My heart skips a beat and my mind floods with amazing memories when someone brings up mission trips. Through my Christian school and my church I have had opportunities to travel on mission trips over the past five years all across the world to places like Greece, Mexico, China, and even places within the United States like Florida, South Carolina, and the inner city of my hometown: Atlanta! I've had opportunities to work with refugees, orphans, and poverty-stricken people.
If you've stumbled across this article, you've probably also crossed many articles and pages titled: "Why I Hate Short Term Mission Trips" or "Why Christian Mission Trips Don't Actually Help."
Don't get me wrong, these writers have every right to speak their heart and mind as I do and I do find some of their points to be very convincing, true, and enlightening. However, as an expert in the field of 10 day mission trips, I feel like I've got some room to elaborate on what these mission trips can be and really are about. I believe that mission trips can be great and they can be so much more than we generation Y Christians are making them out to be. We have the opportunity to make these trips helpful, meaningful, and sustainable. These are 11 things that I've learned that will make your mission trip more meaningful, more helpful to the community, and less destructive to their society. So, keep them in the back of your mind as you travel on these trips.
1. Remember, you don't have to fly 3,000 miles to adequately serve the poor.
While I have thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from my missions in China and Greece, I have also had countless opportunities to serve at the local soup kitchen or tutor at a public elementary school that is located 10 minutes down the road. Poverty is everywhere and there is always something that you can do to help.
2. Don't shove your beliefs in someone's face without understanding theirs.
On my mission in Greece, my team was able to work with Middle Eastern refugees, most whom were Muslim. At our refugee center, we would hold bible studies and teach them the Christian faith. It wasn't until someone asked me, "Why is Jesus right?" that I stopped for a minute and realized just what I was doing. I asked myself, "Really, why is Jesus right?" As soon as I got home, I went out and bought my very own copy of the Quran. While trips with a main goal to evangelize are amazing, consider this before you try and change someone's tradition, someone's beliefs, and someone's mind to fit your own way of life.
3. Handouts create dependency.
If your activities on a mission trip include painting a school mural or handing out bags with a day's supply of food in them, you're not doing much to help the community that you are trying to serve. The best thing that you could do for the community, if you're painting a wall or digging a well, would be to invite the community to work with you. Doing work that they can do for themselves or providing food for the week that you are there will only create dependency within the community. It will do more harm than good to their society. Remember that in simple tasks, you should work with them, not for them. Teach them how their society can improve without the weekly mission teams doing the work for them.
4. You don't have all of the answers.
Don't come rolling into someone else's town with intentions to serve them with an ignorant mind. Be open minded towards the culture and the ways of the people in the community, but also toward your teammates and leaders. The community will know in which ways they need the most help and, as a team, you can figure out how to best serve them. However, don't go in trying to solve poverty or build a house all on your own!
5. Orphans need parents.
I didn't really understand this until my trip this June to Beijing, China, where we worked with special needs orphans. I fell in love with so many of the kids there. They were so sweet and beautiful and we loved every second of playing with them, but it ripped out my heart to leave them and feel like I was one more person in their life who was abandoning them. Orphans don't need to be made empty promises or be let down one more time, they need parents and they need consistency. The best thing that you can do for orphans worldwide, if you are not in the place to adopt, is to share their information with someone who can or to sponsor them. There are millions of children worldwide who are able to be sponsored, so go ahead and give $30, cover their food bill for a month, or try and sponsor them for a year or until they are adopted.
A great place to start is with the orphans I love in China.
6. Bibles don't feed people.
Whether you realize it or not, a lot of places that we go on mission to are predominately Christian countries. In my case, I've worked mostly with Muslim refugees and in communist China, so I do understand that some places are not Christian. However, a lot of places are Christian and they are just poor. The people in a lot of these communities need homes, food, wells, etc. and giving them a bag of food with a Bible tucked in doesn't really help them in the long run.
7. Take pictures, but don't use your camera as a crutch.
I consider myself an amateur photographer and my camera is one of my most prized possessions. So, of course, my camera comes with me on every trip that I go on, whether it's 10 miles or 10,000 miles away. I have captured some great moments on photo and video but there have also been some moments that I missed because I was behind the camera and not really in the moment. Remember that you will want your pictures one day, but that it's OK to put your camera away because you will want the memories too.
8. Know that the trip is not about you.
You'll find that your experience on your mission trip will be 100 times better if you go into the trip knowing that your only goal is to serve your neighbor. Whether its your team member or the community that you are within, love and serve them. I like to say and wholeheartedly believe that "the highest possible thing that we can pursue is to be a servant of the Lord." So, keep in mind that the trip isn't about how much fun you have, how many friends you make, or how many pictures you're in. Instead, it's about completely giving your body and heart to the community that you came to serve. Truth be told, when you have that mindset, your trip will be better than you can ever imagine.
9. Invest in your team and invest in the community.
I can honestly say that my mission trips would not be the same if I didn't invest in my team members before, during, and after the trip. Mission trip friends can become friends for life, there is truly nothing like traveling across the world and serving with someone. My trip to China especially showed me that pouring into your team members will affect you in tremendous ways, in some ways even more than it impacts them. Also, don't forget to get to know the people who you are serving. The cover photo above is a photo of me with seven children who's names I don't remember. I didn't take the time to invest in the community of General Cepeda and it really took away from my experience in Mexico. However, on my trip to China, I learned every kid's name and spent time getting to know them. Thanks to this, my experience was infinitely better, in the sense of community. Make your trip one to remember by pouring into the community and getting to know and remember them.
10. Continue to give after you go.
Take it from me, funding mission trips is not the easiest thing to do, especially when they are halfway across the world. My trips to China and Greece cost about $3,000 each, for four years in a row. Don't raise all of that money for two weeks and then give nothing to that community until you go back. As stated above, there are so may ways to get involved with sponsoring children, families, and orphanages. Missionaries and shelters always accept donations. Really try to give yourself to the community, even when you can't be physically present with them.
11. Don't come back the same person who you were when you left.
My trip leader to China told us before we even left, "It would be a shame to travel 8,000 miles and to not come back changed." Don't be afraid to let the trip change you in radical ways, something that serving others can do. Whether its the mission, your teammates and friendships, or the culture, allow it to change you and to send you home a better and different person than when you arrived there.