Ten ways to ruin your short term mission trip

Unhealthy attitudes and behaviors on short-term mission trips

Believe it or not, it's possible to have a bad short-term missions experience. Most times, this is not the fault of the situation or organization. Often, the root cause is the short-termer's own attitudes and expectations.

To maximize your short-term experience, AVOID doing the things on this Top Ten list:

  1. Keep narrowly focused on "spiritual" activities. Since you want to win people to Christ, focus on only the loftiest of things. Avoid menial work like data entry, loading trucks, or working on buildings. Such things will distract you from your primary task.
  2. To tighten up your schedule, eliminate personal prayer and Bible study. You will be so rushed away that you probably won't have time. Besides, can't you get all the spiritual food you need from group devotions and from church services?
  3. Stay organized and on schedule. Set detailed goals before you go. Establish schedules and refuse to deviate from them. Do not accept delays, last-minute changes, and impromptu visits and invitations. Those things will just keep you from getting things done for God.
  4. Help the missionaries by pointing out their mistakes. Bring them up to date on what you've heard are the latest trends in missions. Some missionaries are stubborn. So, you may need to enlist some support among the nationals for your views about how things should be run.
  5. Get involved romantically with someone. Being away from family and friends makes this the perfect time to get involved romantically. While it may distract you slightly from the work, you will be able to expose national Christians to America's progressive dating customs.
  6. Don't embarrass yourself by trying to pick up the local language. People are always saying that English is spoken all over the world. So, insist that those people use it with you.
  7. Immediately begin pointing out your team members' faults. Time is short. It will be difficult for people to make the needed changes if you don't help them right from the start. Focus your helpful criticisms on team leaders.
  8. As you go all out in warring against dangerous germs, don't eat any of the local food. To be sure, you may miss some friendly opportunities with "the natives," but you'll keep those awful germs at bay!
  9. Keep your distance from team members who couldn't raise their full support. They may try to mooch off you. Don't give in. Sweating over finances builds faith!
  10. When you return home, scold your home church and friends for their lack of commitment, for their weak prayers, and for their inadequate giving to missions. This may be one of the few times you will have their deferential respect. Make the most of this opportunity to make them feel guilty.

If you'll do all of these Top Ten things (or even some of them), I promise you will have a less-than-fruitful and a not-so-enjoyable short-term mission trip. These are, naturally, tongue-in-cheek rules. You and your team members need to be doing the opposite!

adapted from an issue of Commissioned

Question: "Do people actually do the things on this list?"

Yes, they do. Recently, a friend who needs to remain anonymous wrote to me: "I had a woman on two of my trips who consistently did five things on your list. Last year, I actually prayed that she couldn't come. God answered my prayer."

A motto for mission trip teams

One short-term mission leader makes his team members memorize this servanthood "mantra:"
No rights. No control. No status. Whenever. However. Wherever.

"Seeing not only cultural differences but all the similarities that there are between peoples will make us better citizens and better Christians." -- Dee Kelley

Building bridges versus burning them during your mission trip

Your choices on a short-term mission trip will determine whether you are building bridges or burning them as you try to minister cross-culturally

How to build bridges

Doing incarnational ministry in a broken world

How to burn cross-cultural ministry bridges

Destroying ministry opportunities and relationships

Ten Commandments for mission trip participants

How can you make your mission trip a worthwhile one?

Healthy attitudes contribute to short-term mission trip fruitfulness

  1. You shall not forget that you represent your home country and, more importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. You shall not expect that things will be the same as they are at home, for you have left your home to find different things. [ mono-culturalism ]
  3. You shall not take minor things too seriously. Accepting things as they are paves the way for a good mission trip.
  4. You shall not judge all insert name of target people by the one person with whom you have had trouble.
  5. You shall not let other group members get on your nerves. You raised good money and set aside this time. So, enjoy yourself.
  6. You shall not be overly worried. The person who worries has no pleasures. Few things people worry about are ever fatal.
  7. Remember your passport (or other identification document) so that you know where it is at all times. A person without documents is a person without a country.
  8. Blessed is the person who says "thank you" in any language. Verbal gratefulness is worth more than tips.
  9. When in insert name of country (Rome), do as the insert name of people (Romans) do. If in difficulty, use common sense and your native friendliness.
  10. Remember, you are a guest in insert name of country. He who treats his host with respect shall be treated as an honored guest.

