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Making the most of your summer mission experience

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Summer is finally here. The weather is heating up. The school year is coming to an end. Our church ministry schedules take on a new pace and emphasis. Short-term mission trips are one summer ministry that are becoming more of a standard in many churches.

Even though these trips have become more mainstream, it’s important to remember they are relatively new in missionary history. When we first went to the mission field in the late 1990s, most people we were with hadn’t been overseas before.

Today, finding a missionary candidate with no overseas travel experience would be like discovering a unicorn. Short-term missions has become one of the primary platforms God uses to call out and prepare men and women for longer-term missionary careers.

But we also know short-term mission trips aren’t always positive experiences. They can be a drain on long-term missionaries. They can promote dependency and an unhealthy relationship between U.S. and national partners. These trips are often extremely (read: excessively) expensive. And they may fail to move the needle of missionary advance in any measurable way according to the longer-term missionary strategy.

Not only do poorly planned and executed mission trips have negative consequences for the mission field, but they can also have a negative impact on the mission trip participants.

Summer mission trips can reinforce bad missiology

God uses mission trips as a testing ground for His missionary call. Often, participants sense God has a plan for their lives, and the mission experience fills in the imagination, allowing them to “see” themselves as missionaries.

However, a poorly executed mission trip can reinforce unhealthy ideas of missionary practice. Participants may not appreciate the need for national partnership, or they may not understand that the missionary life is usually a series of smaller decisions, not massive events.

Summer mission trips can create bad habits and feed the worst of our own culture

Who hasn’t cringed at the notion of mission trips as social media fodder or Christian tourism? We know these attitudes are problematic. However, poorly executed mission trips may feed some more subtle aspects of our culture.

In our materialistic and consumeristic culture, we evaluate events and people through the lens of efficiency and bottom-line numbers. If we’re not careful, these same attitudes show up on our mission trips. The traveler (me and you) become the consumer, and national believers (or unbelievers) are products whose ‘value’ is measured by how well they meet our wants.

We treat others as if they’re the pawns on the chessboards of our lives, moving them where we want according to our preferred plan and quickly dispensing of them when the game is over.

Summer mission trips can harm spiritual formation

For some, a mission trip seems like the ultimate Christian life accomplishment. We can hear this when people tell their faith stories and include the countries they’ve visited or trips they’ve taken. It’s as if simple Bible study, daily prayer, and church are for junior varsity believers but serious Christians go on mission trips. If this is our thinking, these trips will feed spiritual pride and harm our long-term walks with the Lord.

So, none of us wants to participate in or lead a mission trip that’s counterproductive, or worse, detrimental to the work of God. The question we want to answer is: “How can we make the most of our mission experiences?” Is there anything you can do over the weeks and months leading up to your trip to combat these concerns? There are at least three things you can do moving forward.

1. Remember and remind your fellow travelers this mission trip is a partnership, not “your trip”.

As we prepare for a mission trip, it’s tempting to take ownership of the experience and the event. We want our people to have a good time, and we want it to be a positive experience. We also use marketing language to recruit for the trip. However, at this point, we need to begin reminding ourselves, and others, that we’re serving the long-term missionaries and national partners. We need to submit our goals to theirs and evaluate success according to their metrics. It’s not about us.

2. Remember it’s a process.

God’s mission cannot be fulfilled in a single mission trip. Even the most well-planned and successful trip serves as but a drop in the bucket for global discipleship. If we can keep this in mind, it will help us remember our goal. This attitude should keep us focused on more solid missionary practice. To use a baseball analogy, our trip should be a string of singles, not a home run. We may never see the runner score, but we play an important role in the process. You can begin reinforcing this theme along the way as you prepare your team for the trip. Frame success as part of a process, not a glorious walk-off home run.

3. Remember success takes planning.

We know success won’t ‘just happen.’ Left to our natural tendencies, we, like water, all seek the path of least resistance, and this path leads downhill. As a leader, take time now to plan for missionary success.

• Before the trip, meet with your team and set expectations. Don’t use pre-trip meetings for logistics only. Take time to shape the expectations, thinking, and missionary mindset of your travelers.

• During the trip, help the team process. Take time each day (or every other day) to process the events of the trip. Take the lead in helping your team interpret the experiences (the successes and challenges) through the matrix of good missiology and partnership.

• After you return, debrief the trip and help your team understand what God accomplished and the role they played in the longer-term vision and strategy.

• Have a plan for continual spiritual growth for your team. Back to our baseball analogy, the mission trip is not home plate for disciple making.

According to Ephesians 4:12-13, your job is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (CSB). This mission trip is but one step in this process. Don’t let your people substitute a life well lived for Christ for a fleeting mission trip experience.

This article first appeared at Lifeway Research.

    About the Author

  • D. Scott Hildreth