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

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By David Armstrong and Marti Wade

So you’re thinking about going overseas.

When you’re thinking about a short-term, feeling-this-out trip, why not select a trip designed to help prepare you for future cross-cultural ministry?

You can increase the value of nearly any mission trip by intentionally doing a few things on your own that will maximize the trip and make it a better training ground.

Mission trips that move you forward usually include these four things:

Trip Length

You go overseas for two months or more.

Job Shadowing

You spend significant time with someone already on the field.

Connections for the Future

You serve with a ministry that could also send you long-term.

Practical Ministry Experience

You try out what you’d like to do later.


You can gain even more from any mission trip by putting these three things on your priority list as well:


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


You focus on people as much as activities.


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

When you’ve got these in place, the more your trip will likely move you forward as you consider long-term service.

Trip Length: You go overseas for two months or more.

A ten-day or two-week trip is great for giving you a taster of how things are different over there–like an appetizer. But two weeks doesn’t give you time to go deep into the cultural values, to sort through what you’re seeing and discover what it means. You may never get past your initial fascination with the place or your false conclusions about how things work.

A trip that’s two months or longer gives you more time for that. In fact, you’ll be forced to deal with cultural differences, especially if you stay with a national family.

Stay long enough, and you’ll start to understand not just the language, but the values behind the words and behaviors. You’ll have more of those “aha, I get it now!” moments.


Photo credit: IMB.org Photo Library.

After a month or two, you may find yourself starting to see the world through different eyes – a more “local” point of view. The more you learn to observe and understand the culture, they more you can appreciate and adapt to its ways. 

“In the brief time spent on a short-term trip, the taste of day-to-day life in a foreign country is for the most part very romanticized. Although you may feel like you’ve experienced life on the field, it does not compare to the routine of daily life that most missionaries encounter. “Spending an extended period of time on the field will allow you to experience the day-to-day life of career missionaries and see if God might be leading you there for longer.” The Travelling Team*

Staying two months motors you past your initial intrigue with the culture–beyond that “first date” phase.

  • It tests your perseverance and increases your patience.
  • It will expose your weaker areas and force you to lean on God for the strength and wisdom you need.
  • Staying longer will give you the chance to experience ongoing ministry and relationships, rather than a series of short encounters. Developing and maintaining ongoing relationships is of course more difficult, but well worth it.

The nugget: A two-to-twelve-month trip will give you the practical confidence that living in another culture is something you could really do and enjoy.

Job Shadowing: You spend significant time with someone already on the field.

What is missionary life really like? Often what you see a missionary doing on a ten-day trip isn’t even clost what they do every day: it’s a project or a program that they set up for you.

But what if you could spend extended time with someone who’s already on the field and doing what you’d like to do? Look for an opportunity to serve as an apprentice, intern, or helper.

trip mentoring

Find someone willing to be your mentor. It will give a closer look at what day-to-day missionary life is really like, with its ups and downs, pleasures and pains. Listen, observe, and ask questions.

You may find life on the field less romantic than you thought. It may be slower and more frustrating. On the other hand, you may discover challenges and rewards inherent in the missionary life that can inspire, motivate, and keep you going both now and in years to come.

To shadow or be mentored by a missionary may require greater vulnerability on your part than another kind of mission trip.

  • It usually means going alone or with one or two others rather than traveling and serving with a large team.
  • It will probably include living with the missionary’s family or someone else you do not know well rather than staying together with a group of people a lot like you.
  • Living and working closely with just a few other people can be more difficult; irritations may loom larger. Others may not see and do ministry the way you would. But experiencing things together, up close, gives you a more complete picture of life on the field.

If you think God is calling you to go long-term, these are the kind of learning opportunities that will give you realistic expectations and help you grow the most.

The nugget: Mission agencies that primarily send long-term missionaries are more likely to have experienced missionaries you can shadow.

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*“Debriefing: What’s Next? Finding Your Place after Your Short-term Mission Trip,” The Traveling Team, http://www.thetravelingteam.org/?q=node/198.


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