Okay, so these aren't the 10 commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. However, these principles are foundational to success in short-term cross-cultural experiences.

Violating these 10 commandments (even if Moses wasn't the one who received them and handed them on) will likely spoil your short-term experience and perhaps even tarnish your contribution to a clear witness for Christ in a cross-cultural setting. Keeping these 10 rules will make your short-term mission trip far more fruitful and successful in terms of the Kingdom of God.

"I learned a lot about myself and about God on two month-long mission trips to Washington, D.C. . Those two trips were God's way of telling me that there are other people who need to hear about Him . . . It was without a doubt the best two months of my life." -- Johanna Rice

Safety: The first priority on a mission trip

Doing things safely: The first serving of the mission trip pie

"Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm" -- Proverbs 1:33

During a Work & Witness short-term mission trip in Monterrey, Mexico, a lady fell and dislocated her shoulder on a construction site. In the aftermath of that accident, Ken Earman, a veteran of lots of mission trips, drew a pie diagram on a paper napkin.

As he handed that napkin to me, he mentioned all the ingredients that go into a pie. A mission trip is like a pie, he said. Like a pie, a mission trip has a variety of ingredients. The ingredients of a good mission trip "pie" include things like:

Ken noted that it usually takes a long time to put together a good mission trip pie. Then he said, "But, the first piece of that pie that gets served at the destination is safety. Don't serve any other piece of the pie until the safety one has been eaten!"

photo of piece of pecan pie

Ken Earman was right. Psalm 23 does affirm the presence of God even in life's dark moments. We are also offered the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And, we are cautioned against reckless stupidity!

"Let Your hand be with me, and keep me from harm" -- 1 Chronicles 4:9

Flirting on a mission team — Giving Jeff a thrill

Case study

Jeff felt like Katy had disrespected him.

On Sunday evening the two college students had been introduced to each other as teammates for a summer of short term missions. They had then spent an intensive week of training together with their four other teammates as well as students going to 20 other countries. At a Saturday evening bonfire on the beach, Katy made a remark to Jeff that seemed too flirtatious and possibly even laced with sexual innuendo.

He felt it needed to be addressed, but he didn't know in what way.

It had been a great training camp in California. Jeff, who was a student at a university in America's heartland, was excited about spending the summer in Nigeria with the team to which he had been assigned. His five teammates were all from different universities. They seemed a good mix of personalities. Katy was by far the most boisterous. Jeff thought some of her outbursts bordered on the inappropriate. Still, in his confidence that the Holy Spirit had put their team together, he trusted that Katy's exuberance would be used in their ministry which they had been told would involve an outreach to Muslims.

They had now arrived at the next-to-last night of training camp. The nearly 100 Youth in Mission participants and the training staff were at an evening campfire on the beach. The laid-back evening was a welcome break from the crammed week of seminars, team building exercises and spiritual development sessions.

As Jeff stood facing the fire, he was lost in reflections on the weeks of ministry ahead. People from his own team and others were milling around, enjoying the fire and the sound of ocean waves on the sand. Directly on the other side of the fire from Jeff stood his teammate Katy. Her back was to the fire as she talked to friends.

There was a cool breeze blowing, but the fire was hot. As the fire warmed up those standing around it, Katy decided to take off her sweatshirt. When she pulled it over her head, the back of her tee-shirt underneath rode up with it.

Though Jeff was facing Katy, his mind was far away. In just 48 hours they would be in Nigeria! Then, when Katy began taking off her sweatshirt, her movements caught his eye. Jeff found himself staring at his teammate's bare back. He shifted his gaze away. It was too late. One of the young ladies with Katy saw Jeff looking across the fire and said something to Katy. Pulling her shirt back down, Katy looked back over her shoulder with a mischievous grin.

"Give you a thrill, Jeffie?" she said loudly enough for all of those nearby to hear.

Stunned, Jeff just stood there. For a millisecond he tried to think of a snappy comeback. Then he decided not to respond as Katy turned back toward her friends.

What Katy had just done seemed very inappropriate. Even outside the Youth in Mission context, her language and manner seemed too coquettish. As far as Youth in Mission was concerned what she had done ran counter to several things emphasized during their week of training: (1) The need to protect team dynamics and guard against cross-cultural misunderstandings by avoiding romantic involvements during the summer (2) The insidiousness of sexual temptations during lonely times they might encounter in their 8 weeks away from family and friends and, (3) Specifically for Jeff and Katy's team, the opportunities they might have in Nigeria to challenge the prevalent Islamic view that American Christians were morally bankrupt.

