A short-term mission trip can be a life-changing experience. Whether you distribute health kits to the needy or proclaim the gospel in a public square, a few days of cross-cultural service can be greatly used by God to impact the lives of people who desperately need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Each year, an estimated two million Americans participate in short-term mission trips. The vast majority of those trips are aimed at supporting Christian workers on the field who are doing long-term discipleship and church planting. Unfortunately, mistakes made by short-term ministry teams can often devalue their contribution. A single bad choice can even jeopardize the long-term work of missionaries on the field.
Mistakes made by short-term ministry teams can often devalue their contribution. A single bad choice can even jeopardize the long-term work of missionaries on the field.
Here are five of the biggest mistakes you can make on a short-term mission trip (and what to do instead):
1. Matching Group T-shirts
A large group of zealous young people from a large American church came to Wales for a weeklong mission trip. Their assignment was to connect with local youth to share the gospel and invite them to a new church plant. The church planter on the field went to the airport to greet the group and orient them to local customs and culture. He was shocked to see the group—all fifty-two of them—wearing matching bright red t-shirts with the words “Save the Wales” emblazoned across the front. The quick-thinking church planter immediately sent the team to the restrooms to turn their shirts inside-out.
We get it; you’re excited about your trip. And your team has worked tirelessly for months to raise support. But going to the trouble—and expense—of printing mission trip t-shirts communicates that the trip is all about you. Sure, wearing fluorescent shirts can make it easier to find team members in a crowded airport, but it also communicates that you are tourists rather than normal people hoping to build relational bridges and represent Jesus. Instead, do your best to minimize the differences between you and the people you’re going to serve. Ask local people what clothing is typically worn, and bring the closest thing you’ve got in your closet. If your team just really wants to match, opt for something less conspicuous, like bracelets or necklaces.
2. Not Doing Your Homework
When we lived in Barcelona, Spain, we hosted dozens of students on short- and mid-term trips. For the most part, these young people were well-informed. They knew that Spain was in Europe, and they vaguely understood that Barcelona was the capital of Cataluña, a region of Spain populated with the non-Spanish Catalan people group.
At least a few times, students asked us to show them the Eiffel Tower, which is, of course, in Paris, France. Some expressed disappointment because they expected to be eating rice and beans, with is typically Latin American food. One young lady was shocked to find that Spanish people weren’t as needy as the people she had encountered on a previous trip to Haiti.
A little bit of research can make the difference between a helpful, faithful trip and one full of missed opportunities and cultural faux pas. Be sure to read up about the history, culture, and current events in the place you’ll be visiting so that your expectations will be realistic. Learn a few key phrases in the local language so you can demonstrate your appreciation of local people. Explore some local history for worldview context and to find cultural bridges for sharing the good news. A little bit of research can provide the insight you need for maximum kingdom impact.
3. Rushing into a Gospel Presentation
The main reason you’re going on a mission trip is to help make disciples. So, why caution against leading with evangelism? Here’s the reason: if you’re not careful, jumping too quickly into a gospel presentation can lead to no gospel being communicated at all (or worse, a false gospel being shared). When well-intentioned mission-trippers begin every interaction with “Let me tell you about Jesus,” they can accidentally communicate the wrong things: that evangelism is merely a “sales pitch” and that we see people as projects.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus paid the price for our great sin. By repenting from sin and trusting in Jesus alone, he rescues us from spiritual death and gives us eternal life. This is heavy stuff! Reducing the gospel to a canned presentation in a foreign language often means leaving out the “fine print,” which is so vital to truly understanding it. Following Jesus has its benefits, but it also costs everything. We must move carefully into meaningful personal interactions that allow us to communicate the fullness of what it really means to follow Jesus in ways that people can understand.
Another side effect of rushing into a gospel presentation is that it makes people into projects. As good sent-ones, we seek to show and tell people what their lives would be like in Christ Jesus. We do this by engaging with people—sharing a meal, asking good questions, being good guests. Jesus set a great example for us when he interacted with people. Sometimes, he started with the pointed truth. Other times, he invited himself over for dinner. But in every instance, it seems that the person Jesus was interacting with felt—in that moment—like they were the most important thing in the world to him.
4. Waiting Too Long to Share the Gospel
Yes, this is the opposite of our previous point. Although you shouldn’t rush into a gospel presentation, waiting too long can be a far greater mistake. In an effort to be gracious and culturally sensitive guests, many mission trip participants fail to ever proclaim the gospel to their hosts. Make the most of every opportunity to proclaim Christ as King and to call men and women to repentance.
On your trip, people are likely to ask, “so what brings you to our part of the world?” Your answer will depend on what your missionary hosts instruct you to say, but be sure that you include some information about having been sent by God. This is a great way to introduce a spiritual element into the conversation. You may want to ask your hosts if they have such a sense of purpose about their lives. Their answers can be a perfect way to introduce the gospel.
Before your trip, consult with your field hosts for some good ways to present the good news. But keep in mind that there is no “right” way to share the gospel. As weak and imperfect messengers, we will never do the message justice. But every effort we can make to be clearly understood is worth it. Prepare before your trip by practicing evangelism: first, with friends who are believers, then with others who may not be Christians, and finally across cultural barriers with immigrants in your own city or town. Advance preparation like this will help you anticipate common objections and navigate cultural misunderstandings.
5. Going Back to “Normal”
Perhaps the most common mission trip mistake is committed after returning home. After seeing spiritual darkness or extreme poverty, after being an outsider who is willing to give up the comforts of home for the sake of ministry, thousands of American Christians seem to forget their experiences on the mission field and slip back into complacency as through the trip never happened.
When you spend a week in unfamiliar places, under stress and fatigue to make disciples alongside a team of committed brothers and sisters in Christ, you experience life and church and mission in very real ways. A mission trip will “mess you up” in the very best of ways. Let the trip challenge you, and spend time reflecting on your experience. Allow God to teach you. Commit to changing your behavior in your daily life in light of all you’ve seen.
A good way to ensure good stewardship of all that you’ve seen and heard is to keep a journal during your trip. Another idea may be to write a letter—while you’re still on the field—to yourself back home. Read the letter after you get back into your regular routine. Some people find it helpful to debrief the experience with their church leaders to explore what the church might learn from the experience of the few who went on the trip. These kinds of notes can serve as valuable reference material as you look for ways to share and apply all that you learned once you’re back home.
Maximize the Opportunity
The time, money, and effort that goes into a short-term mission trip can have incredible kingdom impact. Avoid these common mission trip mistakes to maximize your faithfulness and increase your effectiveness as you serve in God’s mission.