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Smart Phones & Mission Trips

  Most Christian mission trips have Jesus’ example as a point of reference. Jesus took very little with him. When he sent out his disciples on a mission trip (Matt. 10), he told them to take nothing, raise the dead, heal the sick, and expect a lot of blowback from family and society. &nb…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Most Christian mission trips have Jesus’ example as a point of reference. Jesus took very little with him. When he sent out his disciples on a mission trip (Matt. 10), he told them to take nothing, raise the dead, heal the sick, and expect a lot of blowback from family and society.
We are not quite ready for that. We take backpacks and technology. Instead of leaving everything, we tether to our comfort zones in a hundred different ways. And if anyone suggests that we voluntarily restrict our freedom, we feel controlled.
What would Jesus say about smart phones on mission trips? What do you suppose he intended when he said “don’t take money or shoes?” It stands to reason that he had a spiritual reason in mind. What he wanted them to see is that when you are on God’s mission, you can trust him to provide for you. 
He wanted them to practice dependence on God as opposed to themselves.
Smart phones have the potential to interrupt this dependence, even for those who are not addicted to them. Consider just a few:
  • They connect you to the very people you may need to be apart from as you allow God to define your identity.
  • They can distract you when you want to stay focused.
  • They are a portable comfort zone for those struggling.
  • They can keep you from staying present.
  • They connect you to amusement, a word that literally means “no thinking” (a-muse).
  • They redefine the way you interact with your friends – virtually and superficially as opposed to with depth.
  • They teach you addictive behavior.
Yes, smart phones are a useful Swiss army knife of tools. But how many of us have achieved balance in breaking its addictive powers? We don’t go on mission trips as some kind of spiritual tour. We do so to follow Jesus’ example and to build his kingdom.
Just as Jesus gave us the tool of the mission trip, so smart phones can be a wonderful tool if we have mastered them in advance and can practice self-governance on the mission trip. But if we can’t get there on our own, doesn’t it stand to reason that those organizing a given mission trip need to help?
Here’s what I propose. If you are going on a mission trip, describe what your strategy for staying present will be. Then report back to us if it worked and what we can learn from it. 

Comments (19)

  • Seth,

    For someone who uses smartphones, computers and works with a treadmill desk you certainly seem to treat them as though they are evil. You have a nice house and a great retirement plan where’s the abandonment in that ?

    Perhaps the problem is in leadership and not the smartphone. The race doesn’t have much leadership from AIM and those who are live under a different set of rules because they’ve already been on the race. How much modeling is done of this abandonment? I remember my leaders on the race would take days off to goto the Internet and do work or Skype aim leaders and talk with their families. If leaders don’t model it’s no wonder you have problems.

    Maybe you’re asking people to live a way different than you are. It’s clearly not sustainable since you don’t live it nor do your leaders. So perhaps the change you need is to stop asking people to abandon things and teach them, through modeling, Good stewardship.

    It also seems like want you have a conflict of interests. You push blogging as massive way of advertising you trips and organization. Then want ban smartphones. This seems Hypocritical. Either you want to abandon the connection or share the daily stories. But you can’t really have both.

    The other question I would ask is how important is abandonment? You seem to think based on Jesus sending out his disciples that it’s the only way to do things. I would remind you Paul the greatest missionary of them never went on these little journeys. Infact tons of great Christians in my life have never done an abandonment journey. CS Lewis thought going to park the was an adventure. Francis chan lives in the ultra connected world and seems to have turned out alright.

    As a former racer I would say there are many things I don’t agree with on this whole series. And in the culture at adventures in missions. It has a dangerous focus on acts, doing as your told by God and growth. None of which Jesus actually preached on.

    You exert a high level of influence on young impressionable people and yet most leave with little interest in your ways or teachings. Perhaps its time to listen to the hard feedback that’s been discard for years at adventures in missions.

    I know this, I never have recommended the race. Don’t get me wrong I learned things but I wouldn’t call it a good experience.

  • Mike,

    Thanks for the courage to speak out and take a stand. I would love to engage with you further if you’d like to email me. Because of the personal and specific nature of your critique, I am going to take the time to be specific in my response. I hope it will come across as I intend – fair-minded.

    First, let me say, I’m far from perfect, so if part of the objective of your comment is to point that out, then I will join you in the critique. I have the accountability of a board and a leader team and dialogue with interested parties, even to anonymous people asking questions on this blog. I try to live openly so that people can see that doing so is safer in that it actually makes you a candidate for grace.

