A Philosophy for Mission Trips

by Dale Lusk

Over the past 17 years, Dale Lusk, Executive Director of Covenant Merge Ministries, has been involved in organizing over 800 mission trips. Merge exists to facilitate meaningful ministries that build long-term, inter-ethnic relationships between Christian groups in North America with partner organizations in Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean and Europe. Pietisten has asked Dale to share some of his reflections on the philosophy of mission trips. This “top 8 list” presents some of the principles he shares with groups as they prepare for their trips.

1.Check your motivation

Why are you taking your group on this mission trip? Here are some answers I’ve heard:

  • It’s what churches do
  • Our church has always done it
  • It’d be good for our spoiled-brat people to see the real world and see how good they have it
  • We need a group bonding event; nothing like some cockroaches and gross food to bring our team together

Not all of these motivations are necessarily bad. However, having excellent motives allows God to do incredible work through you. How about considering these motives?:

  • God has called us to go. We will go wherever He leads. If God hasn’t truly called us, we will not go
  • Our members are already serving in their schools, church and community. Cross-cultural ministry is one of the foundations of our ministry. Going on a mission trip is a natural outlet.
  • Our members could really learn about who God is new ways by developing cross-cultural relationships.

It all comes down to who you are intending to serve. Is the trip about me (meaning what you will get out of it) or is the trip about God and them (the people you are going to know). We see a huge difference between these two types. “Me” teams tend to have expectations, that when not met are dealt with through frustration, anger, and inflexibility. They want the trip to turn out a certain way, so their members will be impacted. Mission trips rarely turn out the way we plan.

“God/them” teams tend to be open, flexible, and are always looking for opportunities to love others…and can actually make an impact on the community they are going to serve.

2. Go with a guide

Studies have shown that trips led by experienced agencies are about four times more effective than groups who go independently. Find a good a mission trip agency to guide you. In choosing an agency choose one that focuses on training, being culturally sensitive, is relationship-oriented, and has a plan for follow-up. Be wary of organizations that are structured to make the participants feel good about themselves, with little regard for the impact on the communities they serve. Choose a guide and choose well.

3. Prepare

Mission teams are notorious for being unprepared. Plan well how you prepare your team. Expect commitment. Require members to present their programs to the rest of the team beforehand. Have members read books and watch videos about the country. They need to understand its history, geography and culture. Include some language training. Bring in outside experts. Members must attend your training sessions. Be willing to drop them from the trip if they don’t show up.

Teach your members how to be culturally sensitive. Help them understand how their behavior can make or break their testimony. Have your entire team read books based on cultural understanding and sensitivity, such as Sarah Lanier’s book “Foreign to Familiar.” Have your leadership team read David Livermore’s “Serving with Eyes Wide Open” or David Mark’s “On Someone Else’s Terms.”

Simplify your programming. Spend the first full day of your mission trip preparing, instead of doing. Spend a day on site getting ready, then spend the rest of the trip doing. Four days of excellent prepared ministry is better than five days of mediocre ministry.

4. Be creative

Many mission teams tell me “We’d like to do construction and a children’s program.” For some reason we equate construction and kids as the definition of a mission trip. I understand why we do construction. It makes people feel good about themselves to do something with their hands and see progress. Kid’s are the least challenging people to spend time with cross-culturally, so we gravitate toward them.

One of the greatest needs around the world is effective youth and men’s ministry. Churches are full of women and children, but few youth and men. How great it would be if more teams would be willing to focus their efforts in helping a local church or community with youth and men’s ministry!

What about using your group’s talents? Are they athletic? Are they into art? How about music? Computers? Teaching? Business development? Psychology? Utilize the giftedness of your team, and use what they are passionate about, instead of always doing the same thing.

Recently I have seen teams present science labs in public schools, walk through neighborhoods praying for people, participate in youth concerts, teach wrestling, organize huge soccer tournaments for villages, minister in prisons, work alongside farmers in their fields, present values seminars, help people create community gardens and more. Be creative.

