Growing up around and working in Native American missions, I have had the privilege of hosting some phenomenal work teams who have had a positive influence on our local ministries. To those of you reading who have come and served, thank you. You have been a blessing.
Unfortunately there have been those teams you never want to invite back. Here are a few things to avoid on your short-term mission trip in hopes that you can have a better impact for Christ. If you find yourself leading one of these trips, take the time to talk over these issues with your team before you leave.
- Treat the local teens like they are unwelcome.
I once had a mission team kick me (a youth leader) and my students out of our own church building. We had just wrapped up the Sunday youth group lesson and games alongside a visiting mission team. Once the official youth group time was finished, we had to drive our students home since most of them did not have rides. While my two fellow leaders drove the first van load of students home, I stayed back to wait with the others.
While my students were blowing off steam and goofing off in the gym like teens do, one of the leaders from the mission team approached me. “We need you all to be quiet and leave, we have things we are doing.” We were in the way. He wanted these annoying kids out. I was a little stunned. There was no request here, just a command. I let the gentleman know the youth were waiting for their rides as they did every Sunday night. A few minutes later, the same man came up to me with the mission team’s youth pastor. The youth pastor let me know that they were doing their team devotional time now, and I needed to get my youth out of there. Out of our own church. Onto the streets. In the dark. While we waited for the van ride home.
There was no invitation for our teens to join theirs while we waited. There was no understanding of our situation. No patience. No Christlike love toward the very people this team had come to serve.
In contrast, I have seen work teams that go out of their way to make the teens at their host church feel welcome. When I was a teen, mission teams we hosted would allow me to spend the day with them, eat with them, even stay over night at the church with them. I was one of them. Those groups had an impact on me and all the other teens they came into contact with because they looked at us and saw and opportunity to fellowship and love.
Don’t let your mission team become so wrapped up in their own social interactions that they neglect building relationships with the local people. Keep the focus on those you are serving. Team dynamics can break down; I’ve been there on mission trips myself. If that happens, pull the team aside, work out the issues, and get back to serving the people. Begin your trip with this expectation in mind- that your team will cut time out of their own internally focused team social fun to intentionally build relationships with the people they are serving.
- Treat the locals like they are a problem to be fixed.
Now, mission teams come to help, but there is a major difference between viewing the local people as people and viewing them as projects. If your focus is on events and success, you will not really be helping anyone in the long run. You will go home and be able to tell everyone what a great job you did, but you will have no lasting impact. Each short-term trip should be approached with the humble understanding that you will not change the entire place in a week. You are there to assist those who will be in the trenches for years: the local missionaries. Your hosts.
Focusing on relationships and maintaining contact after you leave home will extend your assistance. Can you stay connected to the local people on social media when you go home? Will you maintain contact and support of the ministries after you leave? Build a lasting relationship. Start while you are there. Dig deep, have fun, get to know the people you are there to serve. Invest and show you care. You won’t change everyone overnight.
- Let your host clean up after you.
Sadly, teams can leave more of a mess for the local ministry than existed before they arrived. As we have seen above, a big part of the problem is that some teams are so self-focused, so focused on their work project/event. And so they pay no mind to how they may be leaving more problems behind as they work.
Clean up after yourself. You are there to assist the ministers who are hosting you. Be as low-maintenance as possible. Clean up after yourself. Relieve stress, don’t cause it. Don’t leave cleaning projects that will cut two full work days out of your host’s work schedule.
- Assume you have nothing to learn from the host missionaries and people.
Again, some teams view themselves as the answer to all the problems of their host ministry. You are helpful, but you have a lot to learn about the place you are going. Many of us will be completely unaware of the damage we can do on a mission trip if we don’t come along as students. We carry cultural presuppositions with us that we are unaware of. We enter into mission fields amongst cultures we don’t understand, even if that culture is a different neighborhood on the other side of the state. If you are not humbly alert to the need to learn about the environment you are entering, you can end up ticking people off and creating relational rifts in the community that will do damage to your host’s ministry. So take the time to learn. Sit down with your host. Sit down with the members of your host church. Ask them about the local culture. Ask them what social dynamics you should be aware of. Your host and the local Christians you meet have a wealth of experience that you can draw upon to strengthen the impact of your short-term trip. Learn from them.