Souvenirs. Cool selfies for social media. Passport stamps. Is there more to short-term mission trips than this? Having led approximately 40 mission trips over the past 20 years, I can tell you, thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes! But you don’t have to take my word for it. I conducted a brief survey asking people who went on mission trips more than 10 years ago (for most, 20 years ago) to look back on their mission trip experiences and share the life lessons they learned which have continued to guide and shape their lives all these years later. Here’s what they said:
- World Perspective - The number one life lesson learned was the broadening of their worldview. One person wrote, “It's critical to have a prolonged experience where you are the minority. A season where you have to rely on the mercy and generosity of other people, otherwise you couldn't get along.” By leaving the familiarity of their comfort zones and interacting with people from different cultures, participants learned a great lesson in humility: Despite language and cultural differences, at the core, all humans are fundamentally the same. We all have the same basic needs; the need to be known, loved, cared for, and to know our lives have meaning and purpose.
- Compassion - Another life lesson learned through mission trips was compassion. Pain, suffering, and the reality of poverty were no longer things just read about in text books, discussed in classrooms, or seen on the evening news. Pain had a face. Suffering had a name. Poverty had a heartbeat. Need was humanized. These were real people with real names, with real families, living in real communities, that they had seen with their own eyes, talked with, listened to, played with, fed, and hugged. Experiential learning is the most powerful form of learning there is.
- Servanthood - It’s easy to start believing mission trips are about us. It’s a sneaky, subtle thing that we must constantly be on guard against. Even spiritual statements like, “I want to go to get closer to God,” belies a wrong focus — yourself. Will you get closer to God by going on a mission trip? Most certainly! BUT, that should be a byproduct, not the main product. People who have experienced the long-term impact of mission trips have learned how to take their eyes off of themselves, look for the needs of others, and then ask how God wants them to be a part of helping to meet those needs. Although the intensity of the mission trip wore off over time, many noted that when they returned home they were more involved in serving in their local churches, soup kitchens, and in their communities.
- Trust in God - Mission trips are not cheap. They cost money. Oftentimes fundraising involved. Asking people for support is humbling, but over and over again people spoke of how they learned the valuable lesson of God’s faithfulness. “Where God guides, God provides,” became more than a catchy slogan; it became a reality. They also spoke of being in difficult situations while on trips, and how they prayed and saw God come through in amazing ways. Some noted that learning to read, study, and meditate on Scripture was a life-changing discipline they began while on their mission trips. To this day, they trace their ability to trust God back to their mission trip experience.
- Risk and Courage - The way people learned they could trust God was by taking risks. When people take risks in obedience, God demonstrates His power. Standing up and sharing their story through a translator before a group of strangers. Opening up with a teammate about the difficulty of their home life. Reaching out and befriending someone of a different culture and different religion with kindness and respect. Among other things listed, these were courageous actions taken by participants through which they learned to be bold for Christ.
- Patience and Flexibility - The concept of time is very different across the world. This can be challenging for people who live life by the clock. Further, things rarely go as planned on a mission trip. This can be frustrating. However, that is life, isn’t it? The truth is, life is unpredictable, and we have to be able to adapt. Learning to deal with surprises in a graceful and creative way is a life skill that many noted in their responses. Also, it was important for many to develop an understanding that people in different cultures deal with challenges differently, and that is not necessarily bad; it’s just different, and different is OK.
- Endurance - Another life lesson learned on mission trips was perseverance in the face of difficulty. When things don’t go as planned, it is tempting to throw in the towel. When you go on a mission trip, you are engaging with God to advance His kingdom and reclaim His world for His good purposes. The enemy is going to work hard to try and stop you. Having a vision of what God is doing is crucial for persevering through challenges.
- Relationships - Many life-long friendships are formed through serving together on a mission trip. One person said that it was on a mission trip where they saw what a real Christian was. During a moment of honest vulnerability, they opened up about the realities of their abusive home life for the very first time. The leader listened to them, cried with them, prayed with them, and gave them words of guidance and encouragement that forever changed their life. “My leader genuinely loved me. It was the first time I experienced that in my life.”
- Leadership - Several respondents noted how it was on a mission trip that they learned how to be a leader. As they ventured beyond their comfort zones, engaged with their teammates, and worked on projects they realized that God could use them as influencers. Many initially went as participants, but returned as leaders on ensuing trips.
- Purpose - Finally, many people saw how God used a short-term mission trip to reveal their purpose. Several are now full-time missionaries. One started a non-profit organization. Another went on to get their degree in social work and is now a full-time social worker. Falling in love with the Latin people and culture, another went on to become a ESOL and Spanish teacher. And yet another has adopted several children from an impoverished country and welcomed them into their family.
God uses short-term mission trips to make a long-term impact on the lives of those who serve.
Stay tuned for the results of another survey I conducted into the long-term impact of short-term mission trips on the communities and missionaries teams went to serve. How have you seen short-term mission trips have a long-term impact on participants?