Finding your Place after your Short-Term Mission Trip
You've just taken a huge step of faith. You've spent two months in a completely different country and culture. You've eaten who knows what, said "Hello" and "Good-bye" in a new language to unforgettable faces, ridden buses that formally would have been considered sub-standard, and had the best time of your life! Now you're headed for one more hurdle…going back to life as normal. But will it ever be the same again?
For many people, coming home after the short-term missions experience can be as difficult as leaving in the first place. Friends and family are somehow different. The things you longed for while you were gone aren't as wonderful as you remembered. You've changed, but can't figure out why the world you left didn't change with you. Finding your place after a short-term trip is as critical to the kingdom of God as going in the first place. Let's take a look at some ways you can begin to readjust and how you can transfer the valuable lessons from your experience overseas to your world at home.
Don't be Inward Focused
Over Christmas break one year I had my first cross-culture experience in Mexico. The week we came back to school I was eager to tell my friends about everything God had shown me while I was gone. After all, I had grown in such amazing ways. I saw how little others had, which made me aware of my own abundance. Being in a foreign place had caused me to pray more in my life then ever before. I was a bigger person now. I had learned about putting others before myself. My only problem was I was still focused on what one person got out of the trip…me.
While it's important to analyze, process and rejoice in what the Lord has taught you during your short-term trip, don't stop there. Look beyond yourself to what God is doing in the world and specifically in the country and people you labored among. Maybe begin by asking yourself some of the following questions:
- What was it like in__________?
- How can I describe the people and culture from my experience to those in my own country?
- What did I see God doing among the people of __________?
- What is the remaining task there? How far does the gospel have left to go in that country or people group?
- What resources would it take to bring the gospel to the entire country of __________?
- How does this compare to what I know God is doing in the rest of the world?
Taking the time to focus not just on what you gained from the experience but also on what God is doing across the world is a vital part in beginning to transition from your overseas experience to home. An emotion many short-termers feel after coming home is bitterness towards their own culture and even their Church. Instead of harboring feelings of bitterness, recognize the grace the Lord has bestowed upon you in granting you this experience as well as the spiritual growth and insights you've gained. Practice the principle of good stewardship. What would God have you do, as a steward of your short-term trip after it is complete?
Cultivate the Vision as You Get It
Floyd McClung, former director of Youth With a Mission (YWAM) states that short-termers need to be challenged to view themselves as stewards of their overseas experience. Your short-term trip is not merely a once in a lifetime event, but a piece of the evolving role your life will hold in the task of Global Evangelization. Avoid the common mistake of compartmentalizing missions into a summer break. Begin to grow in what is called the World Christian Lifestyle of directing the cause and purpose of your life towards completing the Great Commission! You can cultivate a vision for your life after returning from your short-term trip by growing in your own exposure to missions. Begin to add knowledge to the newfound missions zeal God has given you. Start building a solid foundation of truth alongside your experience overseas.
An essential part of this foundation is increasing your understanding of missions from a Biblical perspective. From Genesis to Revelation there is a golden thread that is woven throughout scripture of God's deep love for all nations. How well are you familiar with this major Biblical theme? Maybe begin by doing a word study of "nations" in the Bible. Make a study of Psalms and hear David's heart cries for the nations. Or study the life of Christ in the gospels and watch how Jesus sought the nations through his ministry here on earth. Immerse yourself in the word and make God's heart for the world your own.
Don't neglect learning from those who have gone before you. Within the recent past of our Christian heritage are some heroes whose lives rival anything you can catch on a big screen. Grab hold of some missionary biographies of men like Hudson Taylor or Jim Elliott. Learn from the life of Amy Carmichael and her passion for India. Follow Adoniram Judson into the depths of Myanmar (then Burma) and watch what God can do through a life that is yielded to Him. The lives of these dedicated individuals hold amazing truths and lessons that we can learn from and build upon in our generation.
Utilize the amazing missions resources that exist today. Read missions books like Unveiled at Last by Bob Sjogren. Or perhaps tackle a deep read like Let the Nations be Glad by John Piper. Maybe start learning about the state of the world with a book like The Church is Bigger then you Think by Patrick Johnstone. Look and see if there is a "Perspectives on the World Christian Movement" course in your area in which you can enroll. Whatever resources you take hold of, begin to put knowledge to your zeal for the world. Create a foundation of solid truth and principle that you can build your new passion for the nations upon.
As David Bryant said "God cannot lead you based on facts you do not know." Learn more, become a missions expert, start expanding your world and the vision you have for your life. Spend time learning about other countries and cultures. Start watching CNN for more than the sports headlines. But don't let your vision stop with you; start impacting those around you with your new passion.
Importance of Challenging Others
Without a doubt the single biggest influence in my decision to get involved in missions came from those around me. It didn't come from a stranger or a missionary's picture in a Church bulletin. It came from a few specific people whose reckless pursuit of the Great Commission made me take a step back and look at my life purpose. On your campus you can begin to impact people in the same way. Think about the significance of challenging others for a moment. Let's begin by assuming you're headed back to the mission field someday. Imagine going on your own and the effect you can have. Now, imagine going back with at least twenty other sold-out individuals. Which would have the largest effect? If you're thinking about the power that comes with numbers, then you're on your way to being a mobilizer.
