By Steven Norris

     We are in the middle of vacation season. When you pack for a vacation, how do you decide what to bring with you and what to leave behind? How do you pare down to only the essentials? As I have traveled on mission trips, I have found that packing is one of the most important pieces to success.

     Several years ago, I was privileged to spend about 8 weeks ministering in northern Thailand with a pastor and his family. While there, we traveled to the northern border of Thailand, where he knew of a village with Christians he wanted to encourage and assist.

     In many ways, the village was exactly what I would have expected, consisting of round, one-room bamboo huts with grass roofs and dirt floors. The family fire was in the center of the hut for cooking and warmth and the roof had a small hole to release the smoke.

     The house contained a few thatched mats for beds, very simple furniture, and basic cooking supplies. The family would often squat in a circle around the fire to eat and spend time together. When it was time for a village meeting, they would create a bonfire and most of the villagers would gather in a circle around the fire, facing one another because they valued the importance of community and oneness.

     All of the other structures in the village followed the same architectural simplicity. That is…except for one. Conspicuously present near the center of the village was one rectangular building. Inside, instead of a circle, one could find rows of wooden benches. At the front was a lectern of sorts where the leader stood. The cross atop the building quickly revealed that it was a church.

     My guess was that a well-meaning missionary came to the village at some point in the past and brought the “Good News” of Jesus. When the villagers decided to become followers of Jesus, that missionary likely said (innocently, I hope), “Well, this is how you should do church…” and went on to describe the structure I saw on my visit.

     The ministry of Jesus reminds us that, while God did come in a specific culture, place, and time (the doctrine of the Incarnation), the Gospel message is universal in scope. The worship of heaven will be filled with every tribe, nation, language, and tongue, gathering around God’s throne. The diversity of faithful expressions reflects the very heart of a creative God and a Thai church should not look or sound like an American church.

     Too often when we embark on a mission trip, we don’t take adequate time to evaluate what we are bringing with us. Amidst the clothing, toiletries, and ministry supplies that we need for our trip, we often unknowingly pack expectations and assumptions regarding how church should look and function. Separating the Gospel of Jesus from the cultural trappings with which we are so familiar can be difficult, but being “on mission” with God begins with an intentional effort to “travel light” — to pack the Gospel message while leaving cultural Christianity at home.