As the evening went on, Jeff wondered what he was supposed to do now.

Processing the case study

Need help in deciding what Jeff should do? [ case study discussion guide ]

Bible studies: Waiting on the Holy Spirit

How the Holy Spirit guides us

Use these for team devotions prior to going on a mission trip or even during that trip

Seven devotionals on the subject of "Waiting on the Holy Spirit," written to be used by a JESUS film mission trip team of Southern Nazarene University students headed to Africa for the summer

"Without the convicting work of the Spirit, our preaching is in vain. Without the gifts, guidance and power of the Spirit, our mission is mere human effort. And without the fruit of the Spirit, our unattractive lives cannot reflect the beauty of the gospel." -- The Cape Town Commitment

Day 1 -- Not getting ahead of the Holy Spirit

"Stay in the city (of Jerusalem) until you have been clothed with power from on high."— Luke 24:49

Would the disciples have accomplished anything without the Holy Spirit? No. Will we?

That question needs to ring continually in our ears because we missionary types are usually highly motivated self-starters. If we weren't, we probably wouldn't have gotten past all the obstacles there are to involvement in global evangelism. Because we're highly motivated we look ahead. We try to see the "bigger picture" and we try to achieve long lists of objectives.

We face great temptations to take off on our own power and then wind up asking the Lord to bless activities we've already got going and plans we've already laid out. We almost seem to fear that "waiting" on the Spirit is irresponsible.

In the light of Scripture, that's getting things a bit backward, isn't it? Isn't looking to God for power and wisdom and direction the first thing we're supposed to be doing? Why would we dare attempt to do anything until He has made good on His promise of "power from on high"?

What great imagery the phrase "clothed with power" gives us. We wouldn't walk outside on an extremely cold day without winter clothing. We wouldn't walk into a high-paying job interview without giving thought to what we should be wearing. So, why would we dare attempt to do ministry without being "clothed with power from on high"

A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, made a significant comment about this passage from Luke. He said, "These waiting days were necessary to enable the disciples to realize their need, their nothingness, their failure and their dependence upon the Master. They had to get emptied first before they would get filled." [ missionary hymns composed by Simpson ]

Do we realize our need to depend on Him? Have we really understood that we likely need to be emptied before He can fill us? Are we truly committed to staying and wanting until we "have been clothed with power from on high"?

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 2 -- Allow Him time to work

"The Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for Him!" -- Isaiah 30:18

How do we "stay" and "wait" on the Holy Spirit? We self-starter types get impatient. We wonder why He hasn't come. We ask ourselves: "What are we waiting on?"

In the midst of our impatient waiting, we must realize that any holdup likely isn't with Him. It's most likely caused by us. We may incorrectly conclude that the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost as some older English Bible translations say) is tardy about moving. The issue may actually be about our learning to wait, one of the things that classic devotional writers have sometimes listed as an important "spiritual discipline."

Lewis Smedes, who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, once wrote about why we need to wait: "Waiting is our destiny . . . We wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light. We wait . . . for a happy ending we cannot write."

Here are seven steps for effective "waiting on the Holy Spirit."

  1. Begin by quieting your own spirit. God doesn't always come in dramatic ways like He encountered Moses on Mt. Sinai or Paul on the Damascus Road. Be willing to listen for the "gentle whisper" of the Spirit that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:11-13).
  2. Open up your life totally to Jesus. Lift your heart toward God.
  3. Seek the truth about yourself. Think about what you do that falls short of Christ-likeness and ask for forgiveness. Move to eliminate those behaviors.
  4. Ask the Holy Spirit to shine His convicting light on any tucked-away rancor and bitterness in your heart. Ask for forgiveness and cleansing from those attitudes (Mark 11:25)
  5. Invite the Holy Spirit to take control of your schedule, agendas, timetables and calendars.
  6. Realize that waiting on the Holy Spirit doesn't mean aimless thumb twiddling. As you wait, do all things "in a fitting and orderly way" (1 Corinthians 14:40)
  7. Yearn to sense the Holy Spirit's presence in your life. In your mind's eye, visualize that He has come and is present. Sing Kirk Talley's words: "He is here, Hallelujah! He is here, amen. He is here, listen closely. . . . You will never be the same."

