Team Ireland Expansion Pack, Decompression Edition

So, the plane–carrying the 10 teens & 4 adults who went on our church’s mission trip to Ireland–landed at DFW on July 26…a little before 5PM. We were welcomed back by a lot of folks from Crossroads. Parents happy to see their kids for the first time in two weeks; friends happy to see their friends they’d only connected with via social media; boyfriends happy to see their girlfriends & girlfriends happy to see their boyfriends.

I was happy about all this on two levels because I was greeted by my family members, but also greeted by all the above folks: Parents, students, friends & boyfriends/girlfriends of students, all happy. One of the perks of my job.

A couple of thoughts about travel before I get to the “meat” of my thoughts about the trip: First, It’s pretty cool to serve a group of students who are airport savvy. My guess is that some who work with youth would have to give tremendous oversight and management to their students when in airports…but I live in an area where the kids have traveled by air so frequently that they know how to find gates, keep up with their boarding passes (the leader of a group of college kids on the mission we were on actually kept the passports for everyone in his group…how are they supposed to learn?), know the drill for boarding, etc. Makes my job a lot less stressful knowing they are going to be able to grab a snack without having to keep tabs on ’em.

Second, my students know that my view of missions is a lot like my view of Christmas decor: When it’s over, MAN, IT’S OVER. When Christmas is over, I want the decorations back in the attic. When the “mission” is over, the travel is a necessary evil to get back to the folks I love. I’m not interested in much else. The teens know this and choose to serve me by being where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there with the stuff they’re supposed to have with them. Another one of the perks of having been at a place as long as I have: The students know what sets me off and avoid doing those things. The legends have been passed down from kid to kid.

One last thing about travel: The folks at Chicago O’Hare have botched customs & immigration for so long that now they’ve been cut out of the deal (I’ve been there three times and it sucked royally each and every time). You clear customs and security in Dublin. The actually welcome you back to the U.S. while you’re in Europe…which seemed strange. They still don’t take dollars on the other side, though. Nice to be on the 7 hour flight back without having to worry about the possibility of mismanagement and ineptitude keeping you from making your connection, that’s for sure.

Now, after a week of “staycation” recovering from 2 mission trips and preparing for student ministry’s fall planning (which we’re woefully behind on while preparing for two mission trips) what did I glean from the trip to Ireland?

First, there aren’t any shortcuts to understanding the context of the people you’re ministering to. I have to admit that I wasn’t well-versed in the history of the island I was going to minister to and was going to depend on the training sessions to get me up to speed.

Sure, they tried to get us up to speed with a few jokes about the weather, and some catch phrases that are cute but mostly only used by those of us who attended the training, and some general cultural stuff. But there were some serious realities of the culture that I learned so much about during my two week stay.

Like the politics of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Simply because there isn’t an army or immigration booths when you cross they really are two wildly different political systems of belief.

Which hinged largely on the Protestant/Catholic divide. Words can’t express how a battle in 1680 affects so much of their worlds even (especially?) today. It even drips into the sports teams they follow…yes, your religion will dictate who you choose to support in athletics.

And the “culture of fighting.” It doesn’t take long to realize that when you mix…

…politics
…religion
…sports
…and often, alcohol, well it’s no surprise that passions run VERY deep. And I’m not sure they can teach you that in ANY training session.

Main lesson learned: You have to take the time to get to know people, their “story,” to engage them in life. PROGRAMS BASED ON ATTRACTION MODELS (get them to come to our event) ARE NO LONGER EFFECTIVE FOR MEANINGFUL EVANGELISM.

Second, “professional” ministers are not as effective as the folks who just walk with Christ and express His love. In Northern Ireland, most of the professional clergy were part of a denomination or church that was in decline and/or dying. The folks getting the ministry done were people who were volunteers or part-timers who already lived in the community and worked among the folks there. They had a hearing that the “pros” don’t and won’t…because the church and Christian culture (especially “fundamental evangelicalism”) has lost any type of platform for discussion–and the reasons for that are myriad.

But, at the end of the day, the relationships formed the context to share your view of Christ. The programs we ran didn’t really do much.

For example, there were drop-ins at the youth center–which were sparsely attended and a lot of energy & resources were put forth to get the word out about times and events and such. But even the free concert didn’t draw as well as hoped. The “success” of all of that was ultimately measured in how those events fostered a relationship. The kid who was trouble hung out with a staffer for a long time. Or the community fun-day was well-attended and helped the volunteers meet and trust some parents. Stuff like that.

On the other hand, the late-night pub ministry (“Safe Haven”) where the team walked the area where a lot of bars existed, carrying hot tea for cold folks waiting in taxi lines, or helping bouncers with crowd control, or giving flip-flops to girls wearing high heels who had too much to drink walking to the fast-food place gave Youth for Christ a brilliant platform with the community. The drunks were aware and appreciative of the folks in purple hoodies showing love & compassion as were the bouncers and pub owners who thanked us on our walkabouts. The relationships formed set the stage for future conversations.

Main lesson learned: Every area of your life is your mission field. And it doesn’t look like “invite your friends to our ‘trunk or treat Halloween alternative’ or ‘come to the event at our church’ anymore. Sometimes it really is as simple as seeing a need and meeting that need with love and compassion, and most of the time that will be with people who don’t think and act like us.

Third, the institutional Church is in decline. The sooner we admit our methods aren’t working, the sooner we can change.

Granted, their situation is different with all the cathedrals and nearly four times more history playing into the equation there, but there is certainly a mindset that the Church just…IS. Each town seemed to have a church for every denomination that used that very identity to draw folks. In other words, folks should come to us because we are who we are. Hence, they’re all in decline.

The ministries that were growing were not married to any methodology or system. They didn’t view change as an enemy, but embraced change. They allowed ministries to grow out of need…almost organically. Those ministries used “grass-roots” methods and were almost successful BECAUSE they weren’t hinging on a credibility that doesn’t really exist anyway.

Sometimes, we need to value the bohemians and revolutionaries and barbarians moreso than those that clean up real nice and look like us and think like us and conform to our mores. We can learn from the outside-the-box thinkers we bump shoulders with…and should seek them out, man.

Main lesson learned: Have an open mind about the forms of ministry, and don’t assume that the institutional church is “doing it the right way.” Think about it. The churches in Africa and China are growing. Churches in the West are seemingly in decline. There’s a reason for that.

Fourth, spiritual formation is a “team” effort.

In many ways, our team showing up was an encouragement to the Christians we came in contact with in Ireland. See, one thing I picked up pretty quickly was that Project 32 was the vision of a few key people. It’s only two years old, really (in the current form). And those key people had a trust and knowledge of one another and were in alignment on ministry vision and such.

Then here come the young kids from Texas, and I could sense the “wait-and-see” raised eyebrows of those Project 32 leaders about our team. On paper, we were decidedly much more young than the rest of the internationals coming to serve…and they didn’t know me or my church or my ministry philosophy.

They didn’t know what I know: That years of serving in various capacities had prepared our team members for a ministry just like this one…building relationships and sharing Christ within that context.

So, after a few days on the field, I asked the folks traveling to each city (and they’d seen ALL the teams that had CBC folks on them by this time) how our kids were doing. “The Texans have made their mark, that’s for sure. They hit the ground and were already ready for this. They didn’t really need the training sessions. They ‘got it.'” Music to my ears, man.

Much of our ministry was simply encouraging other believers…
…or team leaders…
…or visionaries for Project 32…

…but those are highly valuable, too.

Granted, we’d done our part on our end. I mean, Christian growth isn’t rocket science. You need times of contemplation & thinking to figure out the universe and your place in it. You need your “Paul” & you need your “Timothy.” You need your “tribe.” You need to use/develop your gifts and talents.

So, when we showed up, our “kids” had been prepared simply because we didn’t try to get fancy…we just tried to use this as an extension of what we were already doing. And the kids we bring back are different (having had their horizons broadened) in the best of ways.

What was also really cool was having many of the Northern Ireland folks we worked with wanting to come to Texas next summer to do mission work alongside our teens in our environment. You bet we’re working on that to make it a reality.

Main lesson learned: Discipleship is a team effort, whether that team is across an ocean or across the hallway in the building. Sometimes you do the discipling, others you’re being discipled, but in the end, we all have a role to play. We’d best be playing our role to the full.

So, it was a great trip.

65 degree high temperatures (if you’re currently experiencing the record heat of North Texas, well, you get how that alone would make the trip great).
Beautiful views of the Northern Ireland coast where you can see Scotland on a clear day.
Using our gifts and talents in all sorts of environments from church VBS events to Safe Haven and everything in-between.
The connection with other believers in their context as well as creating a curiosity in them to the degree they want to connect with us in our context.

And the lessons learned are best summed up in a quote from a Chinese poem I read in a book about Celtic evangelism after I got back (as did our team to help them process everything from our trip):

Go to the people.
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.

And, yes…I’d really like to go back to Northern Ireland.

ASAP.