As many trip leaders will tell you, it’s all too easy to get tangled up in the logistics of planning a short-term trip. The team must be selected and funds raised. Schedules require seemingly endless hours of drafting, editing, and tweaking. Although planning time for a trip can get sucked up in important details such as these, here we’ll highlight the difficult, yet often neglected, internal work that we believe should be central in preparations for any cross-cultural trip.
1) Reconsider “short-term.”
When we plan for a short-term trip, our minds are usually preoccupied with our team’s daily activities. We’ll be there for two weeks, so we should prepare primarily for those two weeks. Makes perfect sense, right? Actually—no! When our focus is limited to our team’s needs only when we are in country, we may overwhelm communities at inconvenient times, use up precious resources, deprive nationals of work, and be a burden to our hosts rather than ‘a blessing.’
So, instead of preparing for a short-term trip, think in terms of long-term relationships. Spend months cultivating friendships with host communities in which you do more listening that speaking. Keep up with their routines, seasons, and birthdays. Ask lots of questions. Make sure that their leadership is emphasized, agendas prioritized, and decisions honored. Within a long-term relationship between a team and host community, team participants can interact with their hosts with mutuality and trust, understand what that community actually wants, and serve with Christ-like humility.
2) Rethink when and where formation happens.
We often think of a “successful” short-term trip as one that facilitates radical transformation in participants during the brief time that they are in country. We think formation happens primarily—perhaps only—during that two-week period away from home. Certainly, significant formation does occur on short-term trips. But to consider the trip itself as the primary time and place of formation is to completely underestimate the impact of thoughtful preparation and debrief.
The months leading up to a short-term trip provide the perfect time and space for participants to learn about their hosts’ culture and prepare to serve from a place of humility before they are overwhelmed with culture shock and sleepless nights. So also, intentional follow-up can help translate the transformation that happened during the trip to mature, grow roots, and bleed into other areas of their lives, whether that be renewed intentionality in relationships, reinvigorated compassion for the marginalized, or simply a more global perspective. With sufficient training before a trip and deliberate follow-up afterwards, the transformation that happens in participants in country will be powerful, acute, and actually stick.
3) Reframe who has what.
Some communities we visit have electricity and running water, others have dirt floors; some have been overexposed to Christianity, others haven’t even heard of it. However, during short-term trips, we often – subconsciously, at least – view the people we visit in terms of what they lack, whether it be material (“they don’t have water”) or spiritual (“they don’t have Jesus”). Quite naturally, then, we see ourselves supplying that which we think they need (“they don’t have water, so let’s build them a well” or “they don’t have Jesus, so let’s bring him to them”). In other words, we see ourselves as the “haves” going to the “have-nots,” those with assets sharing with those with deficits.
Although we may have materials that our hosts do not, a fundamental shift occurs in our attitudes and actions when we see our hosts in terms of what they have rather than what they lack. By doing so, we see what is true in God’s eyes – all are broken and gifted, and all are on equal footing before God. Secondly, we are liberated from an ‘us-them’ paradigm that designates ‘us’ as patrons and ‘them’ as recipients. Instead, ‘us’ and ‘them’ becomes a ‘we’ when we share and learn from one another.
By reframing who has what, we place ourselves in a humble posture to be transformed while our hosts are given the opportunity to be empowered to live as gifted agents in the world.
4) Redefine “mission.”
Depending on where you are in the world, “mission” and “missionary” connote profoundly different concepts. Some consider it demeaning to be the target of another’s “mission,” while “mission” for others connotes violence, especially for those in countries that are Muslim or have been colonized.
While we call our church trips “mission trips” with the best of intentions, we can forget that it is God who is on a mission to transform and reconcile all things, including ourselves. God is saving all of us. This means that short-term teams hope to participate in God’s activities alongside their host communities. Both our teams and our host communities are recipients of and partners with God’s work all of the time, together.
So if ‘mission’ describes what God does, then how should we describe what we do on trips? Instead of calling ourselves ‘missionaries’ and our trips ‘mission trips,’ short-term teams could describe themselves in practical terms based on what they’re actually going to do on the trip (a “relational trip,” “exchange,” etc.) and in ways that honor what their host communities want them to do.
5) Chill out!
Relax. Be flexible. And remember to bring your sense of humor! God may work more than you expect in you and through you, but not necessarily because of you. So chill out! God is faithful.
Stephanie and Bryan recently graduated from Candler School of Theology and joined The Mission Society. With their son, Jack, they are planning to move to Kosovo where they will be joining Kosovo Hope, a local organization that does intellectual formation, religious education, and peacemaking work with youth and families. Stephanie and Bryan are excited to build friendships with their Kosovar hosts and continue learning about what it looks like as a family to pursue the peace of God’s kingdom between Christians and Muslims.