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 3 -- Living by His clock

"Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him." -- Psalm 37:7

Waiting is not something many of us do well. Our culture engenders a sort of vending machine mentality in us. We want things instantly. Our computers never seem to be fast enough. We insist that stores open more cash registers when there are more than 3 customers in check-out lines. We eat lunch in restaurants that guarantee food on our tables in under five minutes. We want direct flights because we hate to change planes. Because we want to do it all and do it now, we cram far too many things into our calendars. Thus, God's "not yet" can sound like a "not ever" to our ears.

Many of us would have been very impatient after Jesus' resurrection. Having Him tell us to sit around Jerusalem waiting might have bothered us. After a few days in the Upper Room, some of us would have walked out the door. We'd have told the others they could wait all they wanted to. In the end, we would have wound up very disappointed because of our feeling that we couldn't wait on His timing.

A. B. Simpson once wrote: "There are some spiritual conditions that cannot be accomplished in a moment. The breaking up of the fallow ground takes time. The frosts of winter are as necessary as the rains of spring to prepare the soil for fertility. God has to break our hearts to pieces by the slow process of His discipline, and grind every particle to power, and then to mellow us and saturate us with His blessed Spirit, until we are open for the blessing He has to give us."

One product of a patient waiting on the Lord is the fostering of godly perspectives. If we'll back off from rushing things and not insist on moving too quickly, we'll gain wisdom. Not long ago, Queen Esther Marrow and The Harlem Gospel Singers recorded a song titled: "You Can't Hurry God, He's Right On Time." How true!

A.B. Simpson finishes that earlier paragraph with this plea: "Oh, let us wait upon the Lord with brokenness of heart, with openness of soul, with willingness of spirit, to hear what God the Lord will say!"

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 4 -- Living in anticipation

"He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father." -- Acts 1:4

I wonder what it was like in that Upper Room. They had been told that there was something new coming. They felt life likely wasn't going to be simply more of the same. As they waited, however, the hours and and days began to slip by.

Was there impatience in the air? Had the excitement of the Resurrection turned to boredom as the waiting days went by? Or, is it possible that the atmosphere of the Upper Room crackled with that kind of electricity one senses in people waiting for a championship sporting event to begin?

When I was teaching at Southern Nazarene University, my wife and I became big fans of the SNU women's basketball team. In March of 2004 we traveled to Jackson, TN to watch the SNU Crimson Storm play in (and ultimately win) the NAIA Division I national tournament. On the morning of the championship game, there was anticipation within us throughout the day. There was excitement in the air as we arrived at the arena even before they opened the doors to let in spectators.

As we waited to present our tickets to get into the arena, we wondered if Katie Snodgrass would do some of her behind-the-back dribbles. We visualized Katie Korfe hitting some three-pointers. We anticipated there would be suffocating defensive moves by Julie Fulbright and Christi Rush.

Shouldn't a kind of electric anticipation be characteristic of how we "wait on the Holy Spirit"? Tragically, we sometimes let ministry and our involvement in church become so routine that there's no longer a sense of shared excitement. I say "tragic" because when the goosebumps and the electricity in the air disappear, it is a tragic time.

Even as we wait on Him, let's be energized by the eager anticipation of what He will do. Every encounter with Him can be an empowering moment. The fulfillment of His promises always means something good even if -- like those gathered in the Upper Room -- we don't know all the details about what is coming. We can be assured, however, that it will be worth waiting for.

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 5 -- Dependence on Him

"Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord." -- Psalm 27:14

Sometimes, we highly-motivated types want to rush out to serve the Lord using not much more than our own thoughts, ambitions, actions and desires. We need to reflect a bit on the stern warning given in Isaiah 30 to those who develop plans without bothering to ask if they fit the mind and will of God.

The discipline of waiting on the Holy Spirit is a powerful reminder to me that I'm not to be the one ultimately in charge. I need to be reminded of that often. When we truly learn to wait on God, we discover how great He is, how immense His love is toward us, how powerful He is and how involved He wants to be in our lives.

Years ago Andrew Murray wrote a devotional book called Waiting on God. In these 31 devotionals Murray spells out his message that an adequate knowledge and understanding of the ways of God comes only to those who know how to patiently wait. So, in some ways, our willingness to wait on the Holy Spirit can be a measure of whether we have recognized the real source of power and cleansing and strength.

