In the United States, there is a large community of people who want to be helpful to the world. People have seen commercials that show the indigence and poverty around the world, and people's compassionate side makes them want to be a part of the solution. Usually, people don't simply want to send money to solve a problem: empathy demands that individuals get to know people on a broader scale by visiting them where they are and trying to help improve their lives.
These motivations bring many people to their church's mission trips. The motivation is wonderful, but there are many things that mission trip volunteers discover once they are out of their home countries and seeing the world's needs first-hand. While short-term mission trips undoubtedly have great impact and emotional benefit to both the volunteers and those they work with, there are some perspectives that may help your preparations and adjustment with your upcoming journey.
Help Comes in Many Forms
For mission trips that contain a service component, many volunteer travelers expect to be "put to work" and busy all the time. For instance, if a children's program is underway or a church build is happening, they may expect to work every minute of their time. However, most people living even in impoverished countries are capable of caring for their children or laying the foundations of their new church. The most valuable thing you may bring to the table may be conversation: practice with English even if those you are working with don't speak English all that well. Kind smiles, a willingness to pitch in with food preparation or cleaning, and spending time together may be large parts of your time on a trip, since there may be unavoidable delays in the work. Certainly it is good to participate enthusiastically in hard work, but being equally ready to engage in downtime discussions and interactions is essential.
You May Be Surprised by the Joy of the People You Meet
The expectation that people who are living with very few resources will also be unhappy has been created for us based on a selective set of information: certainly, there are times when poverty causes suffering, but there are also times when communities band together to live an abundant, happy life with very little. When you arrive, you may be surprised to discover that other ways of life provide more joy than your regular daily life in the United States. For instance, the blogger at Scripting Grace, spent her first church worship service back in the United States missing the abundant methods of worship, with uninhibited dancing and singing, when she returned from Zambia. It can be surprising to discover just how beautiful life can be even when it is lived in utterly different ways from our typical lives.
The People You Hope to Teach May be the Ones Teaching You
Many people returning from mission trips state that they realized they didn't have as much to "give" or "teach" as they thought they would when they visited another country. Instead, they realize that they need to change things about their own lives, be it choices to live more simply, to invest better in family and friendships, or to put their religious commitments at the forefront of their priorities, rather than letting them become afterthoughts. Jeremy Brummel offers the advice to plan to "learn to love the Gospel and seeing lives changed." The lives that are changed may be locals you are visiting, or they may be others in your group trip who are woken up to the important things in their lives through the interactions with each other and a new culture.
Gratitude May Not Come Quickly, or at All
Even if your trip has a huge impact, with people joining a church or receiving lots of needed aid, there are plenty of circumstances in which you won't be recognized as a source of help, or thanked even if you are recognized. Lottie Moon's pioneering work in North China, for example, was solitary for a very long time and not always well understood by the people she worked with. Now, she is very well-known and missionaries around the world draw inspiration from her life. Short-term missions work is best approached with the metaphor of planting seeds: you may not be the one to see gratitude or even results from your work, but you are part of a process, which can give hope and joy.
You May See the United States Completely Differently After
A 7 or 10-day trip may seem like a short part of your overall life; after all, you may have normal life activities scheduled as soon as the next morning after your trip. However, many people mark the moment after their mission trip as the start of a different perspective on the world and a total change in worldview. Though mission trips can be billed as a one-time experience, most people discover that the meaning behind this work is so powerful that they want to do it again or support organizations that do missions full-time, or both. Rebecca, for instance, began and sustained new habits of reading her Bible daily and getting more involved in the community of her church because of how her mission trip changed her perspective on the world. Many who experience these kinds of life-altering shifts find themselves discovering their true passions. Your perspective may never be the same.
The mission trip leaders you work with are not trying to hide these facts from you; rather, many leaders simply cannot describe the effect of a mission trip fully and have to show you in order to be believed. Once you get used to the idea that a mission trip may not look exactly the way that a movie or a short story portrays it, you can start to realize that the deeper impacts of going are actually richer and more important. Most people discover that life in other places is different than they could possibly have expected, but often they discover that it has moments of unexpected joy and connection. One of the most important parts of going on a short-term mission trip is being open to the many things that you could learn from a given trip and the fact that each day may hold a completely new challenge or success. People may tell you the general statement that mission trips are "life-changing," but they have a hard time really making that real to you without just taking you along for the ride.