I’ve seen short-term mission trips do harm to the participants and to the people being served.
I’ve also seen short-term mission trips work in amazing ways to encourage, equip, and empower current disciples of Jesus and help create new ones.
The Kingdom of God needs more of the latter.
So after going on more than fifteen short-term mission trips and hosting short-term missionaries in both domestic and foreign settings, here are my seven tips for short-term missionaries:
1. God is a lot bigger than this week long trip.
We must remember as we go that God has been working where we’re headed long before we arrived. And God will continue to do amazing work there long after we leave as well.
Our American sense of urgency can cause us to think God’s work around the world is entirely dependent upon our short-term mission projects and us. He’s graciously allowed us to be part of how he extends his reign around the world, but he’s using countless others as well. When we’re discouraged, may we be reminded that God has had thousands of years of turning our most feeble attempts at living out his mission into beautiful reflections of his glory. When we’re tempted to overstate our role, may we be reminded that only God can turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
– David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence
2. We are missionaries who are to love God and those we encounter with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
Your presence on this trip isn’t an accident. God wants to work in you and through you this week. God’s plan to grow someone else might be through you. And God’s plan to grow you might be through someone else.
As we seek to love, we must seek to do so in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is self-sacrificing love. The way of Jesus is servant leadership. The way of Jesus is humility.
Self-sacrificing love. Servant leadership. Humility.
These three things are crucial to success as a team. Success isn’t getting a project done or coming home with some cool Instagram photos. Success is faithfully serving the people we encounter with love and humility.
3. We are guests in a different culture.
We aren’t tourists who came for an amazing spring break getaway. We are missionaries who are seeking to humble ourselves and serve the Kingdom of God in the way that our hosts recommend.
We’re entering into a different culture. As Americans, we often believe that how we think and live is best. But on this trip we want to be open to learning from cultures and people that we encounter who are different.
I once heard a story about a short-term mission team who discovered that the shared bathroom they were to use during the week smelled nasty and was full of flies. The trip leader discovered that the smell and flies were coming from the trashcan where some people had been putting used toilet paper. Appalled, he emptied the trashcan, took it out of the bathroom, and put it in a common area.
A few hours later, there was soiled toilet paper all over the floor of the bathroom. The leader sat down his team to scold them for their middle-schoolesque hygiene practices. No one admitted to throwing the toilet paper on the ground, but he suspected some of the immature guys were just trying to be funny.
The next day, the trip leader found the trashcan back in the bathroom, full of soiled toilet paper. He was outraged at his group, scolded them again, and hid the trashcan.
When the trip leader found the trashcan back in the bathroom and full of soiled toilet paper again the next day, he finally spoke with the owner of the facility. He hoped that she could talk some sense into his group and explain that housekeepers were having to clean up the toilet paper that some people kept throwing on the floor because they thought it was funny.
The owner laughed and responded to the trip leader, “In our country we don’t flush toilet paper. The sewage systems here clog when we flush it because they weren’t built for it. We throw the paper in the trash, the housekeepers empty it each evening, and then replace the trash can for the next day.”
The trip leader was shocked and embarrassed.
We’ll be learning a lot more about cultural differences as we serve. The key here is to ask lots of questions rather than engage in a lot of assumptions.
4. Be flexible.
Do you love control as much as I do? Probably.
Instead, go with the flow.
We love controlling our schedules, our lives, our safety, our futures, and so much more. But while on this trip, let’s rest from this tendency.
There’s likely a general itinerary. Know that it is very likely to change on a regular basis.
We will deal with broken down busses, late deliveries, different understandings of time, and many other things. Amazingly, it’s often in these moments when we encounter God in unique ways.
5. “Being” and “receiving” is more important than “doing.”
When we’re working, we’re going to work extremely hard with everything we have.
But laying concrete blocks, seeing a freshly painted building, or coming away with tangible results isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that we’ve sought to be people of love who are also open to being loved.
The first time I left the country my life changed forever. It wasn’t because we successfully renovated housing for global missionaries. It was because I was open to receiving God’s grace from those we were serving.
6. Watch out for God.
Expect “divine appointments.” God is already at work and we’re joining in His work, so why wouldn’t we expect to encounter Him?
As you eat, work, rest, and meet others, be on the lookout for God at work. This may come through the smile of a child, a special connection you make with someone, a passage of scripture that connects with your day, an answered prayer, or more.
When you experience God in such a way, don’t hide it away in your heart. Share it with others on the team! And if you want some good pillow talk, ask one another where you saw God at work that day.
7. Be hopeful.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us! Believe this truth as you are sent out to be proclaimers and demonstrators of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Read more about global and short-term missions here: