Where are you going this summer?
In years past, people would have answered the Grand Canyon or Door County, Disney World or the Badlands, Grandpa’s farm or my aunt’s condo in Florida. Lots of people do still enjoy spending time relaxing in those places.
But many Christians today are just as likely to spend part of their vacation time building a new house in New Orleans, constructing a school in Mexico, or helping out in Haiti with a short-term medical team, assembled by Christian physicians from the local hospital.
Ready or not, the world has experienced a surge of Christians from North America ready and eager to show Jesus’ love. Most of the time, short-term mission trips do make a positive difference. But those receiving ministry have seen their share of silliness, too. (Rumor has it that a school somewhere near the Mexico/US border has been painted 12 times in the past three summers!)
On a much sadder note, visitors to countries with customs and cultures different from our own have sometimes damaged the work of established, full-time missionaries. Such harm is, thankfully, rare; but it has occurred.
So how do well-meaning groups make sure to make a positive difference? How can you plan your trip so that everyone involved benefits?
Think Through the “Why”
First, be sure you have crystal clear purposes in mind. Be realistic about the impact your group can make in just a few short days. This is especially true if you don’t know the language of the people to whom God is sending you. Some experts recommend against taking “drive-by mission trips.” They point out that the paint will soon fade, the flowers you plant will eventually die, and the soccer balls you bring will go flat. But when you set up an ongoing partnership, returning year by year, results multiply. The apostle Paul returned several times to check on the Christians in the churches he planted.
If you do decide to make only a short-term commitment, understand that you are a participant in God’s process. Just as the Holy Spirit has used many people to bring you to faith and cultivate that faith, so too he may use you as one of the people he sends to show Jesus’ love in a tangible way. Your acts of love will open doors for those who follow you.
Perhaps your purpose involves giving individuals from your church, interested in a longer-term missionary opportunity, a chance to see what that might be like. Perhaps you want to stir up the zeal of your congregation’s members for funding missions and praying for them. Perhaps you want to share the love of Christ by making life a bit less painful or dangerous for a specific group of people. Perhaps you want to begin to build a long-term relationship with a specific church or village and then return year after year to increase the impact you will make there.
Whatever your purpose, keep it clearly in mind—and help those you lead to understand, remember, and enact it, too.
Think Through the “Who”
Next, spend time in advance building relationships among the members of your team. The more comfortable group members feel with one another, the more smoothly the trip is likely to go.
Several months prior to your adventure, spend Tuesday nights together in someone’s home, working through a small group Bible study together. Set aside a Saturday to do some team-building activity; participate together in a local Habitat for Humanity project, for example, or volunteer as a group to paint an elderly member’s garage.
Whether you spend a week in Alabama or a month in Guatemala, tensions are bound to arise as team members tire or differences of opinion pop up. The more secure team members feel with one another before this happens, the more readily they will be able to resolve conflicts, working through difficulties in love and trust.
One additional point. If your team focuses on building relationships with the people you are serving, in addition to a focus on completing the project goals you have set for yourselves, team members and those whom you serve will be more likely to experience a greater heart impact. Remember, growth in discipleship does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, in relationship.
Don’t Go It Alone
Don’t neglect to do your homework, especially if this is your first or second trip! Many websites include detailed information on practical matters like scheduling, safety, leadership training, different kinds of service opportunities, and the like. To access them, simply type terms like “short-term mission trip” into an Internet search engine and begin to explore the sites that you find.
This initial research should prepare you for more focused conversations with your denomination’s missions board or with a representative of other, reputable missions organizations that work regularly with groups of volunteers from North America. But remember that It’s just good common sense to ask for references and to check with other groups who have linked arms with any potential partner.
Be sure you understand the boundaries your ministry partners set up. Then respect those boundaries. This will avoid duplication of efforts. (Remember the school with the 12 coats of paint!) Respecting boundaries will help ensure that your group helps—and avoids hindering—ongoing efforts in the region. It will make planning much easier. And it will help reduce safety concerns.
Maintain Interest and Support at Home
Be sure to involve your congregation from the beginning. You might pair those who send and those who go—giving the name of each short-term worker to a dozen or more members back home who will agree to pray for that person while he/she is gone. Consider giving everyone a Gospel Colors bracelet and inviting prayer partners to write one another’s names on the inside of their bracelets as a reminder of the link of faith and prayer that unites them.
When your group returns, schedule a time to tell your supporters about what God has done with their prayers and dollars. Consider sharing names of individuals back at the ministry site, people for whom your group now carries concern, and invite listeners to write these names inside their bracelets now, too. You may want to have more bracelets on hand for those who don’t already have them and for those who want another as an additional prayer reminder.
Focus on Christ
Youth and adults alike will likely appreciate a time each morning to pray together about the day ahead. They will also treasure a time each evening to process what has happened in the past 24 hours. Schedule a brief time for personal prayer and journaling each day. Journals help participants recall details of the trip, record ongoing prayer needs, and process their feelings about the experience in light of the Word of God.
CTA has published, Adventures in Faith Mission Journal with this need in mind. These are available at prices that make it possible to give one to each person in your group. These journals will guide users in thinking through their experiences in the light of specific, powerful Scriptures day by day.
Consider, too, how to share Jesus’ love in a memorable way with those whose school you build or whose children you teach. A few years ago, Tiffany, a CTA customer from North Carolina, noted:
Our mission team ordered the Gospel Bracelets because we thought they would be a clear and easy way for us to communicate the Gospel in a short amount of time without breaking our budget. We used them in several different ways. All team members wore a bracelet starting from the moment we left our church, and we carried a few with us in case we met anyone on one of the many long plane trips and times in the airport. We kept them on as we worked in the villages in Moldova. Team members would stop and talk with people they met.
The Gospel Bracelets were both a quick way to share the message of Jesus’ love for them and a gift that we could leave with them to remind them of this message. Having a visual aid to explain the gospel was also a wonderful tool to help us cross the language barriers.
In each village, on the last day of VBS, we presented the gospel and gave each child a bracelet. They were very excited that we gave them something exactly like we were wearing! Many wanted to know why we had come to their village. I really think the bracelet helped to convey the message that we were there to share Christ’s love with them.
Mission trips offer those who send and those who go a genuine chance to make a difference. And what a difference you can make!
Editor’s note: If you’re looking for further mission trip resources, check CTA’s website.