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Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2, NLT

E very so often a routine conversation takes a shift and becomes far more profound than ordinary.

For me, this happened some years ago during my monthly coaching call. I am sure I was starting to veer off into the complaint department when I was snapped back to reality. My coach simply said, “Ryan, I think over the past year you have been most alive and filled with the Spirit when you are reflecting on your service trip to Jamaica.”

He was right, and he didn’t stop there. He asked, “Why was that experience so transformational?” His honest observation and clarifying question invited me into a time of far deeper reflection on my life and ministry. Since that call five years ago I have had the great honor of leading two more multi-generational service trips to Jamaica and most recently one to Guatemala. Each of these trips has been an opportunity to serve and an invitation to pause and ask that question once again: “Why are these service trips so transformational and how can their impact continue to bear witness to Christ in me and in others?”

Prioritizing people, not projects

As I’ve reflected on it, the simple answer seems to be that these trips have focused on people rather than on projects.

“People, not projects” was one of the first encouragements we were given as we arrived at Won by One in Harmons, Jamaica. On some level, I knew this already, but there were also a lot of projects to get done—houses to build, donations to sort, marl to haul, and foundations to lay. Yet from the beginning we were challenged to think not about the projects but primarily of the people around us.

I soon discovered that on each project there were people from the community of Harmons who knew exponentially more than I did about how to best complete the task before us. The transformation was taking shape already in me. Maybe the goal was not what I could do or feel good about accomplishing, but rather who I could help along the way and pay attention to in the process.

The difficult work of changing my perspective

But this was not easy. I am conditioned to see my worth in what I contribute and provide—and maybe you are as well. Shifting the focus of service trips from projects to people means thinking more about the person in front of me than about myself. It is an act of trust and surrender to admit that I do not have all the answers to another’s problem. I have realized how important it is to listen well and listen longer before I can even begin to think about how I might be called by Christ to help. The transformation is in the relationships.

I am beginning to see the importance of serving with ministries that have done the hard work of listening well in the communities they are serving. This brings up another key observation about the impact of these trips: it is crucial to be in relationship with ministries who have been serving long before I get there and who will be there long after I leave. A lasting relationship with the ministry becomes a conduit for the work of our team. Through that relationship, we can exponentially bless and encourage the people of the community and people doing full-time ministry.

Transformation into a new person

Romans 2:12 opens like this, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (NLT).

I have been transformed in each of these service trips, and I am challenged to practice investing in people and not projects. Whether I am serving in my own neighborhood or across oceans, the temptation to get this event launched or that ministry started rather than invest in the people who are being served still exists.

I am learning slowly but surely to practice this kingdom reality that God has graciously taught me in every one of these service trips. When God’s people put other people first, God’s projects get done. I am humbled and deeply grateful to have partnered with faithful followers of Christ at Addisville Reformed Church and amazing mission partners who are doing the transformational work of building relationships for the glory and praise of Christ in all things!

Ryan Sweet

Ryan Sweet is associate pastor of Addisville Reformed Church in Richboro, Pennsylvania.