As I step into the church, bass booms against my chest. Neon lights reflect off the worship leader’s guitar as he sings, “There is no one like our God,” with an Auto-Tuned effect on his voice. I feel slightly uncomfortable. As the song builds, my friend turns to me and says: “Doesn’t this sound amazing? They just spent $300,000 on a new sound system.” I oddly laugh with a hint of anger. I’m now back in an American megachurch, yet I can’t help but think about the third-world churches I visited this year—the ones with one Bible, no electricity and a lot of passion. I think about the impoverished faces I met—the toothless street children in Nepal, the drug addicts in Kenya and the young prostitutes lining the streets of Thailand. I’m torn by the contrast. Even though I want to worship, I only feel bitterness.
Coming back to America after experiencing third-world missions is no easy process. I recently finished the World Race, an 11-month missions trip to 11 countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, and while I’ve loved being home with hot showers and cold air-conditioning, the transition has been rough. It’s so easy for me to judge friends when they drop $100 on a night out, thinking, “That could feed the homeless boy I met in Tanzania for a year,” or to think I’m better than the guy with a Lexus because my Grand Am is barely worth a grand.
Last week, a friend even told me she woke up crying every day when she returned from Africa because she couldn’t stand the wealth around her. While everyone coming off the missions field will struggle to different degrees, none of us should become bitter, America-hating cynics. Here are a few reasons why.
Abundance is not a bad thing
The first day I woke up in my own bed after coming home, I decided to go to the grocery store for some breakfast. I found myself in the cereal aisle reliving the scene from The Hurt Locker, staring at an endless array of General Mills cartoons staring back at me. I’d forgotten America is a land of excess. We can choose from more than 50 types of deodorant, 115 kinds of toothpaste and now 1,000 channels on TV.
This conflict between excess at home and scarcity abroad can be a lot to handle. The temptation will always be to either hate the abundance of America, judging your community for its consumption, or to forget the poverty abroad and go back to the way you lived before your trip. The key is to live within the tension. As Christy Vidrine says in her book Unearth, “There is a balance between the humility of scarcity and the peace within excess.”
James the brother of Jesus writes that every good gift and every perfect gift comes down from above, meaning every good thing we have is from God. Therefore, the first response we should have to the excess around us should be one of thankfulness. God has given us food, water, shopping malls, restaurants and Venti Mocha Frappuccinos even though we don’t deserve them.
Our second response should be wise stewardship. I recently overheard a friend saying she has a closet overflowing with clothes, yet she complains she has nothing to wear. This reminded me of Jesus’ parable of the 10 minas, where a ruler gives 10 minas (large amounts of money) to his servants to steward. Some make wise investments and use the money well, while one servant hides his share in the ground. The master returns and reprimands this servant for doing nothing. In turn, if we have full closets, stocked refrigerators or fat bank accounts, we should look for wise opportunities to give those things to others and encourage our friends and families to do the same.
Maybe the reason God has allowed us to live in abundance is so we can be a blessing to those who don’t. If we live within the tension of American excess and global poverty, we can respond with thankfulness and generosity, thanking God for what we have and giving much of it away to those in need. In this way, abundance is a gift.
God is the same—there and here
When my team did ministry in Iringa, Tanzania, we partnered with a young teacher named Peter who seemed a little overexcited about America. He told us: “Wow, I’m so happy to be with a team from the U.S.A. I love American churches. I love American books. One day I will go to America and learn so much about God!”
I stared at him in disbelief, thinking, Does he really think America has more of God than Africa? I told him most of my friends couldn’t wait to come to Africa to experience more of God’s presence. He didn’t understand.
The truth is, we are all guilty of thinking the grass is greener on the other side. The misconception most of us buy into says that community, miracles and true passion only exist in the third world. On the other hand, much of the third world falsely believes effective ministry only happens with lots of money and high-tech resources. Jesus says something completely different. In Luke 17, he teaches His disciples not to listen to people who say, “Here it is” or, “There it is,” referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, He says, “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” meaning that experiencing God’s presence has nothing to do with where you are and everything to do with how you live with those around you.
I’ve had friends tell me America is different from other countries because of rampant consumerism and selfishness, however, the truth is, every country has its struggles and poses unique problems for those seeking God. In Ukraine, alcoholism runs rampant. In Thailand, the sex industry plagues hundreds of thousands. In Tanzania, theft and crime create serious problems. Every country uniquely needs God’s grace, but the good news is that He faithfully pours it out on those who seek them, no matter the place or time.
New chapters bring new opportunities
Honestly, I do miss the World Race. I miss my community of friends. I miss the adventure of not knowing what next month will bring. I crave those raw experiences with God, yet I have to trust that new seasons in life bring new opportunities for living and loving well. Whether you’ve recently experienced third-world poverty or you simply want a change in your life, the great thing is that none of us have to sink back into the empty routines we used to live in. Here are a few helpful questions to ask yourself:
- If you had all the time, money and resources to make an impact on the world, what would you do?
- Now, with the limited resources and relationships you do have, what impact can you have on your local community? Or, what small steps can you make toward making a global change in the future?
America is not your enemy; it’s another opportunity. You don’t have to wait until your next short-term missions trip to experience God and share His love with others. Take the lessons and experiences you loved from your trip and reapply them to your dorm room, church or neighborhood. The adventure isn’t over.