Short-term mission trips have been a source of controversy for some time now. Some would argue their validity, while others recount the ways in which these trips can be helpful—both to the recipients and the team members.
Of course, I fall into the latter category, for a multitude of reasons I won’t take the time to recount in this particular article. But I have to give those who voice another opinion this: short-term mission trips can be done poorly, creating more damage than good. So it’s important to determine to be a good team member before you invest your time and money (and that of those who support you).
Whether you’re considering taking the plunge and signing up for your first mission trip or you’ve taken 30, intentionality goes a long way toward making your cross-cultural experience all it could be.
Having taken close to 100 international mission trips, I’ve collected a few words of advice for other team members. Below are my top nine:
BEFORE YOU GO
- Be selective when choosing your trip.
Of course, you’re looking for a trip that fits your availability and expectations. What location do you want to visit? When are you able to go? What will you do: Vacation Bible School? Construction? Medical care? On-site prayer?
But you also want to be certain the organization you sign on with follows best practices for their teams, including adequate follow-up after your visit comes to a close.
For guidance with what to look for, check out “11 Questions to Ask before You Take a Mission Trip.”
Bathe your cross-cultural experience in prayer. In addition to asking God for things like safety and health, request team unity, effective ministry and your own heart change. Invite God to draw you closer to Him throughout this journey; Ask Him to do great things that only He can do.
Be honest about your concerns and struggles, too. God loves meeting us right where we are when we approach Him with raw honesty.
Don’t head out on a mission before giving God permission to do His will.
3. Journal your journey—the details to remember and the lessons to hold dear.
Debrief each day, beginning as you prepare for the trip. Chronicle the ways God lead you to take this trip, as well as the ways He provided to make it possible.
Continue journaling throughout your time in ministry, detailing the challenges, the names you’ll want to recall later, and the ways God shows up along the way. Be frank.
4. Learn about the culture you’ll be visiting.
Some of the stories that give those who oppose short-term missions the most ammunition typically stem from well-meaning team members who just don’t know enough about the culture they’re visiting. Allow me to share an example:
In the early ‘90’s, my husband and I were living in Russia, training public school teachers to use a Christian morals and ethics curriculum in their classrooms. As you can imagine, gaining trust in this newly post-Soviet culture was a sizeable task.
Short-term team members visited us a few times per year, sharing their testimonies and encouraging those of us who were there for longer terms.
One day, a few of these short-termers joined us in a school during the sloshy days of Russian spring. An older woman was mopping the stairs as we headed to the director’s office.
One of our visitors—eager to capture every image of Russia he possibly could to share when he returned home—snapped a photo of her.
When my husband and I returned to the school the following week, we were escorted directly to the director’s office and told we were no longer welcome to work in the school. We had no idea what was going on.
At last, the director told us about the photo that had been taken and explained her frustration that our guest had taken a demeaning picture that would present Russians as poorly-dressed common laborers.
Though we knew that this was not the man’s intention (he had also photographed gleaming cathedrals, poised citizens and Red Square), it was difficult to convince her.
In the end, we promised we’d get the film (hey, it was the early 90’s!) and any prints he made and return them to her. We also pledged that such a thing would not happen again.
We nearly lost months of relationship-building efforts—not because of any mal intent, but because our American guest didn’t anticipate how his actions may be interpreted. Avert offense by being well-versed in your host culture.
DURING YOUR SHORT-TERM TRIP
5. Seek opportunities to encourage teammates.
Remember the song, “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love?” It’s true.
Of course, being kind to one another is the right thing to do, anytime, anywhere. But it’s important to remember that as you move en masse through a foreign location, you are being watched. Constantly.
So, be loving…not only to those you signed up to minister to, but also to your team members. Remember that they’re jet-lagged, hungry, overwhelmed and culture-shocked, just like you. Take the challenge to go above and beyond, encouraging your teammates—even those who require more patience from you.
You can’t demonstrate love to non-believers without embracing your brothers and sisters in Christ first.
6. Seek ways to support your team leader.
Most short-term team leaders don’t sign up for the job because they want your accolades or attention. But let’s be honest, it can be a stressful job.
Imagine managing the team’s safety, the partner’s expectations, the team’s relationships, all of the logistics and ministry goals…oftentimes while jet-lagged.
A word of prayer or encouragement can go a long way to bolster the weary leader, as can the offer to carry a bag or share a snack! And in the long run, the whole team experience may improve as a result.
7. Get to know the people you’re serving.
While so much of what you’re experiencing during a short-term mission trip is new and unusual to you, resist the urge to make the trip about cool social media posts or your own participation. Make it about the people around you.
Learn from them. Ask about their culture, their view of God, their relationships to family and their language. Share some of your own story, too.
Challenge yourself to make a heart connection with someone in your host country.
Ministry cannot happen where relationships don’t.
WHEN YOU RETURN HOME
8. Report back to those who supported you.
Be mindful of those who made sacrifices for you to go, whether they donated funds toward your expenses, prayed for you, helped with child care in your absence, or covered for you at work. Acknowledge that your ministry was a team effort.
Also, think through the most valuable lessons you learned and be watching for opportunities to communicate them. Testifying to God’s work in your host culture, your team, and your heart multiplies the outcomes of your time away.
9. Keep the needs of those you met ever in prayer.
I don’t believe God plucks us from our responsibilities at home, asks us to invest in a plane ticket and allows us to meet a whirlwind of strangers for one or two weeks’ ministry. I believe the opportunity to do all of those things should make an eternal impact on both you and those you’ve served.
So allow their stories, their needs to permeate your own perspective. And commit to ministering to these new friends for years to come by remembering them in prayer. God may do even more with your faithful petitions on their behalf over the years than you could ever accomplish while you were in their neighborhood.
Your greatest contribution will likely be made from your knees, not your voyages.
In the end, making the greatest impact possible during your short-term mission trip is all about thoughtful preparation, execution and follow-up. If you’re going to devote the time and money to visit a mission field, suck the marrow out of the experience, drinking deeply from the things God impresses upon your heart and loving those around you selflessly.
With some intentional preparation and follow-through, you can be certain the impact will last an eternity!
Now, if you’re ready to sign up for a short-term mission trip with The Boaz Project, apply here!
Believing in Miracles,
Did I leave out your favorite piece of advice for short-termers? Go ahead and add it in the comments below.