I am often asked what I find to be most lacking in training for churches serving cross-culturally. Sadly my answer is that they simply aren’t doing it.
As harsh as that may sound, I regularly hear things from churches I train for short-term engagement like, “I wish I had known all of this before I went on my first trip,” or “I wish we had been using this information all along.”
With an estimated two million people participating in short-term mission trips every year, a conversation is warranted to help them be more effective—not destructive—during their brief time in their country of service.
Short-term missions is also a means of discipleship—that is, crossing cultures for the sake of the gospel inevitably changes believers, as well. It grows us in various aspects of our own faith. Leaving our comfort zones for a foreign context means we can’t rely on our familiarity. The result is a deeper reliance on the One who sends us.
“Short-term missions is a means of discipleship—that is, crossing cultures for the sake of the gospel inevitably changes believers as well.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but below are six vital areas for preparation prior to a short-term mission trip.
“Missions is the joyous work of informing the world that it is loved.” —Calvin Miller
It is easy to be overwhelmed with the logistical details of an international mission trip. Don’t get me wrong; logistics are a must. But even more important is connecting to and hearing from God. Only he knows the spiritual state of the peoples in the places you are entering.
You need to be able to respond as the Holy Spirit leads. Trusting that he is in control of every situation gives you confidence, avoids confusion, and keeps you from being rattled when unexpected things happen on the field.
Prayer is, therefore, essential for each team member to build spiritual dependence on the Lord as they join him on mission. It is in prayer that we discern the will of God, break down barriers, and are strengthened to carry out his will through obedience. Prayer will help prepare us for God-given opportunities to share about him.
Team Dynamics and Resolving Conflict
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV).
Conflict can arise when a person’s needs or expectations are not met. What is perceived as someone being difficult or uncooperative may simply be the fact that he or she is struggling in the current environment.
For example, introverts tend to become drained around large groups of people and need time alone to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy from people, so they will thrive and struggle in different ways than introverts.
As you prepare for your trip, consider taking a free personality profile, such as DISC, to learn your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Once you identify these traits, leverage them by allowing team members to use their strengths and grow in their areas of weakness.
Crossing Cultural Divides
We all have cultural biases—things that are ingrained in us from our own experiences and surroundings. Those biases affect how we interact with others, so they need to be understood and minimized as much as possible in order to avoid barriers to good communication. Be a learner, and let people show you what they believe. Then engage them with the gospel in ways that are relevant to their specific worldview.
Practically think through your own life and create a timeline, whether mental or physical. List things that have shaped you, such as family structure, faith journey, education, where you’ve lived (rural or urban), media, technology, world events, etc.
Have your entire team develop their own lists and talk through how your cultural biases will be different from those of the people among whom you will be working. Discuss how those differences will shape the way you engage with them.
Preparing for Culture Shock
Most things we do every day are done without much thought. They are routine. Once you leave your familiar surroundings and enter into another culture, however, virtually everything will be different. Everything requires thought and everything can potentially be a trigger for culture shock—language, transportation, food, cleanliness, personal space, and even bathrooms.
To help limit the disorientation you may feel, try these things before you go:
- Eat at an ethnic restaurant and order something unfamiliar
- Brush your teeth with bottled water
- Keep a bucket of water beside your toilet and use it for flushing
- Learn a few basic phrases in the local language of the country you are visiting
- Research cultural do’s and don’ts from websites or travel books
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Pet. 5:8, ESV)
This is a subject that isn’t talked about very often, but it is real and deserves your attention. It can come in subtle forms like health problems, relationship struggles, physical illness, and many others. As Chuck Lawless recently wrote on the topic, “We face three enemies: the world, our flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:1–3).
In some cases, the three are so interwoven that it’s difficult to tell them apart.” Recognizing who is our enemy, and who isn’t, is the first step to victory. Both before and during your trip, through Bible study and prayer, prepare yourself and your team to face an enemy who does not want to see you produce fruit in your work.
Safety and Security
Although safety is not the number one concern of those engaging in global mission—obedience to Christ’s call and command is—it would be foolish not to consider it at all. In today’s world, we cannot rely on any “safe” places. Expecting the unexpected and having contingency plans will help you and your loved ones at home rest easier. Understand the potential risks of global travel and learn best practices to minimize adverse situations.
Again, this is far from an exhaustive list. However, these six considerations are a great starting point for churches and individuals looking to maximize effectiveness in short-term missions.
Debbie Stephens lives in Middle Tennessee. She is the founder and president of Equipped To Go, which provides training and coaching services to those desiring to be culturally adept while traveling, living, and working in foreign countries. She also leads the Jet Set division of the Upstream Collective. Follow her on twitter @equippedtogo.
Equipped To Go provides an online training session on staying healthy and keeping everyone secure while traveling abroad through minimizing risk and managing potential or real crises.