I recently saw a young man post on The Baptist Review Facebook group requesting tips on how he might make the most of an upcoming short-term mission trip. His post got me thinking about what matters for short-termers, especially as it concerns the long-term effects of short-term trips. After reading through the comment thread (see it here: Mission Trip), I mentioned the need to follow the pattern of the missionaries already on the ground. In this post I want to follow up on that statement to explain why I believe that to be important for short-term mission trips.
In season five of The Office, Dunder Mifflin has fallen on hard times, yet the Michael Scott-run Scranton branch continues (inexplicably) to turn a profit. To discover the secret of his success, Michael’s boss, David Wallace, invites him to a meeting at the corporate offices in New York City and rather sheepishly inquires of Michael, “What are you doing right?” The response is, of course, vintage Michael Scott:
David, here it is. My philosophy is basically this. And this is something that I live by. And I always have. And I always will. Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what. No matter . . . where. Or who, or who you are with, or, or where you are going, or . . . or where you’ve been . . . ever. For any reason, whatsoever.
Now let’s make some sense out of Michael Scott’s harebrained ramblings and hopefully apply some wisdom to our short-term mission trips. In boiling down his incoherence into a logical statement, Michael is saying: “Mind your business.” Short-termers, when we prepare for trips, it is essential to know what our business is—what we are doing when we go. I don’t mean the practical day-to-day functions in which you will participate, but the foundational reasons that undergird the daily activities. That being the case, one of the most important items of business each short-term missionary has is supplementing the work of the long-term missionaries with whom he/she will partner. To do this well and to maximize long-term impact, the short-term missionary needs to follow the established patterns of those already on the ground.
They were there before you
Maybe you’ve taken courses or read books on missions, or about the people or place you are going, but I promise you (and I mean no offense here), the missionaries who have been on the ground know better than you the cultural nuances of the people and place. If they tell you not to do something, that restriction is not arbitrary; it has significance to the missionary and, just as importantly, significance to the people that missionary is seeking to reach. Perhaps that doesn’t correspond to something you read beforehand, but beware that books simply can’t provide an exhaustive—or readily updated—list of cultural dos and don’ts. Read the books, prepare as much as possible, but trust the missionaries who have worked tirelessly to learn the language and culture of the people with whom they live.
They will be there after you
You will return home not long after you arrive—maybe a week later or maybe a few months later. You will be different, changed by what you’ve seen and done. You will want to talk about it and some people will want to hear about it. But while you’re doing that (and you should do that), remember that there are those who stayed behind and continue the work of serving and seeking to reach the lost. In preparation for a short-term trip, resolve in your heart not to do anything that could negatively impact the long-term efforts of those who remain after you return home. In other words, don’t be a rogue short-term missionary; follow the leadership of the long-termers who are investing their lives, families, and careers in the people and place you will visit.
Short-termers, our work is important and impactful. So let’s go, serve, and return in as positive a way as possible. We are servants and not celebrities, so let’s mind our business and submit to the leadership and patterns of those who have gone before us and who will remain after us, for the sake of the glorious gospel among the nations.