After spending the first 18 years of my life as a missionary kid in Latin America, I have learned so much about missions and the importance of short-term trips.
No one is an expert, but here are five things I have learned through my experiences. I only wish I could have done them better and hope to encourage you to make the most of your short-term trip.
1. A huge part of your job is to encourage those who do this for their whole lives.
It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: Whatever plans you have for your trip, one of the easiest—and perhaps best—things you can do is serve full-time missionaries. You have so many plans for your trip—good plans that involve building churches, evangelism and holding babies at an orphanage.
Whatever the objective of your trip, consider the fact that where you can be most effective may not be with nationals at all but with the full-time missionaries living in country.
Use your trip to be a breath of fresh air for people who might be worn out and just need you to be there.
2. Don’t complain about something you have to do for a week to people who live it for their whole lives.
In line with being a breath of fresh air, make a conscious effort to keep complaining and criticism out of your trip.
Something I learned during my short-term trip is that whatever I am struggling with, I have an end in sight—so it is OK to struggle. It is OK to miss the comforts of home. But maybe find a friend to talk to about it instead of telling the missionaries.
Helpful hint: “I don’t know how you do it” is not a good alternative to complaining. Full-time missionaries have a million struggles, but they have overcome most of them.
They probably don’t think about Chick-fil-A every day, and maxi skirts are just part of their wardrobes. While empathy is great, reminding them of how much better you have it in the States could be discouraging.
3. Don’t be THAT expert.
I’ve heard of some college campuses offering “college for a weekend” for high school seniors considering where to go. What would you think of a senior coming back from such an experience claiming to have a college degree? You would laugh at them.
Don’t be that person.
It’s OK not to know everything about the country you were in, the language you were learning or the culture you were trying to understand. You were there for a short time. You don’t have to know everything about missions or the sacrifices it takes to be a missionary.
Remember, it is totally OK to say, “You know, I’m not really sure.” This is infinitely better than eating your words later when someone who actually knows corrects you.
4. Don’t expect to change the world, but expect God to change you.
If there is anything I learned in my short-term trip it is that God changed my heart so much more than I changed any part of Africa. The fact is, in a week or a month there is really very little you can actually do overseas. You probably don’t speak the language. You don’t understand the culture. You are beyond stressed about not drinking unfiltered water. Too much is going on around you for you to do too much of anything.
This a tricky point to make because it can be easily misunderstood. I believe in short-term mission trips. I believe short-term volunteers can make a significant impact and do meaningful, valuable work. However, the world cannot be saved through the short term. It takes people giving up their whole lives, learning the language, understanding the culture and fully embracing life in their host countries.
So what do I mean by expect God to change you? Recognize that is the main point of this trip. You are going because God said to. Be overseas, not for adventure but for obedience.
Learn about a new culture. Learn how to serve and obey. Soak up everything you can and pray that God will change your heart in extraordinary ways. Don’t expect to change the whole world, but ask God to change you so that you can better change the world with your life.
5. Go again, mobilize and let this experience change your life.
It breaks my heart when something beautifully ordained by God is condensed into a catchy Instagram caption and forgotten. I got to ride camels on my trip, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. But when I tell people about it, I say, “God is amazing. Look what He did.” Don’t let your trip stop after a week.
Here are three things you can do in the aftermath of your short-term trip:
- Keep going. Go for another short-term trip. Go for a year. Go for life.
- Mobilize other Christians in the United States. Tell people about your experience and encourage others to go, give and pray.
- Let this experience change who you are and how you live your life.