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Taking Your First Short-Term Mission Trip

By Steve Collins

If you have never participated on a short-term missions trip, we are excited that you are considering it! You can expect that this could be the beginning of a journey that will change your life. That is, if you make the right choice for the agency that will organize your mission project. We are sorry to say that not everyone has a good first experience and sometimes that is because they chose either the wrong organization for their particular needs or they chose an agency that simply did a poor job.

We want to help you have a good first experience. So here are some questions to consider before you sign up.

Questions to Ask Yourself

By asking yourself the following questions to begin with, you help clarify essential information that will enable you to know what to look for in a sending agency:

1. Why are you going on a short-term missions project?

Of course we assume part of your motivation is founded in your desire to be obedient to the Great Commission. But delve deeper into your motivation. For example: Are you going on this project because you want to test the waters to see if career missions might be what God is calling you to? If that is a consideration, then you might want to look at an agency that has both short-term (we usually define this as two years or less) and long-term assignments. Many people find that it is the first agency they go with that captures their heart and if you might end up as a career missionary, why not consider going with an agency that can make that available? It is not at all unreasonable for someone to take one trip and fall in love with a particular location and want to commit their ministry years to that location with that organization.

Of course, you may not be testing the waters for a career in missions. Maybe you want to simply give God a week or two of your vacation time or a break from school to so something for Him, rather than yourself. If that is the case, then it makes no difference if the agency you pick has long-term opportunities available or not.

2. What type of experience do you want?

Short-term mission trips can involve you in construction, evangelism, teaching, medical work, ministry to street kids or other areas. Do you have a particular skill that will enable you to contribute something to the team when you participate? Don’t feel like you have to be a gifted carpenter to work on a construction project. You will be amazed at what novices can do when you add the right amount of on-site coaching and the motivation to serve the Lord. Most mission agencies are happy to have anyone who has a servant heart. Oftentimes, just your presence on the project brings the intangibles such as encouragement and support to the folks you work with. But if you do have a particular field of interest or experience in an area of work, you may want to find a project that gives you the best option of serving a specific need. The more you feel that you made a significant contribution, the more you will be motivated to participate on a second and third project in the future!

Let me say one word about cross-cultural evangelism projects. Be realistic about the depth of evangelism you will be able to do in the particular cross-cultural setting you are involved in. Many people expect that their cross-cultural efforts during a two-week period will result in conversions for Christ. Realistically, a group of high school students working cross-culturally without foreign language skills probably will not see many people accept Christ personally. This should not diminish the impact their participation will have in a process that brings those individuals to receive Christ as Lord.

3. What level of cross-cultural experience do you want or need?

There could be two answers to this question. The cross-cultural level you want may not be the cross-cultural level you need. One of the most common mistakes people make in short-term missions is starting out with a cross-cultural experience they simply aren’t ready for.

Here are some steps of cross-cultural difficulty to think through. Notice that as you add additional elements, the stress heightens and the demands increase.

Basic levels of cross-cultural barriers may include only one or two stress factors. For instance, a project in the Appalachian mountains involving construction work in poor coal mining communities is a good place to start. You will have the cross-cultural barriers of educational level and income level. You could go to an Indian reservation in the United States and add even another barrier between you and those you serve—an ethnic level. You will speak the same language for the most part, but this is a great cross-cultural experience for beginning your short-term missions experience.

Now add to that mix the stress of traveling to another country where they may or may not speak your language. Perhaps you might want to consider being a member of a larger team on your first overseas or international project where your lodging is in a camp or dormitory setting. Here you have a safe place to retreat to in the evenings where you can speak with people who speak your language and the food is familiar. This type of setting is a smart way to go with a junior high or high school group for the first time.

The next level of difficulty is traveling as a smaller group to a foreign country and living within the community of those you serve. You still have your teammates close by to provide familiarity with your own language and customs, but you are more fully immersed into the culture in terms of where you work, what you eat, how you communicate, and what you do in your free time.

The most demanding type of experience is when you are either on your own or in a small group and you live in the home of a national family who cannot speak your language, nor can you speak theirs! It would not be wise to sign up for a two-week trip of this nature if you have not tested your ability to handle cross-cultural barriers in less intense experiences.

Level Project components Stress Experience
1 Same country, same language, possible different ethnic group, large group Low First-timers, jr. high & high school aged
2 Different country, same language, different ethnic group, housed together in familiar setting Low to medium Mature first-timers or those with little experience overseas
3 Different country, different language, different ethnic group, small group housed together in community Medium Previous STM experience recommended
4 Different country, different language, different ethnic group, individual or small group housed separately with national families High Previous STM experience recommended

There are other questions to consider about yourself, but these issues at least give you something to think about as you plan.

