In the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege to take part in a number of short-term mission trips to Central America. These trips have been life changing and faith expanding. With reflection, conversation, and prayer, this is what I’ve learned:
1. Preparation is essential.
On my first mission trip, I went without much prior preparation. Packing lists are one thing. But preparing myself emotionally and spiritually was something altogether different.
I listened to the advice and followed the lead of other, more experienced missionaries. All were kind and generous, but few, I discovered had thought more deeply about cultural sensitivity, unintended consequences, and doing no harm. Least of all was a sense of a theological foundation for reaching out to neighbors in general, and these individuals in specific.
Prior to my second trip, a colleague and friend invited me to read “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This book was a game changer for me. It was the first theological, thoughtful discussion about engaging in short-term missionary trips. An evangelical perspective emerged from a solid Biblical base that led me to ask relevant questions about what we are doing and why we do it.
Read the book; or one similar to it. Use it as a guide for discussion with traveling colleagues before you leave. Reflect and pray about the insights that are presented.
2. Be humble.
Humility is a good thing; especially when you are the guest in someone’s home. The houses you visit, the towns you visit, the countries you visit are your hosts, and as such, the best posture of every short-term missionary is Christian humility.
God has called you to serve. Speak and act like it is a privilege, because it is.
No one likes an outsider who acts like a know-it-all. Pride and arrogance are easily brought down to size by indigenous people who knew better all along, but were willing to watch well-intended visitors try and fail. As an American, there is established a global persona that we are brash and bully, arrogant and rude. Unrepentant colonialism and centuries of political meddling have not served us well.
Local people have more to teach us then we have to teach them. It is their culture, their language, their values, and their beliefs. Allow them the space and the freedom to become our teachers. A modest, conservative approach multiplies blessings.
3. Be curious.
We love to talk about ourselves! So do the people God has called us to serve.
Listen actively. Ask questions. Force yourself to be non-judgmental. None of us know the complexity of family or church communities, the nuances and outside pressures, or the status and roll of individuals in larger communities.
Show interest in their story. Listen with empathy. Learn the details. Ask about family, especially children and grandchildren. Smile; warm yourself to narratives of love, kindness, and generosity. Learn from tales of courage, ingenuity, and marvel at success … especially educational success.
And, oh. Don’t talk about yourself unless you are asked. And never communicate a sense of affluence or prosperity.
Listen and learn all that you can because your experience is a gift, God’s world is great, and there is no end to knowledge.
4. Show respect.
It is amazing what a softened brow, averted eyes, praying hands, and a slight bow can do.
I have found myself in the most unpleasant of environments and circumstances. The house I consider to be a dump is someone’s home where they are raising a family. The food I consider to be vile might be the difference between life and starvation. The shoeless man with a bag full of peaches is a father preparing to plant an orchard to support his family.
Respect elders, leaders, pastors and priests. Respect teachers; they work a lot harder than you or me. Respect fathers and mothers. Show respect to children. Respect your hosts, both your indigenous hosts and your missionary or Non-Governmental Organizational hosts. Remember, you depend upon them for your every need.
5. Be disciplined.
Some short-term missionaries think they can behave the same way as they do back home. With friends, they might let their hair down a bit; drink, smoke, swear, carouse, or party.
At least, don’t behave this way in front of local people, especially children. Discipline personal behavior to reflect the God we are glorifying. Poor behavior distracts attention from our Gospel values, the life of Jesus, and the will of God.
6. Be flexible.
Experienced travelers have learned to be flexible. Those who can’t be flexible stop traveling. There are always airline delays, diversions, distractions. Reservations are easily mixed up. Accommodations never appear to meet expectations. And, there is always the high maintenance missionary (don’t be that guy or gal).
Like most North Americans, I have a monochromic view of time. Time is a limited and valuable resource that shouldn’t be wasted. Agendas, timetables, and goals must be strictly kept and checked off. It is almost a sin to think of wasting time, especially when one considers the expense of traveling.
But many in the world think differently about time. Many have a polychromic perspective of time. There is always more time. Schedules and agendas serve little more than a guide of how one spends their day. Relationships come before schedules. Friendships are more important than completing tasks.
I know you want to get things done. Just take a deep breath and try to be a little flexible. Ministry often happens during those in-between times or when detoured by another road.
7. Make new friends.
Take the time to make new friends and reconnect with old ones. This is far more important than getting things done, sticking to time lines, or checking off agenda items.
Wealth and quality of life are not measured by the size of your bank account, the size of your house, the car you drive, or where you vacation. Wealth and quality of life are largely dependent on the people you surround yourself with. This is true in your immediate social circle. It’s also true of the friends you make on mission trips.
Friendship fights the scourge of poverty and isolation. It forms a connection that communicates solidarity. It is the foundation for advocacy and service. It is the substance for trust, understanding; yes, even recreation. Friendship unifies our hearts with that of Jesus Christ.
I’m planting a seed here: Multiple mission trips, serving the same people, over numerous years is a great strategy to make and keep sustained friendships. Like a long-term pastorate, the benefits are compounded. At the same time, watch for the signs of dependence; that may be an indication for sun-setting a mission.
8. Take your time.
Slow down whenever possible. Yes, hasten your step to make that flight connection. However, when you’re immersed in your mission setting, walk slower, linger, take it all in, and give God your thanks.
Pay special attention to your senses. Smell what’s cooking or the exotic vegetables and fruits in the open market. Listen for the roosters in the morning, the sounds of children laughing or a baby crying, and listen for church bells.
Pause to take in the vistas. After you take your pictures, spend an equal or more amount of time just taking in the scenery. Look people in the eye in a non-threatening way. Though your gaze, soften your brows and bestow your warm smile.
