As someone who has led short term mission trips to several different cultures, I have had the pleasure to watch students and adults witness powerful testaments to the nature of God. I’ve been part of some amazing moments and memories that last a lifetime. I’ve also made more than my share of mistakes in coaching trip members on how to connect and communicate with people that we are ministering to during our travel.
I firmly believe in the power of short term mission trips to shape the faith and lives of those who go on them. And now as I learn about foreign missions as a long-term missionary, here are a few tips to help short term mission trip members have a great experience while respecting local cultures and long term missionaries – all learned the hard way by yours truly…
- Give the local language a shot. Nothing helps connect people more than trying each other’s language… except maybe the laughter that will ensue. Laugh at yourself, let them laugh at you, and make as many mistakes as you can while trying to connect with them. You will see their eyes light up the moment you speak their native tongue.
- Don’t assume that you understand what is happening in any given situation. Cultures around the world are so different and you could live in a place for years and still never fully know about all the layers: verbal/nonverbal communication, body language, phrases, traditions, etc. The little things that we take for granted in our own culture are more than likely not the same where you are visiting. For instance, an American man might think it’s strange or un-nerving when an African man takes his hand and is walking with him. Learn what these different gestures mean.
- Please research the dress code and what clothes are culturally appropriate to wear. It can create an automatic barrier in connecting with people or even alienate the people you are going to serve/meet if you aren’t sensitive to and respectful of their clothing expectations. Plus it makes it more challenging for long term missionaries to battle any negative affects left from short term travelers. If you don’t know, please ask.
- Please come as a LEARNER, not as an expert. You are coming for a short time but missionaries have been there for a long time building relationships and learning how to work in the culture. Even more so, locals are the REAL experts on their culture so ask them! You don’t typically know what’s best, so please don’t act like you are an expert in the few weeks you’ve been there.
- Ask people their stories. Realize up-front that you may not make a great impact on their lives, but they are likely to make an impact on yours. So spend more time listening to people, asking them questions, learning about their faith, and less time talking about yours. People in many parts of the world have A LOT to teach us about depending upon God and serving Him in the face of great opposition.
- Don’t use people for your own benefit. One of the most common comments I’ve heard coming back from different places is, “They were so happy with so little and it made me thankful for what I have.” Gratitude for God’s presence and blessing should be a reaction, but to make someone else’s story about you isn’t right. Take a deeper look at their story, value it for who they are and not just what they can teach you.
- Try everything! Yes you may get sick, yes you may not like it, and yes you will look foolish. But it’s worth it! On one trip to Mexico, we were poring a concrete floor for a family outside of town and while we were working all morning, the woman of the house was preparing beans, tortillas, rice, and chicken for us. Yes, I may have needed more potty stops that evening, but those were the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had and we connected with the family better over that meal.
One (funny) story we’ve heard handed down is about a preacher who visited and told a story about putting on his “pants” as an illustration during a sermon. He went on for 30 minutes with this illustration throughout the sermon, only to discover when he sat down that he had been talking about his underwear in front of 200 strangers (pants = underwear, trousers = jeans/slacks). You have to be able to laugh at yourself!
Like I said, I’ve made every many mistakes and learned (and I’m still learning) the hard way. God’s Kingdom is made of all kinds of people and it is His Son, His blood, His Spirit, and His love that connects us all. Embrace the differences!