Questions to Ask an Agency

What questions do you need to ask an agency on the phone, in person, or as you visit their website?

1. How well do they match up with the answers you gave to the previous questions?

Does it appear from what you read or hear that they can meet your needs? It is very important for you to know what your expectations are and to find an agency whose project description matches up with your expectations.

Let me say a word about expectations. The first questions I suggested you ask yourself are designed to help you identify basic expectations. But you probably have some hidden expectations. The more you can fully understand those expectations, the better served you will be. BUT you need to hear one word of caution. That word of caution is flexibility.

One thing is for sure, regardless of the agency you go with, you will at some point in time hear them say, “You must be flexible.” Whenever you are doing cross-cultural ministry, nothing is guaranteed. The best-laid plans of the best agencies can fall apart before your feet touch the ground. If you are one to demand that your expectations be met, then you might want to consider something other than a short-term mission trip.

What I am saying is this: have expectations, understand them and work to fulfill them. But remain flexible because (1) working cross-culturally is not like working in the United States. You cannot just insist that something happen a particular way. While in another country, you are at their mercy in many respects. They will most likely not have the same appreciation for the value of time as you do. So if you have only ten days to get a construction project done and the supplies are held up for three days, you will see it as a loss. However, they will see it as an opportunity to do something more important than build a building, which is to visit together and interact.

You also need to be flexible because (2) even though you pray about your trip and your motivation, you are really on God’s trip and he will be far more concerned about His agenda in your life than in the project’s agenda. If those supplies don’t show up, see that as God doing a different work in your heart and life than you anticipated. You see, many people go on these trips with the anticipation that they are going to do for someone else, but they soon realize that there is a higher agenda at work. God wants to use your experience to make you more like him. And he will and can use anything that happens, regardless of who is to blame, to accomplish his purpose.

Now, having said all that, don’t take that to mean that it’s okay if the agency you want to go with does a poor job of planning and set-up of your experience.

Another very important question to ask is:

2. Does the agency do what it says it will do (both in its pre-project preparation and on the field itself)?

This is such an important question for you. There are hundreds of organizations out there. Sadly, some are not very thorough. There is nothing worse than preparing for a trip and saving or raising the money, only to find once you are on the field that the agency you picked simply is not very professional or competent.

So how do you evaluate an agency in this regard? Contact others who have gone with them in the past. Most agencies will give you references of those who have had a good experience with them. Even though you are probably getting the names of groups or individuals the agency knows had a positive experience, call them anyway. I find that most people will give an honest evaluation of the agency. But once you get on the phone, ask those people for the names and numbers of others they know who have used that agency. Take the time to make these calls. You do not want to experience your first mission trip with the wrong agency.

Second, as you work with the agency in the pre-project preparation, does the agency follow through with its commitments in a timely fashion? For example, if they said they would send you a manual on February 1st and it does not come until the end of February, note that and ask for an explanation. It could be very legitimate. But if you find several issues like this, it could mean that the agency is not on top of details in the office. And if they are not on top of details in the office they work in every day, how will they be on top of details on the field?

3. Ask about the on-site leadership the agency provides.

Do they provide the leadership or do they expect you to find your way to the site? Know what they expect from you once you are on the field and decide if you are ready to add their expectations to the responsibilities that you already have. If you are leading a youth group on a project, keep in mind how added responsibilities from the sending agency could take you away from your team. You have to decide if you want to take on these added responsibilities or if another agency that handles everything for you is a better option.

4. Ask about the emergency management procedures they have in place.

Have they thought through what they will do in the event of a natural disaster or if someone is seriously injured? I personally would not go on a trip with an organization that has not taken the time to think through how they will protect their participants in an emergency. Make sure you are comfortable with the thoroughness of their preparation.

Don’t hesitate to ask them to tell you about a past crisis experience and how it was handled on the field. They can say they have a plan, but if you hear them tell you how they worked the plan, you will have more confidence. Keep in mind that if you are taking a team of youth, you will have parents raising this question. Do your homework ahead of time so the parents will have confidence that you have done a thorough job of investigating the agency with which you are asking them to entrust their kids.

These are some of the main issues for you to work through before you decide on an agency. If you still have questions, any of the folks at ShortTermMissions.com are glad to help you think through your decisions. We hope you have a wonderful experience!

A good first short-term missions experience doesn’t happen by accident. If you do your homework and pick the right agency, as well as understand the expectations that you and/or your team bring to that first experience, then you are well on your way to experiencing new insights. Insights not only about the God you serve, but about the person he has created you to be.