Mission trips can be exhilarating. If it weren’t the case, so many wouldn’t be signing up and going out. More Christians than ever seem to be serving abroad in some capacity, whether constructing buildings or prayer walking, providing a VBS or doing disaster relief.
While voices have begun to question the necessity, viability, and benefit of embarking on these trips, we should also consider the manner in which we return. We can make mistakes—not only in the way we go but also in the way we come back. Here are five such ways.
1. The Expert
We live in an information age. People love fast facts. We often parade missionaries before our churches, asking them to boil down three years of foreign ministry into three minutes. But the inverse can also be true. Friends may expect a disquisition on the people, language, culture, religion, and politics of a country, even if those returning never emerged from the capital city, much less jet lag.
In such conversations, perhaps due to pride, the temptation is to play the expert, to pontificate about a place we know little of. We can easily speak in absolutes, defining an entire population without the appropriate nuance and appreciation. It would be similar to someone from the Himalayas spending five days in Hollywood, then returning to their mountain village to explain what America is like. We must recognize that a brief foray into a region can reveal enough to foster prejudice and generalizations, but rarely enough for deep understanding.
“We must recognize that a brief foray into a region can reveal enough to foster prejudice and generalizations, but rarely enough for deep understanding.”
2. The Called
Many of us have experienced a week of summer camp. The spiritual focus, comraderie, emotions, and isolated location provide the ideal environment for a memorable event. Those moments can be times of significant decision. But decisions made at camp are also notorious for generating little lasting change. A compelling emotion by a campfire doesn’t guarantee long-term commitment and follow-through.
What is true for a week in the woods is also true for what has become the Western church’s latest version of Christian camp: overseas ministry trips. Globe-trekking teenagers and adults often return with a sense of calling to missions. But that calling may simply be based on a positive experience. After all, virtually every mission trip now blocks off significant time for sightseeing. Not to mention the reality that actual time spent in ministry is far from, well, reality. Rarely do volunteers experience the mundane of foreign mission or the rigors of everyday ministry. Great experiences alone are insufficient reasons to pursue long-term missionary service.
3. The Critic
Those who come back often want to return overseas; they also may want to take everyone with them. But this isn’t necessarily the time to unleash quotes of “let the dead bury their dead” (Luke 9:60). Yes, America is bloated and materialistic. Yes, there are starving children, and not just in Africa. Yes, we’re doing shamefully little in comparison to our abundant individual resources and massive church buildings. But don’t forget that the people you’re prone to chide are also likely the ones who paid and prayed your way. So, come back with some saltiness, but don’t forget needed grace in those conversations.
Similarly, it’s easy to come back to the States—particularly following a negative ministry experience—and be critical of overseas workers. Their living conditions, schooling choices, or ministry focus may not be yours. Yet just as you're not an expert on language and culture and geopolitical issues, you’re probably not a guru on missiology. It’s usually best to give missionaries the benefit of the doubt since they actually live there and often have years of training and experience. That’s not to say missionaries do no wrong, but coming back with only criticism of missionaries will be of little help.
4. The Exaggerator
One of the greatest dangers upon returning from any mission, whether the trip goes well or not, is to exaggerate. To overstate the successes and the struggles. To inflate the numbers. To make the poor people poorer, the squalor dirtier, the bus ride longer, the church fuller, the darkness darker, or the whole thing totally awesome.
We do this, again, because of our own pride. We have a desire to feel needed or successful. Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting to justify the trip—and it’s cost—to our supporters. We may even have a sincere desire to encourage the church or praise God for his work. But whenever we become the exaggerator, we reveal a deep insecurity in our identity with Christ. We show a lack of faith in him. And we reveal that we find our worth in what we have sacrificed and accomplished for the Savior, not the other way around.
5. The Enthusiastic
Everyone—at least everyone who avoids stomach issues—is expected to return from a ministry trip with enthusiasm. Praising God for victories. Recounting stories of success. Exulting in all that was accomplished. In fact, this is the way the disciples returned to Jesus after their initial experience as short-term traveling witnesses. They returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!” However, Jesus's response is striking: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17, 20).
Of course, I’m not saying all short-term volunteers should return with dour faces and sober stories. I’m also not suggesting—nor was Jesus—that we not rejoice in victories, in deliverance from Satan's power, and in those who believe. But there’s a sneaking danger in exulting in what we accomplish for the kingdom more than joyfully resting in our place as children of the King. The danger is subtle, but that's what makes it so dangerous.
Returning the Right Way
So, how should we come back from a short-term mission trip? For starters, we should return with humility and gratitude for such a privileged opportunity. Speak of your experiences in a way that depicts God as the primary and ultimate actor (Acts 14:27), not in ways that draw attention to yourself. Also, find an opportunity to personally thank supporters for their gifts and prayers. You should definitely report on specific events and encouragement, focusing on stories of God’s grace. But also don’t avoid the realistic accounts of trials, weaknesses, or hardships.
You should recount what you learned, doing so with necessary caveats and an awareness of your limited knowledge. In order to be better prepared for others’ questions, it’s not a bad idea to take notes or journal through your travels so you’re prepared to provide specifics about your time. In particular, record names of people for prayer. If possible, try to get to know local believers as well as missionaries, learning their struggles and needs, then passing them along so others can pray or respond appropriately. This way, the reporting of your trip is others-focused and glorifying to God. Ultimately, we want to return with a joyful awareness of God's work in the world and a greater appreciation for our shared salvation.
A version of this article appeared previously at imb.org