“I’m thinking about being a missionary. What trips should I take?” Part II

trip

By David Armstrong and Marti Wade

In the last post, we encouraged you to take trips that help prepare you for future cross-cultural ministry. Today, we’ve got more tips for trips that matter.

Connections for the Future: Serve with a ministry that could also send you long-term.

If you want to go long-term, you might want to look for a ministry that does both short-term and long-term work. A mission trip can be a great way to “test drive” the agency before pursuing long-term service. Your agency may even run short-term programs for that very reason.

What can you learn about agencies that do the kind of work you believe God may be equipping you to do? That go to the places you think God may be leading you to go?

  • Planning to go with your denominational mission board long-term? Go on a short-term with them first.
  • Wanna minister among Hindus? Find an org that works with Hindus.
  • Feel drawn to serve in a major city? Serve in an urban setting, not a rural one.

(You get the picture.)

This is your chance to get the inside scoop. It’s also much less painful than spending years preparing for a certain kind of ministry only to find it’s not a good fit.

Even if your first choice of an agency doesn’t work out, the experience will give you a better sense of what to look for.

Going with an agency you might serve with in the future helps them get to know you. It also gives you a good opportunity to pick up on their passions, way of thinking, philosophy of ministry, and overall organizational culture.

Many mission agencies describe themselves with similar words, but if you spend time around their missionaries, you’ll start to get what really makes them tick.

  • Ask questions about what you hear and see.
  • Find out what kind of people the agency attracts and learn about typical ministry approaches and ways of life.
  • Learn how decisions are made and how money is handled.
  • See how missionaries and missionary families support each other or whether they seem to live more independent lives.

The nugget: Serving with an agency for a few months will reveal its inner workings, expose your own needs and preferences, and give you some clues as to whether it’s a good match.

Practical Ministry Experience: try out what you’d like to do.

A mission trip can confirm and add to your growing skills. It can also help you discover what additional prep you’ll need.

Some mission trips give you the chance to taste many kinds of ministry, while others go deep with just one. Either approach has value.

  • Want to be a church planter? Probalby can’t plant a church during a two-month mission trip. But you can come alongside a church-planting team in doing evangelism and discipleship.
  • Longing to be a missionary doctor? You may not be doing surgery. But how ’bout serving a mobile health clinic?

Chances are your best contributions, long-term, will be in your areas of passion. Is what gets you out of bed in the morning social justice? Evangelism? Caring for people’s physical needs? Look for opportunities to serve in that area.

Ministry skills and interpersonal relationship skills go hand in hand. Your mission trip may provide an opportunity to test and develop your ability to work with and serve people, in a cross-cultural setting, and probably with a language barrier too.

Things may not work out as you planned. Real ministry (Jesus’ included) is punctuated by surprises. What you think you signed up to do may not be what you find is needed when you get there.

Hold onto your sense of humor, be flexible, and focus on the fact that God got there before you did and he knew what was coming. Trust him to reveal what you need to know and do and equip you for the future he sees.

The nugget: If all goes well, you will confirm pieces of your calling and gained valuable experience in missions and serving overseas. And even if it doesn’t go so well, you will be closer to discovering how you fit.

Making the Most of Any TripS

What if the suggestions in these posts are beyond your control? What if you only have two weeks to give, and won’t be able to work directly with a missionary, go the place you most want to go, or do the thing you want to do down the road?

You can still maximize any mission trips as a training ground for long-term ministry by adjusting your approach. Look for mission trips that will allow or encourage these three elements, or try to pursue them on your own.

Preparation: learn all you can about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing.

Most of us put herculean effort into team building, fundraising, and figuring out what to pack. But make sure you also learn about where you are going and what life is like for the people who live there.

Even if you end up going someplace else in the long run, learning about the people in your host culture this time around will be valuable in understanding another culture in the future. Here’s your chance to learn to be a learner.

Even for shorter trips, your prep should include training in how to relate and communicate cross-culturally.

trips learner

This is absolutely essential for those of us who grow up in settings that lack cultural diversity:  if everyone you rub shoulders with speaks the same language, values the same things, and sees the world in similar ways, you will struggle to understand how anyone could think differently.

Choose mission trips that include a good orientation or has a strong focus of learning while you’re on the field. Take the initiative to research some of the following:

1. The cultural differences and values

How do their customs and manners differ from your own? Travel blogs and travel guides will help you with this. Where are they on the various cultural value continuums?

Learning about a few different cultural models will help you know what questions to ask and start to understand why things are they way they are.

A lot of times when you’re upset, overwhelmed, or stressed overseas, it is because of cultural norms or values. Being able to articulate the norms or values which are clashing will help you to process your emotions. Ask your host or team leaders for tips, or get some general training in cultural models (see sidebar).

Need a crash course in understanding and adapting to other cultures? Consider one of these:

  • Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures, by Sarah A. Lanier
  • Ministering Cross-Culturally, by Sherwood Lingenfelter & Marvin Mayer
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence, by David A. Livermore
  • The Art of Crossing Cultures, by Craig Sorti

 

2. The country and people

What do they grow or manufacture there? Where do people travel for sightseeing? Are you familiar with their major cities and states? Read up on the country’s stats on the CIA Factbook.

