Church planting is tough, and short-term mission teams can be a lifeline of support and encouragement to church planters.
But they can also be a distraction and headache for church planters if the mission team ignores the needs of the planters. Because of this, some church planters don’t work with mission teams. Others press through the week of the mission trip hoping it will all be over soon. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
In 2012, my family moved to Miami, Florida, to plant Christ Centered Church. Over the next four years, we worked with more than 2,000 short-term mission volunteers. More than 750 of those came during one eight-week period, and 180 mission trip volunteers were in Miami in the same week!
From that experience — and others — I learned 10 things church planters wish they could tell mission teams.
1. We are not only church planters — we are also pastors.
Hosting mission teams takes the same level of work and planning for the planter and pastor as is required by the person leading the trip. For many planters, their summers are filled with week after week of hosting mission teams, and that can take away from the time they need to lead and pastor their young church.
Mission teams can help church planters and pastors by understanding that they cannot be with them for every part of the trip. There will be entire blocks of time when the planter will be leading, discipling, caring for, teaching and preparing to teach his people. The planter is not just a planter — he’s a pastor.
2. We need you to help with our strategy, which may be different than what you had in mind.
Many well-meaning teams offered to help Christ Centered Church in ways that didn’t fit our strategy.
And we were also blessed with dozens of teams who were willing to do whatever we asked.
At one point, a team of mostly senior adults spread out all over my house and called hundreds of people who had filled out interest cards. On another occasion, a team hand delivered thank you bags to our volunteers. Others passed out water, painted hallways at a local school, pulled weeds, trimmed trees and did anything we asked them to do.
Pastor, when hosting a team, ask yourself, “If this team were staff at my church for one week, what would I ask them to do?”
3. What worked on your last mission trip may not work in our city.
While we want to honor you, the work you’ve done in other places and your experience and expertise in ministry and missions, we would humbly ask this: honor the wisdom and experience of the planter, too. We’ve studied our city and prayed diligently about how to reach it. We need you to trust us and be willing to adapt to our style and strategy even if it doesn’t make sense and even if it’s not what you did on the last mission trip.
4. Invites are often more important than evangelism.
When we have extra help like your mission team, we have to make a decision about priorities — do we invest most of our time in direct evangelism or do we invest most of our time inviting people to small groups and weekend services?
If we spend most of our time doing direct evangelism, we will see some results. Some will profess faith in Jesus, and believe me, we will try to follow up. But the best chance we have of seeing someone come to Christ and grow in their faith is to plug them in to a healthy church where they will hear the gospel often.
In many cases, it takes people a year or more to come to faith in Jesus. Furthermore, if our church survives those early years, it will be a gospel witness for decades to come. If it does not survive, then untold thousands will miss the opportunity to hear a gospel witness. One of the keys to survival is inviting thousands and thousands of people to attend a group or weekend service. We need your help to do that.
5. We need you to help us test out ministries.
For one of our first mission teams, we came up with the idea to do cardboard testimonies (where on one side of the cardboard you write what characterized you before Christ and on the other side who are you are in Christ) in the medians of busy intersections.
One of the guys on the mission team used to be an alcoholic, so his sign read, “Drunk” on one side and “Sober in Christ” on the other. He was stationed next to a guy who wasn’t very creative and simply wrote, “Lost” on one side and “Saved” on the other. As these two guys stood in the middle of a busy intersection in Miami, they got distracted and forgot to turn their signs over. Several cars stopped to talk to them, and some of them even offered them money, food and water. They thought it was strange until it hit them—they were just two strange looking guys holding signs in a median in Miami that read “Lost” and “Drunk.”
Needless to say, we didn’t try cardboard testimonies again! But we did use mission teams to try outreach strategies we weren’t sure about. This allowed us to find out what worked well and what didn’t work well before asking our church members to try those same outreach strategies.
If a mission team fails at a project, it’s a memorable story. If a church-wide project fails, it could damage the long-term evangelism efforts of the church.
6. Mission projects cost more than you realize.
Well-meaning mission teams often assured me they would pay for everything, but on many occasions, the team would budget too little for supplies or bring too few supplies.
One team was planning to pass out water for two hours a day for five days. All of the water they brought was gone in the first hour on the first day. We supplemented what we could, but it got expensive quickly. In the case of a church plant, an over-budget mission trip doesn’t mean a hard-to-explain budget report—it means the church might not survive.
I strongly encourage mission teams to budget $10-15 per person, per day for supplies. If you don’t need that much, you can always set the rest aside for next year’s trip or donate the remainder to the church plant.
7. We often host mission teams in hopes of raising financial support.
Church plants need financial support, and much of that comes from supporting churches. One of the reasons church plants invest time and energy into hosting mission teams is that they hope those mission partnerships will turn into financial partnerships.
I learned to ask mission trip leaders before their trip if we could have a conversation about financial support. Often, they would come to Miami ready to tell me what a financial partnership might look like.
Here’s how you can help — if your church supports church planters or if you think it’s a possibility in the future — start the conversation. If you don’t think ongoing support is an option, consider asking your church to take up a “love offering” for the church plant before or after your trip.
8. It blesses us when you serve our families.
One of the biggest lies the enemy tells church planters is that they are all alone. On so many occasions, mission teams were the visible and tangible evidence to the contrary.
Some mission teams just knew how to overwhelm us with the goodness of God. Here are a few tangible ways some mission teams served our families:
- Mowed our grass
- Made repairs around our house
- Provided date nights for us our families and other staff couples
- Purchased gift cards
- Repaired and repainted our termite-damaged front door
- Secretly compiled a list of needed projects around our house and sent a follow-up team a few weeks later just to make those repairs
The best testimony I can give to the impact of mission teams on our family is that our children looked forward to mission teams more than they looked forward to Christmas, and all three of our oldest children went through a stage where they sobbed uncontrollably when mission teams had to head home.
9. Politics and mission trips to Send Cities don’t mix well.
Many churches in the cultural South are made up of people who often have similar political opinions. Send Cities are a little different.
It bears remembering there are people who can hear the gospel, respond to the gospel and be saved and grow in the gospel all while holding different political views than most of the members of a mission team from the cultural South.
Church planters give all we have and all we are to see those who are spiritual dead raised to new life, and politics can really get in the way of that. When you go on a mission trip to a Send City, leave the politics and political conversation at home. One unwise statement about politics can do insurmountable damage to a church plant.
10. You can be a vital part of our strategy.
Several months before Christ Centered Church launched, our leadership team was dreaming about all we hoped God would do through the church. We realized the dreams we had for reaching the city would take thousands of people to accomplish, and we prayed the Lord would send the people we needed.
Over the next few years, the Lord blessed us with wonderful short-term mission volunteers. They helped us:
- develop a reputation for serving our community that resulted in awards from the city council, the local school and the Miami Dade Board of Education,
- invite almost 200,000 people to weekend services,
- recruit 25 interns, and
- build financial partnerships with churches that sustained us in the first few years.
You can make an impact in the life of a church plant and its pastor, and the church planting community owes a debt of gratitude to all the churches, mission pastors, youth pastors and volunteers who are willing to invest in them.
As you reengage in short-term missions on the other side of the pandemic, I pray these thoughts will serve you well.
Watch this episode of We are Send Network to learn more about how to work well with mission teams.
Published April 21, 2021