10 Little Lessons for a Successful Mission Trip
“I did not know that …”
“I was just trying to help …”
“Why don’t they…”
Those are three most common statements I hear when I am hosting a mission team, whether in Sudan, Haiti, or on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. People with good hearts and good intentions go on a mission trip and then say or do something that is inappropriate or doesn’t match the situation, leaving the host to figure out how to say, politely but firmly, “No.”
I have served as a missionary for many years, have led trips domestically and overseas, and have hosted literally dozens of mission teams, so I know well the mistakes that can be made, and how easy it is to avoid them.
What makes a mission trip a success is not solely the work that has been done. A trip can’t be counted a success simply because a house has been painted, a building rehabilitated, or a roof put on.
The mission of the Church – the mission of Jesus Christ – is to build relationships so that all of us can be reconciled to God. Painting a house but never talking to the homeowner? That’s not the mission; that’s just work. Anyone can paint a house. It is, in itself, a good thing to do. But if no relationship is built, if no one talks with the local person to find out why the house needs repainting, if no effort is made to understand the local circumstances…well, then all that has been accomplished is a new coat of paint, which really could have been done by anyone.
Again, mission is about relationships and is grounded in the fact that all of us are made in the image of God, the image of love (because God loved us into being) and community (also known as the Trinity). Mission success is based on living out that image of love and community in love and in community.
So here are 10 little lessons that will make mission trips successful in God’s eyes:
As a host, I believe it is necessary for the mission team to take the time – before traveling anywhere – to learn about the people of the place to which they are going. Learn the people’s story, their history, their wants, their needs, their desires. Learn how they work together. Learn some of the language, if possible; even simple greetings, along with the marvelous phrase, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak your language,” go a long way toward establishing firm foundations upon which to build relationships.
When you arrive, listen.
Listen to the people. Ask them their story. Remember that for many people in the world, no one pays attention, no one cares; heck, in some cases, no one even knows that these people with whom you are doing ministry and mission even exist.
Then, when you go home, tell their story. Let the world know there are people out there whose voices need to be heard. Name the people you have met. So few people know their names; help your mission partners, who are your sisters and brothers in Christ not by the blood of birth but by the waters of baptism, be known and remembered throughout the world.
And what not to do?
Please do not enter the mission field thinking you know how to do everything and “these people” do not. They do know. They may know differently, but they do know. After all, you are going into their neighborhoods, their homes. Please respect that.
Please do not presume that just because something works where you live, wherever that may be, it will work wherever you are going.
Please do not presume that if the people you are visiting “would just (fill in the blank),” all would be well.
Please do not tell the people that you know more, can do more, are wiser, smarter, richer, better fed.
Please do not refuse the food … it is precious to us in the mission field, where most often food is scarce, and too expensive, and often we can only dream about it. (I cannot tell you the number of times visitors have filled up on snacks right before a meal, and then rejected the meal because they were “too full,” or have taken one look at the food and declared, without even tasting it, “Uck. I don’t want to eat this,” or simply dumped the food in the trash, for whatever reason, leaving those of us who provided the food not only shocked, but enraged.)
Please do not presume your visit will rock their world so much that their lives will be changed overnight. They won’t. Even God needed six days to create the world.
Please do not go home and then tell everyone every great little thing you did to “make their lives better.” Your visit will only have a lasting impact if you follow through by telling the people’s story.
And for the most part, excluding very small swatches of the world, please Do. Not. Ever. presume you are coming to proclaim the Gospel to a bunch of poor, unknowing, unfaithful people. Darned near every corner of the world has heard the Gospel, and the people you are visiting usually know it very well. And some of them have been proclaiming it far longer and far more effectively in their own contexts than missionary visitors have in theirs.
You are not coming to convert the peoples. You are coming into a mission field – often poor, dirty, oppressed, depressed – where most of the people with whom you will work already are Christians. For many of them, in the United States and overseas, the Gospel is not an option off a menu of choices of what to do on a Sunday morning; it is their lifeblood. So please, ask them to teach you the Gospel as they know and live it.
We can do better – so much better – if only we would prepare before we go somewhere, if only we would pray before, during and after the trip, if only we were a little more humble, if only we would listen, and if only we would quit thinking the mission is all about us.
Because mission is never about us. It is always about God, and God is always about relationships.
The Reverend Lauren R. Stanley, D.Min, has served congregations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and as a missionary in Sudan and Haiti. Since 2013 she has been Priest-in-Charge of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission (West) in South Dakota, which often receives short-term mission groups to the Lakota reservation.