When I was young I remember embarking on my first short-term mission trip – to Hawaii. I don’t recall much of what we did while on the island, but I remember when we clustered under the buckling metal patio cover for morning devotions. The team leader opened up his Bible and taught us about the seeds of the gospel we were meant to cast with generosity across the globe; a kind and gentle sort of evangelism.
Years later, while in college, I participated in a Spring Break mission to Ensenada. Did I help build something or feed someone – I can’t remember. The tents caked with dust, the days of discomfort, the paltry meals stick in my memory. The other impression time hasn’t eroded were the twilight gatherings round the fire pit, when we heard sermons on the virtues of mercy and evangelism working hand in hand for the advancing of the Kingdom.
My own experience of short-term mission trips convinced me that people needed me to come and help them fix their broken world. The times of devotion reinforced the message, telling me that Jesus expected me to do my part in saving people. I often walked away from mission trips feeling sorry for the poor, sensing the imperative to evangelize but heavy with guilt because I didn’t do enough of it. My ways of thinking about poverty, mission, and evangelism were never challenged, only confirmed.
But when people come to Burundi I want them to see Scripture afresh. I want team members to witness the words and works of God already afoot in Bubanza, Matara and Bujumbura. I want the stories of Scripture and the red soil to mingle – stretching and challenging us, over-turning our assumptions, offering fresh vision. I want my team to feel God’s active and subversive words as work among us.
Here are some things I consider when it comes to crafting devotions for short-term mission teams:
1. What do I see God doing in our Burundian communities?
One large narrative I see played out in Matara, a community of 28 families we’ve been working with for five years, is Exodus. Our friends used to live like slaves huddled on the corner of someone else’s land, working and living at their mercy. When they describe these cruel landowners they sound like the taskmasters of Egypt. But then God gave a gift that changed everything – new land. This allowed our friends to move out of the brickyards and toward freedom. In this Promised Land they faced challenges – hostile neighbors, fields in need of planting and learning to live together in unity. In this land they experienced God’s abundance for the first time – food security by the second year, livestock, businesses allowing them to earn money, access to medical care and education for their children.
Leading devotions along the Exodus storyline creates opportunities to see that slavery still exists, freedom still happens and God has never stopped giving good land and creating viable communities. Maybe we stop thinking of Egypt and Sinai and the Promised Land as props in a Sunday School class and recognize how current these places are in Burundi – and maybe even in our own home as we think about local oppression, liberation and places of promise in our cities.
2. What is God stirring in me, as the local practitioner on the ground, as I engage in this work?
A couple of years ago I was steeped in the book of Isaiah, reading the words of the prophet and the two-volume commentary by Walter Brueggemann incessantly. I could not get enough of the God who called us from weeping to dancing, transforming landscapes, repairing the streets where people lived and doing a new thing. I began to see the images of Isaiah come to life around me as I walked in and out of our the Batwa communities we partnered with – the prophetic visions were inescapable.
When the women of our community got identity cards and became fully recognized citizens of Burundi for the first time, I thought of how God calls the prisoners to come out – show yourselves, an invitation to re-enter society. When wells came to Bubanza, turning the brown dirt into soil able to hold seeds, I remembered when God opened rivers on the bare heights, fountains in the midst of valleys, making the wilderness into a pool of water and transforming the dry land into springs of water. And when it became apparent we were meant to build a primary school in the middle of this remote and unlikely community, “forget the former things, I am about to do a new thing – do you not perceive it?” echoed in my ears and gave me hope. Isaiah named our community development work.
When the team landed in Burundi that summer, sharing from my own interactions with Isaiah seemed appropriate during our devotions. This is what community development looks like, theologically speaking. This is why we do what we do – and see it as Gospel work, like runners coming across the mountains announcing good news. So each morning we would reflect on these prophetic words, then travel to communities and see the text spring to life before our eyes. God still transforms land; God still rescues prisoners and sets newness in motion!
3. What does this look like?
When the central market of Burundi burned to the ground one Sunday morning, the entire city slumped over in despair. Within mere hours thousands of people fell further into poverty, ejected from the economy. Amid the cries and confusion, we sensed the Spirit push us to open new avenues for our clients to re-enter the economy. (Did I mention we run a community bank committed to partner with the working poor?) Against the odds, we worked with each client to see them recover their business and get a second chance at a vibrant life in the neighborhood. By the end of the year, people weren’t just treading water or catching up – many moved further and saw their revenues increase and even hired more employees.
What did this look like – jubilee! We hear in Deuteronomy and Isaiah – even in the words of Jesus – that jubilee is meant to set people free from perpetual debt, to give them a second chance to enter the economy and start again. Jubilee offers concrete economic relief, frees real captives and allows debt forgiveness to recalibrate the local economy. This is what we witnessed in the wake of the market place fire.
Devotions last summer centered on each of the jubilee passages in the Old and New Testaments. We saw jubilee with our own eyes – we met people who got a second chance, people no longer enslaved to debts and witnessed a community re-imagined by the gestures of jubilee. It was no longer some antiquated economic policy in the Hebrew Bible – we knew it was real, and jubilee was for today!
This is my encouragement to fellow practitioners hosting teams this summer – pick a narrative that parallels your community work. Allow these stories to unfold slowly over days, mediate on the Scriptures and look for connections to your place, your people, your project.
Allow the biblical text to illumine your landscape; allow your landscape to illumine the biblical text. What often emerges, in my experience, are catalytic moments where we see deeply and are transformed by both text and terrain.
What stories in Scripture have come to life for you in the context of a short-term mission trip?
How do you shape devotions for your team members – share some best practices with us!
Do you think devotions on a short-term mission team must mention evangelism and salvation? Tell us why.
I’m working on a series of posts on How To Host A Short-Term Mission Trip. The first one, focusing on logistics, can be found HERE. Next week I’ll share about story-telling and preparing your team to return home. But now I’m boarding a flight taking me to my Burundian summer where I will be reunited with my husband, sit on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, eat my share of sun-sweetned pineapple and… host a short-term mission trip!
Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner & chief storyteller in Burundi