5. Think partnership

More and more churches are developing long-term partnerships with an international community. The desire is to get involved in community development projects over many years. Focusing energy and resources is an excellent trend.

How great it would be if churches would say, “We have an opportunity to make a difference in another part of the world by serving Christ on missions. How can our entire church develop a holistic, healthy partnership with this community?” This could mean family or adult mission trips to the same community. More frequent visits can lead to better relationships. Not every international community needs a partner, nor wants one. See how your entire church can be involved long-term somewhere.

6. Opportunities abound (or do “Kum Ba Yah” at home, please!)

Debriefing is an important part of mission trips. People need to be able to verbalize what they are experiencing. Prayer is great and reading the Bible is a plus. However, there is a difference between a team that is primarily inward focused to one that is outward focused. Sometimes God places a ministry opportunity in our laps, and we miss it. Some teams do everything together as a group and make little effort to meet anyone else. They eat together, live together, debrief together, play together, and isolate themselves, except when it is time to “minister/serve.”

Furthermore, my international friends know when they are being used as “zoo animals” to create an atmosphere so a team leader can have a wilderness experience with his or her group. I can’t tell you how many times a friend of mine from another country has asked “Why does the group not want to get to know us?” Very frequently youth pastors tell me “the best part of this trip is our bonding with each other.”

It is wonderful to see teams step out of their comfort zones and spend time with the people of a community, often to the detriment to their own “Kum Ba Yah” time. Living in people’s homes leads to opportunities to experience another culture. Invite local people to eat with you (if appropriate). Work and minister alongside them, instead of to them. When going on a tourist event, let the locals choose it and take you. Truly struggle with language and communication. Adding a night to visit people in homes may mean not being able to worship together, pray or debrief as a group.

In order to do this well, a team needs to do excellent team building in advance. Teams with strong relationships with each other and with God, are more likely to focus time apart building relationships with others.

7. Go where no one has gone before

Fifty percent of teams go to Mexico. The rest of the world gets the other half. There is an obvious reason: cost. I love it when teams ask me the simple question, “Where can we go where we can make the most impact? How can you use our gifts and skills the most? Where does no one else go?” Yahoo! What great questions! There are actually people out there who don’t have 46 wordless book bracelets or have seen the “Redeemer” mime in a park five times already this summer!

Also, beware of fads. Countries can be fads, too. Another fad is the famous children’s home. It is the easiest and most elementary of mission trips. Children’s homes have great needs. But, why would you want to be the fourteenth group visiting a children’s home in a year, when we have entire countries no one wants to visit. Let’s open ourselves up to places people don’t normally go, and in doing so maybe follow the prompting of God.

8. Follow up

The most neglected part of mission trips is what happens afterward. The impact on a community in one or two weeks is sometimes negligible. Three billion dollars is spent annually on mission trips for North Americans with 2.2 million participants. Studies have shown these trips have almost no long-term impact on the participants after six months. The participants feel that their lives have changed, but their behaviors are usually exactly the same.

Ask your agency to help you stay connected with the people you served, through email, Facebook, or even having nationals visit or organize a conference call during a follow-up meeting. Hold meetings with your team one month, three months, and six months after the trip as a requirement for going on the trip. Debriefing after a mission trip is more important than during. Create a forum to share memories and insights. Remember that your members face a difficult audience when they return home. No one can really relate to their experiences, except for those who went or who have gone.

Give your team an outlet to serve in a cross-cultural ministry in your area. Disciple those members who may sense a call to missions and help them explore those thoughts. Send them to a conference or have the church sponsor them on a summer mission.

Can you imagine how the church would explode if we truly followed up after a mission trip? Don’t let it slip away. If one person becomes an incredible servant for Christ in their community or the world as the result of going on a mission trip, then you have succeeded beyond what most have been able to do. Let the Holy Spirit work!

Dale Lusk is Executive Director of Covenant Merge Ministries.

See all articles by Dale Lusk