I still remember my first short-term mission trip. It was in the summer of 2001, and I was about to enter my senior year of high school. A group from our church accompanied some IMB missionaries on their work in the Yucatan region of Mexico. It was then that the Lord began in me a process of learning to see his hand as it moves on the unique lives of individual people all over the world.
I have since spent the last eighteen years going on mission through the local church, and the last ten of those, I have had the privilege of leading teams. The Lord has used these years to hone not only the way I see missions but also the way I lead trips—constantly bringing the gospel back into the way I prepare teams and the expectations I place on each trip.
What I have seen is that oftentimes we miss out on the full potential of a mission trip because, though we have a Jesus-centered starting point, we fail to have Jesus-centered goals, measures, and expectations. This affects the way we view the success of the trip, as well as the discipleship of the people on our short-term teams, and the way our church views missions long-term.
Asking the Right Questions
Modern Baptists follow generations of missionaries who have sacrificed for the sake of the Kingdom—going to the unreached and farthest-flung. We usually do well at having a Jesus-centered foundation for the way we accomplish missions, and this foundation is in place for most folks who sign up to go on a trip.
No matter how well we lay the foundation, however, it seems that many trip participants have a difficult time translating this foundation into a Scripture-based idea of what the trip intends to accomplish. When they return, they might struggle with discouragement because they were given goals and expectations that weren’t God-sized enough to account for the myriad of ways that the trip might have gone. Discipleship towards rightly understanding missions begins by starting at the right foundation, asking the right questions, and developing the right expectations.
1. What does Jesus want to accomplish where we go?
There are some common guiding principles to answer this question: First, we must remember the purpose of missions. We know that the Lord is concerned with expanding his kingdom here on earth anddrawing people into relationship with and worship of himself. We also know that he works as we proclaim his truth.So, the primary objective for any team is to further the gospel so his name will be glorified among the nations.
This plays out in countless ways—meeting a physical need in order to talk about spiritual needs, encouraging or training a local congregation so that they can continue to share the gospel, doing direct evangelism on the streets, and much more. No matter which direction the trip takes, gospel advancement must be the core value.
The first barrier to rightly approaching missions is letting the project be enough. Americans value getting the job done. While this is a huge asset on the mission field, we often become so focused on the physical project that we reach its end without having led our team into the spiritual project. Sometimes this looks like serving without sharing the gospel or serving without asking for the Lord's involvement. .
Another barrier is taking a team to serve missionaries in unhelpful ways. Countless missionaries share how long it takes them to undo the spiritual, cultural, and physical damage done by a mission team from the US. It is vital to allow the missionaries on-site to take leadership on your team's projects and offer the wisdom they have from living on the field. Following each of these will keep your team on track in making your primary objective for the trip mirror the Lord’s.
2. What does Jesus want to accomplish in our hearts?
Unfortunately, it took me a while to understand how vital this question is. Jesus not only draws the lost to himself, but he also draws the saved closer in through mission trips.
Our goal as leaders is to cultivate obedience and gospel consciousness in the hearts of our team members. This will help them gauge the trip with the Lord’s guidelines and will help them digest the events of the trip in a proper way. The team may or may not see droves of people come to know the Lord. However, we can trust that a God who is faithful to his work will use our meager obedience to accomplish it.
Gospel-based guiding principles mean that we can leave results in his hands and his timing. Are the physical needs of the area we go to heartbreaking—especially when our team realizes that our week of effort will do little to improve them? Yes. ut discipling our team toward a gospel consciousness will give them the ability to see that they have been uniquely equipped by the Lord to deliver a hope that is eternal and far more valuable than a physical need that can be met one day and return the next.
3. How does Jesus want us to plan our time?
While we can never prepare anyone enough for a foreign context before they encounter it, we can disciple our team toward gospel-based principles. One simple thing I have found helpful is to have more than one meeting before the trip. It sounds obvious, but with schedules as hectic as they are, I have both attended and led trips where all we had time for was one big meeting.
Having multiple meetings gives you the chance to do a few helpful things. First, it allows you to control the content of your meetings. Most people on your team will be concerned with the logistics of the trip: the itinerary, what to pack, etc. The temptation will be to make every meeting about these items, but having a logistics meeting upfront allows you to make the following times you meet focus on what your team will experience spiritually.
This will look different for each trip—you could spend an entire meeting studying Scripture that is missional or related to the spiritual climate of your destination, give homework, or spend an entire meeting just praying for the specific needs of the area you are going to.
4. How does Jesus want us to prepare our hearts?
Finally, I have found that it is important to push your team’s spiritual expectations of the trip. Before you leave, give them a spiritual responsibility to accomplish on the trip: preparing their testimony to share on the field, leading a devotional one morning, journaling how they see the promises of God being fulfilled throughout the trip.
The options are endless, but some very small things done in preparation end up making a night and day difference for what your team experiences on the field, making sure that they experience Christ and his Kingdom.
A short-term mission trip is a pivotal point in the discipleship process of any believer, and those of us who lead these trips have the privilege of growing our team’s understanding of the Lord, his love for them, and his love for the nations. May we responsibly guide our people to have God-sized, gospel-centered expectations of the Lord’s work as they step out in obedience!
Owen Barr is the Community Missions Pastor at Champion Forest Baptist Church- Jersey Village. He has served as part of the Missions Staff since 2011, leading local and international mission teams and service projects.