    Insofar as you didn’t have a good experience on the race, I’m sorry. I really am. We ask racers to evaluate their experience on a 6 point scale and the average score is 5.5. The vast majority have a fantastic experience and many say it’s life-changing. We care a lot about improving and take critiques to heart. We have a state-of-the-art feedback system that gives us actionable improvement data across hundreds of incidents monthly. We currently have a standard of 6 leaders (coaches, a squad mentor, a mobilization person, and a squad mentor) plus an average of 8 team leaders associated with each squad. And we seek to hold leaders to account.

    That said, we’ve made our share of mistakes along the way. Once we did such a poor job of leadership that I personally wrote every member of the squad apologizing. I take it personally when we fail to steward those in our care. So, let me encourage you to share more about yours so that we can learn from it.

    Yes, we don’t hold squad leaders to the same standard as racers. They have already been on the race and have largely worked through the identity issues and learned to self-govern. They have different responsibilities than racers do and different growth issues. That said, perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining all this to racers as regards the technology issue.

    And it’s true that I personally am very connected. I’m typing on my computer now! Technology is a productivity tool. Sometimes that connectivity has gotten in the way of my intimacy with God – that’s the real issue I try to track. And it’s what I’ve got accountability for. In the past year, as we’ve gotten better leadership, I am easing back on my connectivity and I anticipate doing so even more as our leadership continues to grow and I don’t have to fill as many gaps.

    As to the importance of abandonment – you’re right abandonment is not the real issue. Dependence on God is. Intimacy is. Consecration is. But so much gets in the way of that. It wasn’t just in Luke 9 or Luke 10 that Jesus asked his disciples to leave stuff behind. He modeled that and he asked his disciples to leave family and friends behind. We have so much to get out of the way in our modern day if we are to get to intimacy with the Lord!

    The idea that Paul didn’t practice abandonment is incorrect. He left everything and did so multiple times. He traveled to Arabia before starting his ministry and went on three recorded mission trips after being sent out by his home church in Antioch. He left everything behind. The same could be said for Francis Chan – he is a shining example of abandonment, having left church, status, salary, and going on a journey. That said, it’s true, we don’t have to leave a place to feel God cleaning out the brokenness in our life.

    Abandonment is not what we emphasize with this smart phone issue – staying present and practicing self-governance is what we emphasize.

    As to smartphones – we have not banned them, nor will we. We are interested in promoting self-governance. Rules tend to absolve people of the need for self-governance. My interest was in promoting a conversation about how we practice self-governance on the blog. It’s been a good conversation so far. Thank you for your part in it.

  • Mike,
    At age 65, my perspective is a bit different than yours.
    I first met Seth Barnes when AIM was just beginning over 20 years ago. Seth drove a beat up old Audi with a bumper falling off because money was very tight. He lived off of the giving of others that would support his vision — Totally faith based. He had decided to ABANDON the American corporate MBA track to Material success, something his abilities would have rewarded with great worldly rewards, and decided to start AIM instead. He was following a vision God placed on his heart.
    He had no salary, no income stream, no retirement, no support system other than God. It was a shoestring operation drastically underfunded. What you see now is 20 years later and the results God blessing his faith based following of his vision. You have seen only the end result after considerable sacrifice, faith based risk taking, and Gods honoring that.

    The idea that AIM workers should be disconnected to set an example for racers reflects your total lack of understanding of the responsibility associated with leadership. If you ever become a father, you will gain some understanding of the difference. AIM assumes considerable responsibility for the racers / missionaries in the field, and to disconnect from all available information in that role would be the utmost in irresponsibility. Their assumption of responsibility plus stepping into a new level of faith in action should allow racers and missionaries the freedom to abandon self control and experience being used by God.

    Because of Seth and AIM, at age 45 I encountered God in a way never possible in my big, 7,000 member church. Over the years, I encouraged over 200 men to join me in that experience with most changed forever because of it.

    Saul abandoned being a Jews Jew and followed Christ as Paul.
    Abraham abandoned his old life and followed God obediently to a foreign country.
    Christ abandoned his seat next to his father in Heven and journed to this world to serve and save any that would believe, including you and I.
    Thank God he did!

  • Well-said.

    I was confused by Mike’s comment that Jesus didn’t preach about doing as you’re told by God and growth. Of course, it is clear that Jesus is concerned about the heart and not merely outward acts that don’t reflect the interior reality. But that being said, it is also clear that all of Jesus’ life was about obedience to God, and we are also told that Jesus himself had to grow in wisdom and stature.

    So, if the focus is merely on ‘acts’ then, no, Jesus didn’t focus on that. But don’t let His focus on one’s heart obscure the reality that our acts often are an outgrowth of our beliefs. There is no shame in encouraging God-honoring acts, particularly if it is done in a culture that promotes intimacy with God and a genuine heart.

