Missions trips can be emotional, life-changing experiences. I went on missions trips and high school and I considered them watershed moments in my faith. Unfortunately, many people have dissimilar experiences with short-lived emotional highs that fades shortly after returning home. I’ve facilitated 23 missions trips for probably a hundred different groups and been on a few myself, and this is a common trend I see repeated in students.
My question is how can we create a life-changing experience versus an emotional high? Let me propose three questions to ask on mission that change the dynamic of the service week and and lead to life-change.
What is God already doing in this community?
Before you ever leave your community you need to consciously recognize that you are not bringing God to a community. This ought to be a given, as rarely (if ever) would you take the message of the gospel to an unchurched people group on a short-term mission trip. Almost always (and certainly to be done most effectively), individuals going on short term trips are going to aid people who are already doing ministry in a community. It is a disservice to people living in community doing ministry to maintain a wrongly perceived notion that you, an individual coming from afar, are bringing God with you to their community.
But taking a step back from people and places, it is even more important to recognize that we are not capable of taking God places because he is already there. Regardless of what ministries may or may not exist, God is present. Orthodox Christianity has always asserted that God is omnipresent, and if we hold that to be true, then God is present and active in any community or location we may visit.
That said, part of the value in short-term trips in joining what God is already doing elsewhere–to see God acting with and for his people in a different context from your own.
What is God teaching me through this community?
To repeat, part of the value of a short-term mission is seeing God at work in a context different from your own. Generally, missions trips expose individuals to contexts they are unfamiliar with, whether that is the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, or the heart of the inner-city, or across borders in slums of the majority world.
Implicit in exposure to new cultures and contexts is learning–to enter into a context different from your own is to subjugate oneself to a learner by virtue of the newness of everything. In entering a community there is the potential you could be a teacher in some manner, but within the context of a short-term mission, it is narrow. Perhaps you could bring a trade or skill, you could bring some knowledge of the Bible, but you cannot bring the expertise of that community and that people and how God is currently working with and for them.
All this to say, in entering communities in a different context from your own, you become a student. We cannot bifurcate the ‘learning’ and ‘doing’ aspects of missions trip.
What does God want me to take back to my home community?
If we do maintain the learning aspect of a mission trip, the we are rightly forced to “take something back home” with us. I don’t mean to sound cliche when I say this–but I do genuinely believe that if you go on a mission trip as a learner with eyes open to see how God is working with and for his people in a different context, then you ought to be forced into processing. Seeing God at work in a different context should force to reevaluate your worldview–how you view the world and how you view God acting in it–because you’ve now experienced God working for his people in a different way in a different context.
If we are genuinely reshaping our worldview and belief system around what we have learned in communities on mission trips, then we are unable to leave unchanged. We are undeniably forced to consider the implications of what we learned in someone else’s community when we return to our own community.
Because of this, a mission trip should never be considered the finale or the big event of a faith journey, but a springboard to something greater. A mission trip leads to life-change, it leads a morphed worldview, it unearths passions, it opens doors, its a springboard to service in your home community.
When a mission trips begins by asking how God is already working in a community, consciously seeking what God is teaching you through a community, and actively considering what God wants you to take back to your home community, then they will be life-changing experiences.