Mastering some basics like these will keep you from feeling so lost in conversation. You will know where you are and have a framework for learning more. Get to know the country and the specific areas you will visit, the people and their history, the climate, geography, food, and way of life.

 

3. The church

Read missionary letters from your host country, do research online, and by all means read about the country on Operation World.org and JoshuaProject.net.

Ask missionaries and mission organizations who work there to help you understand the history of evangelism and the church in the region. How much exposure has this nation had to Christianity? How have they responded to the gospel?

4. The language.

How do they greet and say goodbye? You could learn words for common objects as well as place names and key phrases.

It’s well worth any time to learn a hundred words in another language. It will help you feel more at home when you get there. You’ll be in a better position to understand daily activities and take part in conversations.

The nugget: You will not master the language and unlock the mysteries of the culture in your brief time.

But these ideas will give you a head start. You’ll have a way to show love and respect to people in your host culture. Your choice to come prepared will enrich the time you have together.

 

Relationships: Find trips that focus on people as much as activities.

Most Westerners are fairly task-oriented. Mission trips can really accentuate this tendency to achieve and do and accomplish.

The amount of money and energy that goes into getting to the field–and the short amount of time available to work–may tempt us to cram in as much activity as we can on short-term trips.

“Most Christians don’t like sitting on their hands. We like to serve by doing. But in a third-world of high unemployment and low wages, it makes little sense to spend our time painting a wall, when we could be learning about the country, its people, and problems.
“Ask your contact person to set up visits and speakers who will help you understand questions like these: What problems do the people face? Why is this country so poor? What has our own country done to help or harm this country? What can we do to help?
“These are not questions with pat answers. Struggling with them is a learning experience that can have an impact long after the trip ended.”
Jo Ann Van Engen *

But ministry, as you can tell by looking at Jesus, is far more about people and relationships than it is about activities.

Find mission trips that will allow or even push you to focus on people, not activities. And when you are there, even if it’s not written into the trip description, take the initiative to reach out to the people you meet.

Do things together, ask questions, and look for opportunities to hear their stories. Say no to the temptation to only spend time with the people you came with.

Experiences like staying with a local family and working alongside local Christians can add such depth and richness to your experience. Some short-terms are designed to include those elements.

If you are naturally more comfortable talking and leading, try to switch into “listening, observing, and asking” mode and see what you can learn about how things are done here.

Putting relationships ahead of accomplishments also means investing the time and taking the emotional risk of working through any misunderstandings and strained friendships. Ask others to help you understand their point of view. If someone else seems frustrated with you, find out why. Look for what you need to do differently. Commit to learning from the misunderstandings.

The nugget: Relationships are the key to learning about the people you are visiting. Relationships are also the key to communicating with them. And learning and communicating are probably why you are there! You can’t introduce people to Jesus or influence them to follow him if you can’t relate to them.

Reflection: learn as much about yourself as you can by processing what you feel, think, and experience during and after the trip.

See your trip as a pilgrimage: a journey of personal growth.

To do that will require listening to God and looking for what he is showing you about yourself and your life and his future leading for you.

  • Is he revealing something about his purposes in you and in the world?
  • Is God allowing you to witness heartbreaking things in the mirror or in your cross-cultural context?
  • Could He be giving you a perspective on your home culture that you haven’t had before?

trips debriefingIf you don’t stop and process things, you will miss (or misinterpret) the lessons God has for you. Ideas to make the most of this:

  • The most effective strategies for learning lessons and locking them in are simply talking things through and writing them down.
  • Some mission trip experiences come with a mentoring or interactive aspect built in to encourage this processing. A team pastor or leader is available for one-on-one sessions, or daily times to talk and pray about what’s going on may be on the schedule.
  • Many mission trips include a thorough debriefing and follow-up process as well. Evaluate! Celebrate! Learn from your experience!
  • If they aren’t planned, you can also accomplish these purposes informally. You may have a teammate or friend at your side. Is there someone back home who tracked with you while you prepared to go and can’t wait to hear how things worked out when you return? A good mentoring relationship is especially helpful in processing and redeeming your disappointments and mistakes.
  • Keeping a journal about your experiences, thoughts, reactions, and questions is another good way to process and retain what you’re learning. Chances are good you will gain as much insight from thinking and writing about what you see and experience as you do from just being there. Journaling may also help you slow down on any hasty judgments, separating what you felt or observed from what you think it meant.

You’ll stretch and grow in your understanding of yourself and learn to trust God in new ways and at new levels. You will also grow in your understanding and appreciation for all God is and has done on your behalf. And sometimes God will do or allow something that you will puzzle over for months to come, providing the raw material for ongoing learning.

Remember, you can learn as much after the trip as you learned during it … If you’ll do the work to process it.

The purpose of the reflecting and processing afterwards is to make more observations, connect more dots and another level of dots, and improve your conclusions due to now having more experience and interaction.

The nugget: Ask yourself what you learned about yourself, about those you were with, and about God.–quickly said, but worthy of much slow thought. 

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*“Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?” by Jo Ann Van Engen, Medical Missions Exchange, http://www.mmex.org/articles/VanEngenShortTermMissionsarticle.pdf.

 

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