Realistic Expectations: Helping Students Prepare for a Short-Term Mission Trip

I went on my first short-term mission trip to Cancun, Mexico. While many of you may be thinking “that wasn’t a mission trip, that was a vacation,” let me assure you that it wasn’t. In fact, we didn’t see the ocean or the beach until the last day. This trip to Mexico changed my life.  

I became a believer three months before this trip. I was growing in my faith. I wanted to serve the Lord, but I wasn’t sure how or what that would look like. I told the Lord that I would serve him anywhere in the world to spread the gospel, and the next Spring Break the Lord provided an opportunity for me to go. I attended trainings beforehand, learned how to share my testimony and the gospel, raised support, and traveled to Mexico.  

I expected our work to look very different than it did. At twenty years old, I thought I would come in wearing my superhero cape and fix all of the problems. I even thought that I would be able to share the gospel with thousands of people and those people would come to know the Lord on the spot.

Expectations Versus Reality

It didn’t quite work out like that. Our team worked alongside a long-term missionary doing various work. We handed out cookies at a church youth event, we cleaned out the churches’ storage area, and we handed out clothes and food in one of the slum areas.

“Prayer helps each student build spiritual dependence on the Lord as they join him on the mission field.”

I realized quickly that the only things I could offer these people were a smile, a hug, the gospel, and maybe a bottle of water. Instead of doing the work I wanted to do, I did the work the missionaries needed me to do—work that would benefit those who would be there long after I left. I came in as a know-it-all and left as a better learner and listener. I also left with many unanswered questions about how to do missions well.

When I took on the role as the director of missions for a university, one thing I wanted to do was to make sure my students were prepared for missions. I don’t want my students to approach a mission trip with unrealistic expectations. I want them to be prepared, to be flexible to do whatever the local missionaries need, and to remember who they were serving.

I work with many students who are going on mission trips. This is how I seek to prepare them.


Before any student makes the decision to go on an overseas trip, I always suggest that they spend time in prayer. Start by praying for their own heart, asking the Lord to help prepare them for the mission field. It is in prayer that we discern God’s will for them and for their team. Prayer helps each student build spiritual dependence on the Lord as they join him on the mission field. Prayer helps break down barriers and strengthens each student to carry out his will. Prayer will also help prepare each student for opportunities to share about Christ.

Partner with Your Home Church

Each student should partner with their home church before they are sent out. Why? Missionaries are not only ambassadors of Christ, but they also represent their sending church. Paul was a model missionary because he had church partnerships that helped fuel his faithfulness. Churches can pray with students and provide support as they serve.

Serve Your Local Church and Community First

I am hesitant to send students to serve globally if they are not already serving locally. Encourage your students to serve their church and local community. Most students think that in order to serve they must go overseas, but the truth is you can, and should, serve in your own backyard. Local missions helps fuel global missions.

Students must develop a spirit of service and become servant minded. Service is at the heart of every missionary’s daily life. The only way to gain any experience in this area is to serve. Help students learn to love those in their community before they travel internationally.

Training Is Key

Many students will be going on their very first international mission trip and may need training in some basics. Here are a few topics that are important for students to learn before they go.

  1. How to share the gospel
    Missionaries are sent to proclaim the message of hope to a world. Students must learn how to present the gospel to those who have never heard it.
  2. How to share your testimony
    Learn how to share your story of how God rescued you from sin and death through Christ, and changed your life as a result.
  3. Preparing for culture shock
    What is it? How do you recognize it? How do you deal with it? Teach them the four stages of culture shock.
  4. Spiritual warfare
    Chuck Lawless wrote on the topic, “We face three enemies: the world, our flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:1–3).” Help students learn how to handle spiritual warfare, recognizing who is our enemy and who isn’t. Teach your students how to be steadfast in prayer, and prepare them to face the enemy.
  5. Team conflict
    Give students a chance to get to know their team well. Conflict can arise when a person’s needs or expectations are not met. Personality tests are very helpful for learning how to handle conflict with team members.
  6. Safety and security
    Students may be traveling to countries where it is illegal to share the gospel, where Christians are not welcome. Help them to expect the unexpected and teach them how to create a contingency plan—things they should do in an emergency. Research the country where students are going and learn about potential risks. Contact missionaries who are there and ask about best practices to minimize sticky situations.
  7. Packing 101
    Help students know how to pack and, more importantly, what not to pack. Help them understand the culture to which they are going and learn what clothes are appropriate to wear while there. Help them know how to pack minimally so they aren’t weighed down by too much luggage.


Life on the mission field is constantly changing and is filled with unexpected transitions. A student’s trip will not turn out like they had hoped or planned. Prepare your students now to be ok with the constant change. Remember that they are there to serve and to encourage the men and women with whom they are working.

“Remember that students are there to serve and to encourage the men and women with whom they are working.”

Be a Learner

Teach your student to be learners. Ask questions, and always listen to their field missionary. Don’t assume that what works in the States for ministry will work overseas. Honor those who live and work in that culture.

It’s Not about You

Help students look outside of themselves. Yes, God will work in their life when they go, but make sure they don’t miss the growth that comes from forgetting about themselves.

Though the Lord allows us to be a part of his plan, he doesn’t need us. We can be thankful that we are part of God’s redemptive plan. Remember to focus on God’s greatness and his amazing mercy in the gospel. God deserves to be praised among the nations.

Mary Ann McMillan (EdD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a former IMB missionary and serves as the Director of Missions at William Jessup University in Rocklin, CA.  She is an advocate for vulnerable children and racial equality. In her free time, you can find her outdoors or in a coffee house drinking tea with friends. Find her on Twitter @MaryAnnMcMillan.