What No One Tells You About Going on Mission Trips

One missionary clears up 4 misconceptions about short-term mission trips.

If you were to ask a cross section of long-term missionaries and people who have been on mission trips what you needed to know before traveling cross-culturally, you’d get as many different responses as there are people to ask. However, the following pieces of advice would probably come up.

I’m not talking about bringing Cipro in case of traveler’s diarrhea, or making sure to bring the correct electrical adapters—though you will need those, especially if you want to blow dry your hair—I’m referring to more subtle stuff.

By no means will this be an exhaustive list, but some of the following will help you optimize your mission trip.

1. We’re not superheroes

It is way easier than you think to inadvertently view your team as the saviors or answer to prayer, and the people on the field as the poor people in need of you.

But the people you’re going to minister to or work alongside are members of the same body of believers as you are. Even if they’re not Christians yet, they’re still people God loves and whom Christ died for. They are capable of making decisions and helping themselves in many ways, and if you can keep your pride from getting in the way, you can learn just as much, or more, from them as they can from you.

It’s important to keep a perspective of discipleship so locals feel empowered and valued.

Helping others in a tangible way abroad is great and really is a blessing. But it’s important to keep a perspective of discipleship so locals feel empowered and valued.

2. Doing things for people isn’t always the best way to make an impact

Last year I had an insightful conversation with a twentysomething Peruvian in which I asked him his candid opinion on groups of “gringos” who come to his shanty town. He told me “we know we’re going to receive something.”

He knows visiting missionaries usually give gifts, repair things or provide some sort of service, and he casually admitted that this can lead to people in his community developing a sense of expectation and sometimes entitlement. This made me wonder if we were truly making disciples or creating a culture that expects us to provide things for them and do them favors.

It’s worth knowing ahead of time if the help you want to offer is truly needed where you’re planning to go. If physical labor is needed, how can you work alongside locals to build their community? Sometimes teaching something like first aid or new marketable job skills is more helpful so you can help locals learn skills they can use to support their families and their community. Empowerment makes a bigger impact than only doing something for the locals.

It could very well be that the people you’re ministering to need a roof put over their house, or their community needs a hospital built. But the things that usually make a more memorable impact are the things like your genuine kindness and love of Christ shown through your actions of services, not the actions themselves.

3. Missions is not as glamorous as you may have thought

There’s a high probability you’ll be working with long-termers already established. When you hear missionaries speak in Church, you probably have heard countless amazing faith-building testimonies, but you might not heard many horror stories or problems.

It’s nobody’s fault that this happens, it just is what it is. But a side effect is that you’ll have inaccurate pre-conceived ideas about what life in that culture is like.

Even once you’re there, you have to realize the hosts don’t usually live their lives all year the same way they do for the week you and your team are there. I’ve seen how more locals show up for outreach events than normally do the rest of the year when things go back to normal. It may seem glamorous for the few weeks you’re there, but things aren’t always that way.

4. The hosts spend weeks before you get there planning for your trip

I once heard someone suggest that missionaries get a week off when a team comes to help them. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

Empowerment makes a bigger impact than only doing something for the locals.

If you are going to go on a short term trip, keep in mind the fact that your hosts are arranging your trip on their end, including what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be staying and helping make sure your lodging, meals and interpreters are sorted out as well as transportation. This is a lot of work, so remember to be gracious when the bus is running late, the food doesn’t taste good or something else goes wrong.

These things are not all you need to know (remember to pack Cipro!). There will always be the need to make sure you assimilate to the culture you’re in and not expect the locals or the host to assimilate to you. A lot of it comes down to goals and expectations, and hopefully knowing these things beforehand will help you get ready.

But, chances are, if you’re spending the money and time to fly somewhere and serve, you already have a wonderful servants’ heart, which is the most important thing you’ll need.


Regina Jones


Regina Jones commented…

This is a great article for anyone participating in missions. I loved this statement, "They are capable of making decisions and helping themselves in many ways, and if you can keep your pride from getting in the way, you can learn just as much, or more, from them as they can from you." What a beautiful description on what it means to join in community with other believers.

Thad Wilkinson


Thad Wilkinson commented…

You mean like when a church spends $24,000 to send a "mission" team to do a few hundred dollars worth of minor carpentry and painting while unemployed local craftsmen look on in dismay. It is sad to me that many churches consider "teams" their primary form of mission outreach. If the missionary could speak freely (as dozens have to me in confidence) they would admit that the teams often drain their time and energy from the real work of missions.

