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Discover the Best Short-Term Mission Trip for You

By Steven C. Hawthorne

You have an “option overload” problem in missions. Hundreds of mission agencies have opportunities. Many of them want you—or someone like you. And yet each of them is different. Which one is right for you? Which one will best fulfill God’s call on your life? I’ve learned to take note of six decision areas which need to come together for the best missions “fit.” Everyone works through them in a different order and in a unique way.

The sequence in which you consider each area, however, makes a great difference. For example, someone who assumes he or she will go overseas for the summer (term) to play basketball (talent) with a sports ministry (team) may or may not then be able to choose between going to Mexico City or to the Muslims in Indonesia (target).

Switch those priorities to spending a summer (term) among Muslims in Indonesia (target), and you may find yourself doing an entirely different ministry with a very different team.

What are your priorities? How flexible are they? As you read through the following six decision areas, try to identify your priorities.

1. Target

Consider your target. What need will you touch? To which country will you go? What people? Which city?

For some individuals, targeting is the main event. Perhaps they feel that God has called them to a particular country. Others figure that it is important to go where they are most needed. Others have learned to put their finger on places and people groups which are strategic in light of the big picture of world evangelism.

For example, some get their heart set on going to Kenya, and all their other choices follow from that. Others may find themselves interested in the Muslim world. Others “eat and sleep” China.

2. Task

Consider your task. What kinds of activities will you be doing from day to day? What goals will you accomplish?

Some people are open to serve in just about any way. But others start out fixed on a particular job description. You may have your heart set on digging wells, or church planting, or nursing, or doing literacy work, or helping in churches, or playing with orphans, or doing street evangelism, or even building runways in the jungle. Get acquainted with the range of fascinating possibilities. Dream boldly, but beware of spinning scenarios in your mind which are out of reach. Others don’t get so excited about novelty. Widen your willingness to serve by accepting a challenge.

3. Team

Consider your team. With whom will you go? What sending group, mission agency, or church? What relationship will you have with national churches? To step into a short term usually means that a team is taking you on. Suddenly, you will be involved in something larger than yourself or your own career. It’s really a matter of trust.

Mission agencies or your church will probably accept you, believing that you will contribute to the task God has given them. You need to trust the leadership of that sending body to help guide your service. If you choose your team first, then they will usually be heavily involved in determining your target, task and term.

Carefully consider several sending groups. Don’t get stuck on one mission just because you knew someone who served with them or because you have supported them in the past. Develop some criteria and go shopping.

A large part of your total team is your family and the church which is sending you. Don’t leave them out of your decision at any point. Many of them have developed a strategic vision and program of short-term mission trips that are part of their long-term strategy.

4. Talents

Step back and take a good look at yourself. Consider your talents, gifts and strengths. What spiritual gifts or natural abilities are called for? What do you like to do most? What weaknesses do you have?

Many people start here on the search. There may be something they’re good at, like playing guitar or basketball. Some are pleasantly surprised that their special ability can be put to use in missions. Others, however, get trapped by their own gifts and put undue expectations on mission leadership to assign them duties only in areas in which they excel or have interests. They can easily find themselves disappointed and resentful when they are given tasks which do not give them that magic feeling of “self-fulfillment.”

Do not get involved in missions, even short-term, if you merely seek to feel satisfied and good about yourself. Missions work is work. It is fundamentally service, not self-fulfillment.

The “vacation with a purpose” can be astoundingly devoid of God’s purpose. The currents of our self-seeking culture can drift overseas quite easily. It’s a subtle tendency. Short-term missions become expensive summer camp, a career-shopping expedition, or an alternate context for personal soul-searching and career searching. Be careful of viewing your short-term mission too narrowly for what it will do for you, the short-termer.

On the other hand, try to find something that fits you best. You may not feel that you have much to offer. You do. You may believe that you don’t have many well-developed expectations of your time. Silent expectations are the most dangerous. Get in touch with them.

5. Training

Consider your training. What are you equipped or prepared to do?

You may begin the short-term selection process by examining your education, experience and qualifications. These are worthy considerations, but sometimes a poor place to start. Although you might find something which fits you, you will probably miss several key opportunities because you’re limiting your options to your own current abilities.

Be sure to inventory all your qualifications. You may be more prepared than you think! Check to see if different church and mission structures offer training as part of the short-term experience.

6. Term

Consider your term of service. How long a commitment will you be making? Are you thinking of just spending a couple weeks, a summer, a semester, or a year? Do you want an option to extend your term? Are you seriously exploring how to spend most of your life overseas should this short term work out well?

Consider how much more you may gain and give if you were to commit yourself for a year or two instead of just a summer. Be wise about severing ties and quitting jobs. You probably shouldn’t burn all your bridges. But do keep in mind that short-term missions is missions. Expect that you’ll need to give up something in order to give something. Beware of trying to work missions into your schedule only when it seems convenient. It is rarely convenient to change the world.

Decision Points: Narrowing Down the Choices

Use these statements to find out how you've already begun to decide which opportunities might be right for you. How firm you are in some areas will influence your decisions in other areas. Read through the entire list and check statements that reflect most closely your hopes and desires. Then return to those statements and decide how certain you are about each one.

Target (the people, city, or country I’ll touch)

___ I want to work with a certain people or kind of people.

___ I already have a particular country or city in mind.

___ I want to avoid certain places or kinds of people.

Task (the kind of work I’ll do)

___ I hope to do outreach/evangelistic activities.

___ I want to focus my time on the needs of churches.

___ I want to be involved with physical and social needs.

Team (the organization I'll go with)

___ I want to link up with my church or denomination.

___ I’m leaning toward one mission agency already.

___ I know what kind of organizations I want to go with.

Talents (the skills and gifts I’ll use)

___ It’s important to use my special skills and experience.

___ The job has to mesh with my known spiritual gifts.

___ I want to do things I haven’t done before.

Training (the schooling I have or need)

___ I want further training as part of the short-term.

___ I have professional skills which could be used.

___ I want to do something that won’t freeze my career.

Term (the length of time I’l be gone)

___ I just have the summer.

___ I want something with long-term options.

___ I have to set a limit on the length of time.

In which of the six areas (Target, Task, Team, Talents, Training, Term) do you have the most certainty? The least? Rank your certainties in the order of how strongly you want each of them to influence your decision regarding your short term. In which areas could you use a little more flexibility? In which areas should you probably be more decisive?

Adapted with author permission from Stepping Out: A Guide to Short-Term Missions. Copyright © 1992, 2010 by Short-Term Missions Advocates, Inc. Updated and expanded in 2010. Published by YWAM Publishing.

Steve Hawthorne is the Director of WayMakers, a mission and prayer mobilization ministry and co-editor of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, a book and course used to mobilize thousands for global ministry.