By Grace Sigmon
Try to think back to how you felt before your very first mission trip experience. Or, if you’ve never gone on a mission trip, imagine what you might be thinking and feeling today if you were about to board that plane tomorrow. What images come to mind?
Most of us travel with unrealistic expectations about what we will get out of our “mission trip.” As westerners, we tend to value projects with concrete results over spiritual encouragement and relationship-fostering. Some of us harbor secret (and often unrealized) hopes that the trip will feel like a vacation, seeing the “service” part of the experience as the barrier we need to overcome to get to the “fun” part. We want to work, sure, but in a new place, with new food, and new people. All of which we will obviously fall head over heels in love with.
Perhaps more harmful than these expectations, though, is our belief that international service will heal our spiritual brokenness. We don’t board the plane considering how we can encourage local people; we come expecting them to fill us. Your international travels are likely stalled temporarily, so in the meantime it is important to dispel any unrealistic and unhelpful expectations for the time when borders do open.
Here are three ways to calibrate your expectations, defined by what a short-term mission trip is not:
1. Your mission trip is not a task-focused project.
For many achievement-focused Westerners, it is hard to serve without a mindset that values efficiency and productivity over patience and relationship-building. This often comes into play in short-term international service, especially for those who have been on a traditional mission trip where the project was, indeed, the highest priority. If the school isn’t painted when we leave, what good did we do?
127 Worldwide encourages our team members to prioritize encouraging local leaders in the work they are already doing in their communities more than completing a project. A local painter might really benefit from a day’s salary to get that building ready to go, and the spiritual encouragement you can provide to other members of Christ’s global body is unique to you and invaluable.
While 127 does send specialized Equip Teams to help implement sustainable development projects, even these teams prioritize the leader and the relationship above material accomplishments. The goal is always to learn from the local leader about the challenges that face them, to encourage them in their ministry, and to spur them on in faithfulness as members of the global church.
In addition to encouraging local believers, a mission trip serves to open the eyes of Westerners to better advocate on behalf of local leaders and build cross-cultural relationships. Thus, we see praying for and serving local leaders as the most productive use of our teams’ time abroad. A short-term team that ignores the local leader and their spiritual edification would be seen as a failure, no matter how traditionally “productive” that team was. A team that slows down and focuses on encouraging the local leader and building long-term relationships would be considered a success… even without measurable or immediate “results” from the trip.
If you’re looking to vulnerable communities to give you a spiritual high, then maybe your service is more about playing savior than serving the Savior.
2. Your mission trip is not a vacation in disguise.
While many of us would readily assent that international service is not a facade for a vacation, I think we still secretly expect it to be fun and exciting. Even if we don’t expect an all-out vacation, we anticipate some level of exotic adventure. We all know the friend who came home from two weeks in Kenya with National Geographic quality photos. While 127 Worldwide does sincerely hope that people enjoy their time as part of a short-term team, fun and excitement are not the underlying goals.
In fact, we expect short-term team members to struggle as they witness the suffering that many people outside their normal spheres of life experience. There’s a lot to grapple with when we expose ourselves to the world’s brokenness. In short, we go to serve God by joining his mission to care for the orphan and oppressed and not so that we can get a break from our ordinary lives. Take comfort in the fact that, even if you don’t have a lot of fun on a particular mission trip, that doesn’t make it a failure. After all, service is about laying aside our own comfort for the care of others.
3. Your mission trip is not a spiritual retreat.
While it is wonderful to have an open heart to what God might teach you in another country, it is a very different thing to travel abroad under the guise of service with the hidden expectation that locals will fill a spiritual void in your life. Only God can do that. If you’re looking to vulnerable communities to give you a spiritual high, then maybe your service is more about playing savior than serving the Savior.
You should come ready to pour into others, both your teammates and locals. 127 encourages team members to humbly learn from local leaders as part of a mutually-edifying relationship, but seeking from other people and new experiences what only God can give you is both dangerous and unhelpful to the team.
Realistic Expectations and a Humble Heart
Nothing from our “what your mission trip is not” list is intended to drive people away from serving others on a short-term team. Rather, they are meant to help those who do decide to go on a mission trip make the most of their time by entering with realistic expectations and a humble heart.
Short-term international service is a wonderful way to obey God and build up the global body, but when we delve in with unrealistic expectations we risk spending our limited time overseas frustrated, stressed, and disappointed. If our reason for going is our own checklist or wanderlust or a spiritual dry spell, we will do more harm than good to the ministry God is already doing through believers in the places we travel. On the other hand, knowing how to correct our misguided expectations frees us up to embrace indirect service to vulnerable communities by pouring into the people who will continue to serve them long after we’ve returned home.
Grace Sigmon has served as an intern at 127 Worldwide which seeks to partner with the global church to care for the vulnerable.