If you were to ask a cross section of long-term missionaries and people who have been on mission trips what you needed to know before traveling cross-culturally, you’d get as many different responses as there are people to ask. However, the following pieces of advice would probably come up.
I’m not talking about bringing Cipro in case of traveler’s diarrhea, or making sure to bring the correct electrical adapters—though you will need those, especially if you want to blow dry your hair—I’m referring to more subtle stuff.
By no means will this be an exhaustive list, but some of the following will help you optimize your mission trip.
1. We’re not superheroes
It is way easier than you think to inadvertently view your team as the saviors or answer to prayer, and the people on the field as the poor people in need of you.
But the people you’re going to minister to or work alongside are members of the same body of believers as you are. Even if they’re not Christians yet, they’re still people God loves and whom Christ died for. They are capable of making decisions and helping themselves in many ways, and if you can keep your pride from getting in the way, you can learn just as much, or more, from them as they can from you.
Helping others in a tangible way abroad is great and really is a blessing. But it’s important to keep a perspective of discipleship so locals feel empowered and valued.
2. Doing things for people isn’t always the best way to make an impact
Last year I had an insightful conversation with a twentysomething Peruvian in which I asked him his candid opinion on groups of “gringos” who come to his shanty town. He told me “we know we’re going to receive something.”
He knows visiting missionaries usually give gifts, repair things or provide some sort of service, and he casually admitted that this can lead to people in his community developing a sense of expectation and sometimes entitlement. This made me wonder if we were truly making disciples or creating a culture that expects us to provide things for them and do them favors.
It’s worth knowing ahead of time if the help you want to offer is truly needed where you’re planning to go. If physical labor is needed, how can you work alongside locals to build their community? Sometimes teaching something like first aid or new marketable job skills is more helpful so you can help locals learn skills they can use to support their families and their community. Empowerment makes a bigger impact than only doing something for the locals.
It could very well be that the people you’re ministering to need a roof put over their house, or their community needs a hospital built. But the things that usually make a more memorable impact are the things like your genuine kindness and love of Christ shown through your actions of services, not the actions themselves.
3. Missions is not as glamorous as you may have thought
There’s a high probability you’ll be working with long-termers already established. When you hear missionaries speak in Church, you probably have heard countless amazing faith-building testimonies, but you might not heard many horror stories or problems.
It’s nobody’s fault that this happens, it just is what it is. But a side effect is that you’ll have inaccurate pre-conceived ideas about what life in that culture is like.
Even once you’re there, you have to realize the hosts don’t usually live their lives all year the same way they do for the week you and your team are there. I’ve seen how more locals show up for outreach events than normally do the rest of the year when things go back to normal. It may seem glamorous for the few weeks you’re there, but things aren’t always that way.
4. The hosts spend weeks before you get there planning for your trip
I once heard someone suggest that missionaries get a week off when a team comes to help them. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are going to go on a short term trip, keep in mind the fact that your hosts are arranging your trip on their end, including what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be staying and helping make sure your lodging, meals and interpreters are sorted out as well as transportation. This is a lot of work, so remember to be gracious when the bus is running late, the food doesn’t taste good or something else goes wrong.
These things are not all you need to know (remember to pack Cipro!). There will always be the need to make sure you assimilate to the culture you’re in and not expect the locals or the host to assimilate to you. A lot of it comes down to goals and expectations, and hopefully knowing these things beforehand will help you get ready.
But, chances are, if you’re spending the money and time to fly somewhere and serve, you already have a wonderful servants’ heart, which is the most important thing you’ll need.