Mission trips and the Body of Christ

Earlier this month I returned from an eight day mission trip to Washington D.C. after serving in the city with eighteen high school students and three other adults from Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  We prepared meals that were distributed to homeless shelters, packed canned goods in a massive grocery distribution warehouse, visited with people who were living in the local parks, had a conversation with one of our South Dakota senators about U.S. food programs, and saw many monuments.  But why did we go?

                Did we go because it was good for the high schoolers to learn to raise money by the sweat of their own brows with their firewood sale?  Partly.  Did we travel so far from home to get us out of our comfort zones so that we might see the world from a different angle?  Yes, I suppose.  Did we go to learn about Christian service and to learn that our attitudes toward poverty and toward voting matter?  Of course.   But what is the primary purpose for these trips?

                In recent years, service learning and mission trips have become very popular in congregations throughout the United States.  Custer Lutheran Fellowship is one of these congregations, routinely packing our bags to serve people in other places.  Whether we are going to Pine Ridge and to St. Dysmas at the penitentiary in Sioux Falls or making trips to Washington state, Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., we have covered some serious miles.  Some have gone to Nicaraqua, Colombia, and Guatamala to serve, witness, and learn.  But why?

                A single line in our weekly worship bulletin provides a clue.  Each week, we list the names of the staff of CLF.  Pastor Kent and I are named as the pastors, Donna McConnell as the office administrator, Sara Janson as the office assistant and so on.  For years, however, this listing has included seven words that help define who we are as a congregation.  Ministers: All members of Custer Lutheran Fellowship.

                Of course different people have different reasons for traveling to do ministry.  But I think these congregational travels train us to be a ministering community in the same way that gathering for family reunions helps us to be better families or going away to basketball camp helps a basketball team play better together when they get back home.

                These travels are rarely ends in themselves, but instead help to equip us to serve better as the body of Christ when we return home.  In the same way that I am a more connected family member when I visit with my cousin at the intense 4th of July reunion, I learn to minister better when I chop fifty pound of onions standing next to two high school ministers of CLF at the D.C. Central Kitchen. (Yes, we did cry like babies.)  Yet, going to the family reunion can’t replace the routines of sitting down to supper as a family, or cleaning the house, or saying bedtime prayers.

                Now that this particular service trip is done, we return to the life-sustaining routines of Sunday worship, faith, prayer, service, forgiveness, love, witness — of being the Body of Christ where we live.  The Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described congregations as, “Jesus Christ existing as the church community.”  Christ himself exists and is present for the world as we gather to be this wonderful thing called a ministering community.  May our life of faith away from home strengthen our life of faith at home.


Recently I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Pink entitled, Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us.  In the book, Pink tackles the somewhat controversial topic of why the reward and punishment approach to motivation doesn’t really work all that well.   Conventional wisdom says that we work harder when “carrots” are placed before us.  The carrot may be more money, recognition, or a new video game.  A “stick” often accompanies this approach where punishments are given for not working hard enough – the loss of vacation time or loss of the video game.

What Pink argues is that, though the carrots and sticks work sometimes, the most vital motivation comes from inside a person, not from external rewards and punishments.  The joy of doing a task well is its own reward.  Of course he has many examples that make his point, but the basic logic doesn’t need much applifying.  We work hardest at tasks we find interesting,  engaging, and worthwhile.  How else does one explain the thousands of volunteer hours given to building Wikipedia or the intense concentration of a child lost in play?  

Though I’m pretty sure that Mr. Pink didn’t have Christian congregations in mind when he put his thoughts on paper, he does a pretty good job of describing what I think makes congregations like Custer Lutheran Fellowship work.  Congregations with many people deeply engaged in tasks that they like to do, are good at doing, and make a difference being done are congregation that have are humming along well.

As we enter 2012 I’m excited about what is to come with the well-motivated group of Christian disciples called Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  In January the church council will be meeting in a retreat to begin the process of developing a new mission and vision statement for the congregation.  This will be a significant process and will involve the entire congregation as we lay out who we hope to be in the next decade.  I like to think that the work of the last mission and vision statement created nine years ago helped lead to the building of a new sanctuary, the calling of a second pastor, and the engagement of an entire new crop of motivated disciples. 

Thanks to the deep generosity of the congregation’s stewards and from the estimates generated on Consecration Sunday, we are planning on a 16 percent increase in financial giving in 2012.  This opens new opportunities for mission for us as a congregation as we look to the local community and beyond.

Christian leaders have reminded us that “It is a good time to be the church.” I think it is a good time to be the church because God always has work for us to do.  We do this work not because we are going to get rich doing it or because we will be struck by lightening if we don’t, but because Jesus’ work is good work.  Thanks be to God.