Cross-Cultural Missions Is Not the Cure for Wanderlust

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle dreams of another life, runs up a hill, flings open her arms and sings, “I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell!” Even as an adult, this scene takes my breath away. I have the J .R. R. Tolkien quote, “Not all who wander are lost,” plastered on one wall and a map with all the places I’ve visited hanging on another.

I admit it. I suffer from chronic wanderlust. However, currently the Lord has called me to the busy yet mostly routine life of a PhD student. When my longings to travel surface, I sometimes face the temptation to view missions as the answer. But cross-cultural missions is not the cure for wanderlust.

Don’t get me wrong. Wanderlust is not inherently bad. I believe that God gives many of us a desire to travel and a passion for other cultures and experiences as part of our callings to mission.  But when considering an overseas missions experience, whether long-term or short-term, we cannot choose to go simply because we are scratching an itch.

“We must go on God’s mission as committed servants compelled by love for God and love for the nations.”

We must go on God’s mission as committed servants compelled by love for God and love for the nations. If wanderlust is our only impetus for missions, we run the risk of throwing in the towel before the job is done. But how do we know if we are treating missions as the cure to wanderlust? Here are three questions to consider.

How do we respond to the unfavorable or the mundane?

With wanderlust, we are always chasing the next mountaintop experience. We find joy in the newness of the next journey. Although we may revel in the moment while it’s happening, the shine wears off quickly, and we soon start planning our next adventure. Many times, wanderlust is the siren calling us to the new and the exotic, the exciting and the beautiful.

Missions isn’t always breathtakingly beautiful environments or adrenaline-filled adventures. The Lord often leads us to the poverty stricken, smog-filled, and overlooked places that wanderlust would never take us. Instead of buying into the illusion of comfort, we look boldly into the dirty, ugly, sinful parts of our world and take Christ’s message there.

Missions also demands faithfulness in the mundane. While we may move to a new culture and see exotic places, God’s mission asks us to stay when we itch to leave. God calls us to be faithful as we figure out public transportation, the banking system, social cues, how to interact with our neighbors, and how to respond to conflict.

God sometimes puts us in the middle of incredible adventures that clearly illustrate that he is at work. Other times, he asks us to be faithful as we figure out the trash system in our new context. He asks us to persevere, even when we aren’t seeing the results of our labor. God’s mission requires dedication in life’s normal routines.

Whose glory are we seeking?

Social media has compounded wanderlust. We see others travel and we want to travel. We see the beautiful vistas, the crazy foods, and the adventures of others, and we long for our own. But the other side of the equation can be true also. When we travel, we go in search of the perfect picture: the selfie that instills awe and wonder in our friends, the vista that brings twinges of jealousy, or the flawless posed photo that makes even our casual acquaintances wish they were with us. We seek our own glory.

“Missions is not about our glory. It’s about God’s. It’s not about making our names known in the social media world but making his name known among the nations.”

Missions, however, is not about our glory. It’s about God’s. It’s not about making our names known in the social media world but making his name known among the nations. When we go on mission, we join the psalmist and proclaim, “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” (Ps. 115:1 NIV).

How do we view people on the journey?

Our pursuit of wanderlust can lead to subconsciously depersonalizing the people we meet on our journey. Instead of viewing them as image bearers of our Lord, we see them as part of the scenery, oddities to entertain us, or servants expected to make our experience the best it can be.

When we participate in God’s mission, God calls us to see people as innately worthy of our respect and love. We value our taxi driver, not simply because he gets us to our location but because he is created in God’s image and needs to hear the truth of the gospel. We care for the lost and the downtrodden in our new home. We humbly walk alongside national believers from the culture in which we work, valuing their input, allowing them to sharpen our faith, and mutually partnering with them to further the gospel. Instead of demanding service, we love and serve.

Is a desire to travel wrong? Absolutely not. But it cannot be the only motivation for our participation in God’s mission. Instead, we go because we are compelled by our love for God and his glory. We go because we desire to make his name known among those who have never heard. We go because we are captivated by his love for the nations. We go because our Lord commands. And we stay for the same reasons.

Anna D. is a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in applied theology. She is interested in global theology, creative methods for theological education, and cross-cultural studies and the arts. She currently works for the SEBTS Global Theological Initiatives department.