On my first mission trip to the Peruvian Amazon over fifteen years ago, I met a village headman named Messius who asked if I would come back a build a church in his village as everyone in his village was a Christian. I said, “Sure.” I had no intention of coming back, but thought I might interest some others in funding a trip. God had other plans, and less than a year later, I was heading up a group of 19 people that included four middle school kids to build that church on the banks of the Amazon in Peru near the city of Iquitos. You had to fly into Iquitos from Lima over the Andes and land in the jungle. From Iquitios, you had to take a boat to go anywhere, and that’s how we had to get the group, all the supplies, and everything else to the village. We planned the church building before we went and were going to build a simple, wooden church that would have fit in almost anywhere in the southern United States. When we were on site, I was explaining to the headman where and when we would begin to build the floor. “Floor?” he said, “we don’t want a floor.” You see, it had never occurred to me (or anyone else) that maybe the people here should have had a say in what their church would look like. We were smart enough to say, “What would you like?” The church we finally built had no floor, a little maze-like affair for a front door to keep the large animals out and walls only four-feet high for the same reason, to keep the big animals out. Floors allowed large snakes and other predators a place to live while they picked off the villager’s children, one by one. It did have a thatched roof high above the worship area, and we put up (at great risk to yours truly) a 35 foot cross that could be seen from the Amazon River. Putting the cross up without any equipment, it slipped and almost crushed me, but some locals lassoed it from the roof and pulled it up, so there was no headline saying “Missionary Crushed by Cross” which would not have aided getting people to go on future trips. We, well me mostly, made one of the commonest mistakes made by missions—deciding in advance what would be best for those we were helping. The church got built and is still standing. The cross can still be seen from the river, and nineteen people from Central United Methodist Church and some others in the area did a grand thing there in the Peruvian jungle. We also took a dentist who pulled a lot of teeth while we were there, and I ate live termites and swam across the Amazon from shore to shore (it’s very narrow in Peru where it begins). That little swim trip was also a mistake as I brought home hundreds of parasites in my legs, but a local doctor had just returned from a medical mission trip to the Amazon and knew what medication to have flown in and in three days I was right as rain. However, I learned some very powerful (and a little painful) lessons from that trip. Turn things over to God and what He needs will get done. Don’t assume and don’t take needless risks. Listen to the people you have come to help and let them guide your efforts on their behalf. It only took me one trip to learn some of the most valuable lessons any missionary could learn. Some major denominations have never learned these—maybe someday they will, one can only hope and pray. We don’t even need to build churches here, we just gather the people and provide some shade from a tree and a few tarps. Of the almost thirty churches we have now, only about seven have buildings. The rest do what here is called “praying under a tree” and they do quite well. That’s another big lesson I learned that the rest of the world is still learning—church isn’t a building—church is the people who come together to worship Christ with love and praise. It’s also not about numbers, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Sometimes, we make things a lot harder than they need to be thinking that we know best when what we need to do is to ask and listen instead.
note: if anyone asks, you can say you know someone who has swum across the Amazon—you don’t have to mention the parasites