Steve Bremner


Steve Bremner replied to Thad Wilkinson's comment

Thad, it all depends on what kind of "currency" you want to invest. There are a lot of different currencies: monetary, relational, intellectual, spiritual, emotional. Short term teams can offer these things depending on the team and God's plan. If you want to bless with money, then yes, $24,000 could be put to use better than spending it on a team to come.

Earlier this year, my team leaders' mentors came to visit and they spent a lot of time ministering to us personally and spending time with us and that was a tremendous encouragement and I would in no way view that as a "waste of money". The investment was in us personally and not monetarily.

It just depends on what the goals are.

Marlene Medina


Marlene Medina commented…

While I do understand the intent of this article, these things that "no one tells you" are things that anybody should know prior to going on a mission trip. I hope that churches are having these talks with their groups before sending them off. And if they go into it "blind" (figuratively speaking), they are likely to observe these things as they go along. Still, they are good tips-- I must admit. Here is one of my issues with this article: since when does someone investing and going on a missions trip give them a high chance of having a "wonderful servant's heart"? I agree, that is important but why would we further reinforce the thought of "I'm not a good enough person to go on a missions trip". Huh? Sorry if this is sounding negative, but there are a few statements here that seem far-fetched and illogical. I think this is flawed in more ways than one. If anyone would like to discuss it, I'm very open to opinions and/or correction. Thanks. :)

Marlene Medina


Marlene Medina replied to Marlene Medina's comment

So just to be clear, I am looking at this article critically. I don't like the headline, and I disagree with the implications of some of the statements written here. Thank you.

Darryl Willis


Darryl Willis replied to Marlene Medina's comment

Marlene, I won't speak for the author, but as someone who works with a lot of short term teams, I can agree that just because a person raises money to go on a trip doesn't automatically give them a servant's heart: motivations can be varied. However, I think you're being overly critical of the original statement. The author merely said, "chances are". Just on the surface, that statement is accurate. Because "chances are" that is the case with many short term team members.

Many of my teams and team members actually self-fund, take off vacation time, and are very dedicated. I would even say most of my team members do this. So, "chances are" indeed, if they invest themselves in this way they do have a servant's heart.

Short term missions can be a tricky thing and there are many problems and issues involved in stms. When done well, they are a blessing, when done without proper preparation, goals, and education they can be a nightmare.

Steve does a good job on the subject considering the brevity of the article.

Steve Bremner


Steve Bremner replied to Darryl Willis's comment

Marlene, since Darryl covered my same thoughts so well I won't repeat them, but I am curious exactly as to what is "illogical and far fetched" here. I'm writing solely from experience hosting or being involved in hosting teams over the last 4 and a half years I've been here in Peru.

I emailed or FB messaged about 20 other missionaries to find out what they'd add to this list, and with their help narrowed it down to ten points, and then for Relevant's editorial standards, edited even further to these points to fit this site's guidelines to be brief. I could easily continue a 4 or 5 part series and elaborate more than this! But that's beside the point. These came up over and over again as some of the most common things.

That being said, a line or statement might not rub you the right way and one would think these things should be obvious, but from my experience, and from gleaning from others in Asia, Africa who vetted my article before I submitted it to Relevant, these are some of the same concerns that come up all the time, so they're clearly not so obvious. We receive people going on "glory trips" and vacations or wanting to do their own thing often. As Darryl says, when done well, STMs are a blessing. Other times not so much. The point of this article was to help bring some of these concerns up.

Thanks for reading it.

Oct 6th edit: earlier this week I wrote a follow up to this on my own site called "ARE SHORT-TERM MISSIONS A WASTE OF MONEY?"

Amy Young


Amy Young commented…

Thanks for making these points! Especially the one about how much work it is for the long term folks "hosting" a short term trip. I've been a part of hosting quite a few of those groups and the game changer in how it goes for us "termers" is the attitude of the short term folks (this is kind of a 'duh' statement!). But if they talk all the time about themselves and their church and other places they have visited, we start counting how long until they leave. But if they ask lots of questions and seem genuinely interested, I/we were willing to go the extra mile for them. I've also written about novels that have cross-cultural themes and would recommend "The Sparrow" for anyone interested in this topic. http://www.messymiddle.com/2012/06/21/four-must-reads-for-anyone-interac...

Please log in or register to comment

Log In