas)