Pictures with sunsets on sandy beaches, exotic food, and famous monuments typically fill my summer social media feed. Surprisingly, many come from people serving in short-term missions (STM). It sounds great, right? A vacation to an exotic place that other people help pay for. In college, my reason for joining a Japan STM was, “I don’t want to be a missionary, but I want to visit Japan. Why not serve God while I do it?”
But, surprise. I now am a full-time missionary in Japan. God used that trip to begin changing my heart and desires towards missions, so my STM became far more than just an interesting trip. What makes STMs a good testing ground for missions?
My first two overseas STMs were designed to expose college and seminary students to a variety of Japanese ministries and to disciple us. We helped in church services, English classes, children’s programs, nursing home ministries, tract distribution, and a school. No matter our skill set and experience, we could put it to use for God’s glory.
During the months of Japan STM preparation, we researched and discussed various aspects of Japanese culture and customs. Yes, we visited famous Japanese tourist spots, but we saw them through the lenses of Japanese cultural studies and the gospel. Our hearts broke at nearby people praying to statues. We grieved at seeing the shrines dedicated for mothers who had miscarriages or abortions. The cultural focus helped us see Japan on a deeper level.
The trip leaders also invested in us. They talked, prayed, and encouraged us to grow in our understanding of God and missions. After the trips, I stayed connected with the leaders and the missionaries we helped. One missionary even invited my wife and me to return for a yearlong STM, which God used to call us to Japan full-time. My wife’s experience with BMM’s Arriba program, a year-long STM in Peru, contained a similar discipleship and cultural emphasis.
Personal motives and the condition of your heart will shape your response to an STM. If you seek to serve God at home, you will seek to serve God on an STM. If you seek God’s will at home, you will seek God’s will while on an STM. If your motive is “to get away from it all,” you will seek that on an STM. Certainly God can use an STM to change and mold you despite your motives, but STMs are a fertile testing ground only for those with a heart to seek God’s leading.
Are STM trips a valid testing ground for missions? If you find an STM designed for ministry opportunities and discipleship, and your desires are to follow and serve God, the trip will provide fertile testing grounds for missions. In my case, the STMs helped me form relationships in Japan and overcome a fear of flying. It showed me that, by the grace of God, I could follow Him to the ends of the earth.
Oh, and fun food and beautiful pictures of God’s creation will still end up on social media, hopefully, along with how God is working in your heart—that’s the real story behind any mission trip.
Missionary to Japan
Andrew Gonnerman and his wife, Janae, each served short-term before joining BMM in 2014 to serve full-time in Japan.