I’m thankful to be at a church that regularly sends members on short-term mission trips. Being a pastor, I’ve had to think through how to help people prepare for those trips. So, after going on six trips of my own and helping others prepare for many trips, here’s four things that I’ve learned.
1. Work with Long-Term Workers
Long-term workers are the missionaries who live there all the time and who know the needs and the culture better than we do. Find out what will be the most helpful to them as you plan your trip. Don’t come up with your own ideas for ministry then drop in for a week or two to “do your thing.” Serve the missionaries and the people there by being flexible. Ask what would be most helpful and plan to do that.
2. Spend Time with Your Team
This is one of the things I learned in preparation for my first mission trip. It doesn’t mean that there wasn’t problems (we were college students after all!), but when we arrived on the field, we were a team. So in the months leading up to your departure, meet regularly with the other people going. Talk about practical planning and spend time in prayer. Make these meetings mandatory (more on this below). If you’re going by yourself, spend time with other Christians from your church who are committed to praying for you while you’re gone. Meet once a week or every two weeks, telling them about how your planning and preparation are going and pray with them.
3. Train Before You Go
This is the one component I think is missing from most short-term preparation. Don’t assume you know what you’re doing and why you’re going. Think through some material that will help focus your thinking and give you practical tips. For people going on their first trip with our church, we require two books to be read—Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper and Mack & Leeann’s Guide to Short-Term Missions by Mack and Leeann Stiles. Together these books cover the theology and mechanics of short-term trips. Beyond this, I’ve personally taught a preaching bootcamp, a session on basic beliefs and witnessing to Muslims, and cultural studies about the country we are headed to. If you’ve never been to the country before or don’t have a cheat-sheet from the long-term missionaries, grab something simple like a book from the Foder’s or Lonely Plant series.
Now, some may wonder ‘Why do the training at all?’ First, it’s often needed and always helpful. We don’t do training just for the sake of training. We’re equipping saints for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12). The worst thing to do is send out a person or group that has no idea what to do or what to expect. That’s like sending an army to the front with guns but no bullets. Second, do the training to weed out people that shouldn’t go. Missions can sound romantic and exciting but it’s not for everyone. Set the bar high for those going and your ministry will be more effective on the field.
4. Include the Entire Church
The last advice I would give is that when a short-term team or individual is sent out, the entire church should be and feel a part of it. Not only is there biblical precedent for this (Acts 13), but it helps the church as a whole see its role and purpose in making disciples. Short-term workers aren’t simply going as individual believers, but as members of a local church that has invested in their spiritual growth. Their ministry is an extension of the church’s ministry. So, have a time of prayer to send out the person or team a before they leave. Work up a detailed prayer guide (with specific needs and dates, if possible) to get people to pray while they are away. Finally, when they come back, take time to let them share about the trip, answer questions, and lead in a time of prayer for fruit from their ministry and ongoing needs on the field.
Everything here is aimed a short-term trip geared to actual missions—sharing the gospel of Christ to see sinners saved and saints matured. But if you’re planning a work trip or a relief trip of some kind, many of the principles can still be applied. The goal is be as ready as possible for the ministry you’re planning to do. This will not only make our trips effective but bring glory to God in our serving (1 Pet 4:10-11).