In one of his books, Henri Nouwen recounts a spiritual insight that came to him through a friendship he had struck up with the Flying Rodleighs, famous German trapeze artistes. Nouwen spent a week in Germany with this group of South Africans and Americans. One day the trapeze group leader told Nouwen: "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump. . . The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. . . The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. . . .A flyer must fly and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him."

What a great picture of what God asks us to do. We are the flyer and He is the catcher. We are as dependent on Him as the trapeze flyer is upon his catcher. People may see us and think how great we are but the real star of this is our Lord, not us.

On this day, as you swing through the air seemingly far, far above safety, you must trust in the the Lord to be your catcher. Wait for Him; He will be there for you.

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 6 -- Valuing His interventions

"Wait for the Lord and He will deliver you." -- Proverbs 20:22

The phrase "waiting on the Holy Spirit" may well bring to mind our Quaker friends. They place great value in learning to wait on the Holy Spirit even in the leading of a worship gathering. The Quakers don't rush pell-mell through a pre-arranged order of service (like we sometimes do). Our Quaker friends expectantly wait for the Lord to lead in ways that can seem very strange to those of us who have carefully crafted orders of service which we distribute beforehand to worshipers. There's a spontaneity about Quaker gatherings. When they gather for worship, there's an attentive waiting for God to move and speak.

We're not Quakers and this is not a call to emulate their style of worship. We can, however, learn some things from our Quaker friends about the need to wait on the Holy Spirit. For us, waiting on the Spirit may mean going ahead with our plans with the clear understanding that if and when He breaks in on us, we're more than ready to abandon what we had planned and go with His program and agenda. That's because we value His presence far more important than any of our plans or programs. Maybe we need to ask ourselves: When was the last time God broke in on one of our gatherings?

The obvious message of this passage in Proverbs is that it is the Lord who will deliver us from our enemies. This passage is clear in the source of deliverance: It is the Lord. Because it is He who is our Deliverer, it is in the presence of His Spirit that we will find true peace (shalom), depth and unity.

Whether it's a need for deliverance or for guidance in a worship gathering, let's "wait" on the Lord.

Waiting on the Holy Spirit: Day 7 -- No excuses

"Arise, let us go" -- John 14:31

We've spent six days reflecting on what it means to "wait on the Holy Spirit." There's both an upside and a downside to this reflection on waiting. The downside is that "waiting on the Holy Spirit" could become an excuse. It can become an excuse for doing nothing or else an excuse for eventually saying that my own human conclusions about something are truly revelations from God.

In one of his devotionals in his classic book My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers uses as a springboard the last verse of John 14. Those are Jesus words to his disciples when he gets them up from the Last Supper table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane where the events that will lead to His crucifixion will start to quickly unfold. Taking that command to get up and get going, Chambers writes: "Dreaming about a thing in order to do it properly is right; but dreaming about it when we should be doing it is wrong. . . . When we are getting into contact with God in order to find out what He wants, dreaming is right; but when we are inclined to spend our team in dreaming over what we have been told to do, it is a bad thing and God's blessing is never in it."

"Waiting" is not the only verb in the Bible that speaks of how we relate to God. There are many other action verbs connected to our relationship with Him. These include: Seek, go, find, preach, love, believe, proclaim, bless, and follow.

Are we quietly waiting on the Holy Spirit because we are convinced that's what God wants? Or, has God already spoken and we're day-dreaming out of a reluctance to do what He has already commanded? Is my sitting still a true "waiting on the Spirit" or am I sitting out of fear about getting out of my comfort zone?

I need to prayerfully ask the Spirit's guidance. However, I must never use "waiting to hear from Him" as an excuse for not doing what He has already said in His Word: serve others, proclaim the Kingdom, care for the "alien," reprove the wayward sinner, be His hands of justice for the poor, be compassionate . . .

    -- Howard Culbertson,

1 + 2 + 1    Mission trip team commissioning litany    Devotional reflection on serving     Elephant and mouse parable

Fundraising:   Fundraising characters    Getting financial support   Fundraisers     Sample support-raising letters    PowerPoiont: fundraising

Mission trip health tips    Reentry: Coming home    Safe travel tips during mission trips    Ten commandments for mission trip participants     Training exercise    Mission trip travel checklist    Mission trip phases     Ten ways to avoid becoming a missionary     Knowing God's will    PowerPoint presentations used in classes and other venues