    Also, I don’t see why it would be seen as hyprocritical to push blogging but at the same time encourage people to disconnect from their smartphones more often. You haven’t advocated for no connection at all, but a healthy monitoring and awareness of smartphone real relationship costs. Getting on a computer every so often to make a blog post doesn’t conflict with one’s desire to see better self-governance with cell phones.

    I do appreciate Mike stepping out to voice his concerns, and then for the dialogue. Voices of discontent are too often silenced in the world, so it’s a sign of health when people feel free to share their concerns, and have them handled with love and grace.

  • Seth,

    Your 8 team leaders are racers. You have a alumni who are far out number and the focus on the 8 racers you’ve appointed from within. In 11 months coaches have 15 days on average of face to face model time. Jesus lived ever day with his disciples.

    You teach an idea of santification through growth. As if the work of becoming sanctified is ours. As if abandoning your cell phone makes you more mature, hearing Gods voice is the next step and then spiritual gifts makes tops it all off. A charismatic culture obsessed with growth and gifts. The steps to maturity. You influence people to your ways the same as secular world. Take key “influencers” offer them leadership to buy into your beliefs and thus control the spiritual direction of the squad. It goes wrong so often because true leadership isn’t meant as a reward for following the culture aim wants in order to control it. True leadership empowers instead of controlling them it took an overwhelming response of people to stop you from banning smartphones.

    Your desires to systematize discipleship is noble but unrealistic. The power of the race is when teams love each other through shared experiences.

    Paul does live a life of abandonment as result of his call to missions not a desire to become more mature or to be discipled.

  • Mike,

    It’s fairly clear to me that your issue isn’t with the issue taken with smart phones, but obviously with some issues with AIM Leadership and the race in general. Which, I can say, I share a history of having as well. It’s unfortunate that your race experience wasn’t “good” in your eyes. You’re certainly not the first, and probably won’t be the last.

    I have some thoughts, and I support the direction Adventures is taking the race, and I deeply support Seth, but that’s not the issue here.

    Rather, it’s important to note that you, a brother has some problems and qualms that need to be hashed out. But I want to help you do that in a more worked out way that can bring some actual fruit.

    So I have some questions for you… if you’ll have them. And these might be better answered privately ([email protected] OR [email protected]).

    1. When did you go on the World Race? I’m not asking a squad… just a year.

    2. What, in your mind IS the role of a squad leader?

    3. (If it’s any different) What, in your mind, do you think SHOULD be the role of a squad leader?

    4. If you could go back in time, how would you suggest that your squad leaders or AIM leaders (without names) have better modeled abandonment for the sake of getting to dependence?

  • Matt,

    I appreciate your concern. As Seth stated AIM has “a stated of the art feedback system” which I already submitted all of my feedback through. I feel a call as free thinking voice of dissent to openly question the ideas post here inorder to provide counter points for those impressionable people who read these articles. Too often our faith becomes culture of agreement because that’s what the older generation did so or a good guy claimed it. We must discern truth for our selves and challenging these points encourages others to consider their own view points.

  • As a former racer I can say that the World Race absolutely changed my life, it set me on trajectory that is the rest of my life. On the Race, I was supported and encouraged, but it was up to me to make it a good experience.

    The Race, as with all things in life, is what you make it. The effort you put in will be the fruit that you get out of it. Perhaps you did not enjoy your Race because you are struggling with a victim mindset, which can be very challenging and hard to recognize in the midst of it.

    I support the Race and I support Seth Barnes, because of the program and the person, I am better.

  • I just returned from an awesome trip to Botswana this past month. During the duration of our trip this topic came up. I don’t think there is a perfect answer by any means, however, I think something needs to be done. In future mission trips and if I have the opportunity to participate in the Race then I plan to challenge teammates to limit their phone use to only 30 minutes a day. I found over the course of the past month that I could focus on any phone use in the evenings while we were showering or had a few mins of alone type time. I also believe that phone use should be strongly discouraged during any meal, group gathering, and Bible studies.

