How to Have a Life-Changing Short-Term Mission Trip

My first-ever overseas trip was a mission trip to Central Asia, and it was less than remarkable. I served as a childcare volunteer for a meeting of IMB workers in Central Asia. In other words, my “mission trip” was playing with American children. I didn’t interact with the culture at all—the most memorable cultural experiences from that week were soggy french fries at every meal and paper towels that disintegrated into mush in my hands.

With these memories in my mind, I plunged into Cory Trenda’s book, After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience.

Trenda, a senior area director for World Vision, gives suggestions for short-term mission volunteers to process their experiences to achieve long-term, positive change.

I’d recommend this book—but not as a stand-alone resource and not without some clarifying encouragements. There were some one-off aspects to the book that made me uncomfortable, like using mass-murderer and dictator Joseph Stalin’s infamous quote as a positive model for connecting with individuals, or getting into the politics of the US-Mexico border wall.

Two Big-Picture Reminders

I’d exhort any reader with two big-picture reminders before they crack open this book.

1. Remember to build a biblically sound foundation.

Some of Trenda’s points take a nuanced perspective on biblical themes that can be misleading without a proper foundation. His understanding of the kingdom of God, for example, is through the lens of social justice. He says, “The kingdom is the place where the poor are blessed, those who mourn are comforted, the blind are given sight, those who were naked are clothed and warm” (90).

That may be true, but the foundational biblical understanding of God’s kingdom is so much richer than this—it’s a kingdom focused primarily on the glory of our Prophet, Priest, and King, not on the comfort of his subjects.

Trenda also says that true love includes the dignity of mutuality, of “Jesus’s example of mutuality.” Yes, absolutely—we should approach others with all the dignity that comes from being an image bearer of God. But Trenda seems lost in this subtlety without the greater perspective of ultimate love being self-sacrifice without expectation of return. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)?

2. Remember that eternal life is our driving passion.

This book isn’t gospel-focused. Most of the cultural examples through the book are focused on becoming an agent for change within social injustice.

Being a Christian should mean fighting for justice and mercy. And that’s easy to forget or ignore. But we must always put it in the right context, which is that our greatest need is always a gospel need. As Christians, we want to serve others with an eye for ultimate heart change.

Within the IMB, our focus in mercy ministries is always to, “assist missionary teams who are evangelizing, discipling, planting, and multiplying healthy churches, and training leaders among unreached peoples and places, while showing compassion for those in need and suffering (Foundations, 84).

Trenda’s perspective, on the other hand, seems a bit misplaced. He even includes a quote from someone named Randy, who said, “The ‘lost’ I frankly consider to be those of us in bondage to self-centered affluence” (100).

Three Encouraging Themes

Despite these cautions, Trenda does offer some great advice we would all do well to apply. Three themes stood out to me.

1. Go with a learner’s attitude.

Let’s face it. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Yet that’s how many volunteers show up on the field. Trenda encourages a volunteer to view their trip as a learning experience—to come with humility and the heart of a learner. Be ready for your world to change by the things you learn. As Trenda explains, “Disorientation allows reorientation, so embrace it as God’s transforming process” (41).

And continue to learn after the trip. Every experience on the trip—and even in our day-to-day lives—is an opportunity to grow. Process the trip with friends or in a journal. Flesh it out and learn to take the uncomfortable but fruitful steps of growth.

Trenda writes, “Fear not! If the cross-cultural experiences we’ve had were superintended by God, then to mine that treasure for our transformation is the only obedient response we can make” (36).

Reading devotional material from authors of other cultures is another way to learn because it lets us see the Bible through a different lens.

Now, almost fifteen years after my first volunteer trip, I live in Central Asia. My perspective has often been enriched or even challenged by listening to my local friends process the Bible from their own cultural background.

2. Foster a global perspective.

I’ll never forget the advice I got when I returned to visit my Midwestern home church after landing my first job in Washington, DC. After I detailed my intimidating new job and its power-players, one man looked at me with a straight face and said, “Folks is folks.”

Trenda draws out that same idea with a bit more elegance. As we enter new cultures, we should look for the similarities in our humanity: the need to love and be loved, for example. Trenda explains that shared characteristics show us what it is to be human, and that creates a bond.

“To become truly cross-cultural is to think of those across the globe as family.”

Instead of simplifying the things we experience in other cultures, Trenda encourages us to embrace the complexity. For example, the presence of trauma doesn’t cancel out the beauty in a culture, and vice versa (58).

Carry that tension after the trip and maintain international relationships, if possible. To become truly cross-cultural is to think of those across the globe as family. And this takes effort because it will involve our hearts and minds becoming “here” and “there” at the same time (115). Trenda argues that in doing this, we will become not just cross-cultural but countercultural.

3. Be an advocate.

An experience can’t be life-changing unless it truly changes your life. After the trip, are there shifts in how you spend your time and money? This is the crux of the book—to change and to be a change-maker.

Trenda emphasizes that our greatest sphere of influence is at home. By mobilizing our friends at home, we can be an agent for good in the lives of those across the globe.

“By mobilizing our friends at home, we can be an agent for good in the lives of those across the globe.”

While his emphasis continues to be social justice, we can expand this to those who’ve never heard the gospel. We can change our lives to have a greater influence for the gospel by advocating for prayer, educating others, and reaching out to those in our own neighborhood. We truly can have a life-changing trip.

My friend Sarah was my roommate on that trip in 2004 and continued to take multiple short-term childcare trips to Central Asia. As her global perspective deepened, she worked to earn a certificate to teach English as a second language. Outside her regular day job, she now teaches English to internationals every week, building friendships through a very practical need.

Over the years, she and her husband have also opened their home to more than twenty international students who came to the US for short-term work. Most of them are Central Asians who call Sarah their “American mom.” Within this relationship, she takes every opportunity to urge her adopted children to “seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isa. 55:6 NIV).

Trenda talks about being “educated, aware, and engaged global citizens” (89).

I’d say my friend Sarah embodies this well.

Following Trenda’s instruction, I’ve processed that first french-fry-laden trip. I didn’t see poverty. I didn’t even interact with locals. But I talked to a lot of missionaries. I served their children so they could gather. I asked questions. And through it all, I learned that missionaries are just normal people trying to be faithful.

Today I live in a Central Asian megacity and interact daily with men and women who’ve never heard the truth about Jesus. I’m a normal person trying to be faithful.

I guess that trip was life-changing after all.

Madeline Arthington is a writer who serves in Central Asia.