I’ve earned a few mission trip merit badges. I weeded a sidewalk in Pittsburgh’s Northside, built a house in Ensenada, cleaned up hurricane debris in New Orleans, and took a picture with an orphan in Piedras Negras, Mexico (all before I finished high school). I might not be wearing a sash, but I am sporting a pair of dirty corduroy Toms—the universal, millennial symbol for “Ask me about my latest mission trip.” Like many other twenty-somethings in the church, I am a fully initiated member of the mission trip generation—including earning some merit badges, but also ripping them off after reading When Helping Hurts as a college student (which is not the intention of the book). I left the party of short-term mission trips and felt the hangover of embarrassment, disillusionment, and lament after joining the growing herd of mission trip naysayers.
Now, twelve years since my first mission trip, I am preparing to send a group from the church where I pastor in Pittsburgh to our partners in the Dominican Republic. As a sender instead of a goer, I have been able to reflect on the ups and downs of my own mission trip lifecycle—including seasons of blind optimism and unbridled pessimism. In the tension, one question kept coming back to mind: Why would I send people into the nations whom I would never send to my neighbors?
As I thought about this question, it sparked a more positive question: How can we train people for short-term mission trips among the nations whom we could also trust with long-term missional engagement among our neighbors? The short answer: discipleship.
In addition to forming long-term partnerships, it is mission critical to frame short-term trips within long-term discipleship. Listen to how Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe this:
In the midst of compiling resources, exploring the complexity of poverty alleviation, and casting a different vision for what a short-term trip can be, do not lose sight of the bigger picture: this is actually a process of discipleship.
What might it look like to reframe short-term mission trips as the final project of a six-month discipleship intensive—with two more months of follow-up after the trip? With the help of some excellent resources and the inspiration of some effective churches, we’ve landed on the following four goals for the training process at our church: gospel clarity, spiritual integrity, cultural agility, and team unity.
What makes the good news so good? The first time someone asked me that question it changed my life. In The Unbelievable Gospel, Jonathan Dodson asks it this way, “What does the death and resurrection of a first-century Messiah have to do with twenty-first-century people?”
If we do not know how to answer that question, maybe we should invest our money in the Peace Corps instead of a plane ticket.
As part of the discipleship process, goers need to develop such familiarity with the gospel that they can nuance or contextualize it for any person or situation without changing its core—a skill Jeff Vanderstelt calls gospel fluency. Like Paul, we need firsthand knowledge of the gospel “in which [we] stand, and in which [we] are being saved” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-4).
This process might involve exploring some rich gospel texts together, speaking the gospel into each other’s lives, practicing evangelism with our teammates, and sharing our own gospel stories (or “testimonies”) of how the good news interrupted life as normal. If we are uncomfortable sharing the gospel with people who speak the same language, we will not suddenly be comfortable sharing the gospel in a foreign language or through a translator.
Spiritual integrity is a life where the gap between what you say you believe and how you actually live is progressively getting smaller. It’s not something you decide to have on the first morning of your mission trip—sweaty, exhausted, and mosquito-bitten on the top bunk in a new time zone. It’s the fruit of intentional spiritual training long before the trip itself (see Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines). Paul describes it to Timothy like this:
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is some of value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and the life to come. – 1 Timothy 4:7-8
Jesus himself prepared for his own extended season of intense ministry with solitude, Scripture, and fasting (cf. Mt. 4:1-11) and ended particularly trying days with a morning of solitude and prayer (Mk. 1:35). As a team, this might involve preparing for the trip with a weekend retreat, memorizing a few Scriptures, confessing sins, or fasting for 48-hours together.
A professor once told me, “Often we think people are rejecting the gospel when they are actually just rejecting our clothes.” Without gospel clarity and cultural awareness, we can accidentally package our cultural values (changeable things) with the gospel itself (an unchangeable thing)—just like the missionaries in Galatia (cf. Gal. 2). In doing so, we end up dragging our home culture through everything we do in our host culture. Paul had a different method, though:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them . . . I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.
Like Paul, anyone going on a short-term trip (even if it’s just to another domestic city) needs to develop cultural agility. Culture is sticky, and navigating the twin extremes of colonialism and pluralism is hard. As part of the discipleship process, this might involve unpacking some of the hidden cultural values we carry and discussing some strategies for entering into another culture as a servant (see Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood).
Short-term mission trips are extended group projects that involve people from different backgrounds, personalities, and cultures. Most people hate group projects (myself included) and do not realize they are signing up for one when they apply to be on a team. Many of them have never had more than surface-level conversations with each other before joining a trip.
Without intentionality, the result is conflict and frustration.
Walking “with all humility and gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3) doesn’t happen overnight. It takes eating meals together, fundraising together, sharing stories with each other, practicing spiritual gifts, and even confessing sins to one another. In short, team unity takes practice.
A Final Thought
In a stroke of irony, I am writing this article in an upscale coffee shop only a few blocks from the location of my first “inner-city” mission trip as an eighth-grader. If you told me that I needed to be trained in these things back then, I probably would have decided to stay home instead. I just wanted to “help” (as well as get away from my parents, share headphones with the girl I liked and see the mysterious city of Pittsburgh).
If you choose to reframe short-term missions trips as one piece of long-term discipleship, you might hit some resistance. Taking a week out of your life to go serve is already asking a lot from people, but adding six months of training on the front end can feel like too much. In the end, though, it’s worth it. These things matter whether you’re a thousand miles away or on your front porch.
Austin Gohn serves as the young adult minister at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, PA and is currently pursuing his M.Div. at Trinity School for Ministry. He’s been married to Julie for four years. You can follow him on Twitter @austingohn.