  • Kelly Ramsey-Couch

    Oh wow! Seth I have not read a blog post here in a long time. This evening I was sitting with my 3 year old as she took a bath debating getting my phone to do ‘something productive’ rather than just sit there watching her play for the 100th time. And the Lord immediately convicted me. Next to my heavenly husband and then my early one… She is my most important and productive thing. So I left the phone in the kitchen! As I sat there I contemplated ‘maybe I should just get rid of my smart phone’ but dismissed the thought! Ha!
    And then I read this blog!!! Oh man!
    Oh and by the way… I had a pretty ruff world race experience. I was on the second ever squad. And I was actually asked to leave the race more or less. Talk about a fertile ground for frustration and complaints in my heart about AIM leadership etc! And yet, I totally 100% recommend the race hands down! Seth thanks for being a pioneer. For being willing to jump. For getting messy and not being perfect! And in my experience for adjusting and growing and learning all along the way! I am 42 now married w 2 kids and seriously wish my family and I could jump in w the race again. Who knows maybe I would even leave this darn iphone behind!!!!!!

    • Hey Kelly – good to hear from you. What an experience that was! I appreciate the humility and honesty in your comment. You wrestle with this issue in a way that helps others who are also wrestling.

      Be blessed!

  • I’m at the end of my race currently and my suggestion would be to limit cell phone use only for your day off.
    People will become bored quickly throughout their week and will be then forced to either bond with their team or connect with their ministry.
    Another topic is cell phone use when it comes to unsung heroes and searching for new contacts. Not sure where the limitation would be for that.

  • Seth, I like what you said in this post. When I was a racer we didn’t have the problem of the smart phone taking up all our time. The first iPhone wasn’t released to the market until after we left in June 2007. But we had the same problems with being present.
    I was on the media team and had a laptop and cameras to hide behind. I used them for part of my ministry putting together videos. This made it really easy to disconnect from the people I was ministering to and the people I was supposed to be ministering with (my team). It also made it not an option to say no media devices this month.
    I had to make the choice to set those things aside and press into God. I had to make the choice to engage with the people we were ministering to and with. I had help from my team mates who helped keep me from spending too much time on the computer when I wasn’t doing a video or a blog. I think just like anything else on the race having accountability with the people around you is key. I know some reading this probably think but you don’t know my team and leaders. That is true but It’s up to you to make the race or any mission trip you’re on a God centered endeavor not a me centered. I know that personal responsibility isn’t popular.
    I would love to go back in time and change some of my choices, and the things I spent my time on when I was on the race. We had very rough spots on our run. We had no experienced team leaders or even leaders at AIM that had done the race before because it was all new. We were the first generation. But I wouldn’t give up the experience of the race, the God encounters, the miracles, the friendships, and yes the adventure for anything in the world! I am so grateful to Seth and the rest of AIM for the impact they made in my life and my spiritual life.

    • Good to hear from you, Mark! Good thoughts and reminiscences. It sent me back to your original blog post and this response from a girl you had not met yet named Sarah:

      “Hey Mark…I’m gonna be 30 soon so I’m right up there with you. I definitely spent some time fighting with God about why I shouldn’t go. Thank goodness He is persistent! We’re in for something pretty awesome!”

  • I was on the first ever World Race in 2006. We didn’t have smart phones back then so I didn’t get to experience the Race like it is today with smart phone accessibility. Back in my day we had to get to internet cafes just to call home/check email every few weeks/months. While my Race experience wasn’t perfect and there is a lot I wish would have been different, one thing I did love was getting to spend time with the people on my team free of distractions.

    Since the World Race I have started a small mission organization. For a long time I allowed smart phones on the trip because I didn’t see an issue with them. However, the moment I realized things needed to change was when my team was eating dinner in Gulu, Uganda in 2012. We went to a restaurant that had free Wi-Fi. I remember looking around the table and realizing that everyone was on their smartphone. My heart broke as I thought of the missed opportunities that were happening. On my World Race we used meals as a time of processing, encouraging one another, getting to know one another, debating Biblical truths with one another, and fellowshipping. Here was a group of people each in their own individual world, missing opportunities of fellowship and growth. Since that summer we have now banned phones on our trips. Everyone knows up front that they won’t be able to bring a phone or any sort of Wi-Fi device (my team leader’s do have a global cell phone in case of an emergency).

    I have had a wonderful response from the people who have gone since 2012. Most all of the team members have come away thanking me for the opportunity to break free and get away from the daily distractions they have here. Most of them say it helped them focus on the Lord and bond with their team members. Since the upcoming generation has grown up only knowing life with the smart phone, many of them have never gone this long without access to technology, but overall I’ve had a very positive response from banning the smart phone. Most people think they can’t live without them, but are surprised when they get on the trip and realize just how much they have been missing with them.

  • Thank you for encouraging “radical living” which is never comfortable and is Jesus’ example. Seth, you approached this perfectly by taking us to Jesus and what would he ask us to bring/not bring when setting out on a mission. It’s not about works, it’s about trust, it’s about letting go of worldly security so we can hear Him better.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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