Most transportation in Central America will be open air. Take advantage of feeling the change in micro climates, awareness of the thinness of the air due to elevation, the glorious feel of water rolling off your skin in the shower after a hard day’s work.
You’ve removed yourself from your everyday world. So, slow down and breathe!
Play like there is no tomorrow. Let your inner child free from your North American norms and values (all the while ensuring safety for each child).
No props are needed. Finger shadows, Vulcan Vs, curling the tongue, and rolling the eyes work wonders. Add a cell phone and selfies become a hit. Children are attracted to a playful visitor doing selfies like bees are attracted to honey.
Travel prepared with props. Bubble blowing bottles and wands bring out the inner giggle in children. Bring out a jump rope and before you know it, crowds gather to count who can make the most jumps. Pull out your bottle of hand sanitizer and everyone wants a squirt!
Play on the school yard. Play in the church yard. Play while waiting on the bench for the van to come pick you up. Play with the goal of connecting with children and warming their hearts. By your play communicate to every child that they are important, they are loved, and that it is Jesus Christ who brings us together.
10. Sit on assumptions.
It’s hard to not jump to conclusions when something goes wrong or turns up missing. Take a deep breath and zip it. Step back and give yourself time to think, reflect, and pray.
Quick, emotional reactions usually don’t work out well.
Things get lost and misplaced. It doesn’t mean they were stolen or the individual is stupid. What may be repugnant in your world may be the norm in your host community.
If you don’t know, ask. Go to the leader of your mission team. Go to the leader of your host NGO or in country support team. Talk it over before making a decision to respond.
11. Generosity goes both ways.
I’ve always carried a couple of hundred dollars US cash with me on each trip. I think to myself that where there is a need, I’d like to be able to step in and help. Who doesn’t love to be generous?
To the best of my ability, I am generous; abet, cautiously generous.
What I’ve learned is that the people we serve end up being just as generous (if not more so) than we are towards them.
Friends squeal with delight when we visit. We’re often invited into their home, offered some food, or cut down plantains for us to take home with us.
When teaching Bible School, the vice-principle interpreter had requested each person in my class to bring me a thank you note on the last day. Of course I didn’t know of the request since I don’t speak Spanish. When Friday came, each of my thirty students came one by one up to me to present me with a personally created thank you note.
One of the most over-the-top church dinners I’ve ever experienced came from a gathering of pastors and lay leaders who had partnered with us in mission the entire week. The cuisine was worthy of the finest New York City restaurants. Wow. Words fail to express the generosity I’ve received.
12. Beware of unintended consequences.
It is very easy to make an attempt to help someone out, when in fact you end up hurting them. It wouldn’t take a second thought to give a woman a hundred dollar bill who earns seventy dollars a month weaving at a loom.
But, what if the neighbor sees that she is now flush with money and they rob her? Or worse. What if her supplier of thread now jacks up the price because they know she can pay it?
Becoming a human ATM machine is a terrible practice and it is fraught with danger. Oh, you will make a lot of friends, but you’ll also send forth ripples throughout the community that will benefit some and harm others.
Try to be creative with your generosity. Instead of giving money to neighborhood kids, offer to pay them a fair wage after spending the day helping the mission accomplish its goals. Encouraging people to earn, work, and be employed offers a sense of satisfaction. It elevates self-esteem. And it recognizes both as equals.
13. Love is universal.
When on a mission trip, you become the channel for God’s love to flow and lavishly splash into the lives of everyone you meet. Oh yes, God’s love is already present. What is different is that now it is the missionary who is the new source (and recipient) of God’s love in the community.
Turn on love’s fire hose!
Love lavishly. Seek out the unlovely; you know, the one who it appears no one else is paying attention to. Seek to stretch you envelope of comfort. Reach out and love them. Give them you attention, your time, your heart.
Love means not making promises that cannot be kept.
Love cost zero money, but it is priceless. It is hard for me to get over myself, for I am a self-avowed conservative curmudgeon. So, I tell myself all the time … get over it! Tear down the barriers. Be the love of Christ present in the room.
Love always benefits the recipient. It is never exploitive or for our personal benefit. Keep it that way.
14. Watch and listen for God to move.
Over thirty years of pastoral ministry has taught me to pay special attention to the revelation of God especially during times of life crisis. The same is true when it comes to short-term mission trips.
Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and your lungs will be filled with the Spirit. Watch for how circumstances play out. You think that was a coincidence? Think again.
Listen for the change in a person’s voice when gathered tightly in a prayer circle, even when the prayers are in a language you don’t understand. That’s God at work. Watch for eyes filling with tears. Take in that seemingly herculean effort to finish work by the end of daylight, and recognize the fact that it was God who supplied the extra energy even after everyone else was spent.
Witness to the movement of God during daily devotions. Listen to the witness of others as they share their miraculous tales of God at work and God at play. God put you at the table for a purpose; take it all in and let the awareness of God permeate deeply into your soul.
15. Interpretation is necessary.
After all the fund raising and preparation; after the expense and travel; after the awesome, God filled experience of your mission trip; after you return home and sleep for three days … your job is not done.
Return to your faith communities and churches with the Good News of what God was able to do in your midst. They’ve supported you with money, prayer, and worship. Return generosity with your gratitude.
Take pictures, show slideshows, premier videos, talk about people and how lives were changed. Share your passion and allow it to be contagious. Say thank you.
Invite those in the audience to consider joining you on the next short-term mission experience. To sustain a mission effort, a new cohort of first time missionaries are needed on every trip.
In conclusion, there are many more lessons I’ve learned from my mission experiences to Nicaragua and Guatemala. Many are already posted below. As so moved, I plan to post more on this blog. I still feel like a newbie to the mission movement. There is so much more to learn and experience about God’s world, his creation, and God’s beautiful people.