A mobilizer is one who challenges others to a global vision. You can do this in your dorm, church, sorority or fraternity house, wherever. Find individuals who love the Lord and love the lost. Start sharing your summer experience with them. Maybe ask them to begin meeting with you weekly to pray for the world. Or, start a Bible Study together that digs deeper into the missions theme of the Bible. Plan another short-term trip and find the people to fill it up! Whatever you do begin to challenge others to embrace God's heart for the world and get involved in what He is doing.
Each person has a direct sphere of influence; you might be the only one to ever challenge your friends to get involved in missions. Generally, the sad truth is that most Christians think missions is reserved only for the "super spiritual" or for those who couldn't quite make it here around "normal" people. Help be the one to change these paradigms. Present your friends with God's great plan for the nations and the vast needs of the world. Challenge them to take responsibility, step up and say "Here I am, send me."
After all this great mobilizing, you may find that the person you've had the greatest influence on is you. Following the time you've had overseas maybe you are considering going back for longer, maybe even forever. Let's take a look now at how to find out if long-term missionary service is for you and how to overcome some common obstacles in making it to the field.
Finding if God Would Have You Serve Long-Term and How to Transition
Years ago Francis Xavier said "tell the students to give up their small ambitions and come eastward to preach the gospel of Christ." This cry still rings out today to a new generation. Our generation's task is completely unique to any that have gone before us. With only 9,000 people groups remaining without the gospel and the rapid growth in technology it appears that the world is growing smaller each day. Yet, the ultimate purpose is still the same, to reach the billions headed to a Christless eternity before it is too late. After a short-term trip many wonder if they might be one of those on the front lines bringing the gospel to those who have never heard.
One way to know if a long-term career in missions is for you is to go back for an extended short-term experience. Most mission agencies have a one to three-year program for college graduates that provide a picture of what long-term service is like. In the brief time spent on a short-term trip the taste of day to day life in a foreign country is for the most part very romanticized. Although you may feel like you've experienced life on the field, it does not compare to the routine of daily life that most missionaries' encounter. Spending an extended period of time on the field will allow you to experience the day-to-day life of career missionaries and see if God might be leading you there for longer. Even if you aren't thinking of becoming a career missionary, spending a year or two on the mission field is a great investment in eternity. There's a vicious lie existing that college graduates have to jump into a career directly after college. Don't buy into it. The corporate world will still be waiting after you come back. But the same chance to invest in eternity may not.
Start this process by talking with a pastor or leader in your life and share how you feel the Lord is leading you. Get council from this person or another who can help you to begin researching mission agencies. If possible, try meeting with this person on a regular basis continuing to share your vision and gaining accountability as you prepare to go. Share your plans with family and friends as well. Those closest to you will value hearing an honest account of how God is working in your life and where you feel you're headed next. For most, this can be the hardest part of preparing to go. Whether your family is Christian or not, the idea of you leaving for another country is always a difficult reality to face. By openly sharing, talking and praying with them, most families will recognize the importance of the feat you're attempting or at least appreciate the way you have shared your plans. For a non-Christian family this can open many doors to share the gospel. Either way share each step of the process with as much detail as possible. Let your parents see brochures about different mission agencies. If possible, find a way for them to communicate with a member of the agency. Open communication is key as you are preparing to go.
Finally, as you're preparing to go overseas for any length of time make your spiritual growth a priority. Cultivate a deep passion for God above all things in your life. It's a common principle that we reproduce spiritually what we are. What a true waste it would be to spend our energy and time getting to another country only to produce the same anemic faith in those we are reaching that is present in our own lives. Become passionate about God and the spread of His fame among the nations and this will carry over into any work you do for His glory.
Seek Out People at Home From Other Countries
Think back to the first night you spent in the country of your short-term trip. Picture all the new sights and sounds. The different smells. The feeling of being thousands of miles from everything familiar and comfortable. Feeling overwhelmed yet? In America there are over 600,000 international students studying in universities and colleges who experience daily those same feelings and more. As a recent guest to another culture, don't forget the amazing privilege of welcoming someone to yours. After all, there isn't a lot of logic in making the preparations, raising the support and spending two months of the year in China only to ignore the Chinese students on your campus the rest of the year.
Think back to some of the ways you were made to feel welcome in the country of your short-term trip and start there. How did people reach out to you in friendship? Did someone spend time with you teaching you their language? How many welcomed you into their homes and delighted in serving you the best they could offer? Reach out to the international students on your campus with the same genuine friendship and care.
See if your campus has an international society or club for students from other countries and get involved. Invite your new friends to cultural events like football games, campus performances or whatever. Bring them home and let them experience what an American family is like. See if there is an opportunity to be conversational partner with someone who is learning English and help them with language struggles. They can even teach you some of their language. Whatever you do, remember that for most non-Western cultures friendship and hospitality are qualities that are very valued. You don't have to befriend all 500 international students on your campus. Value quality in your friendships with internationals over quantity. Remember the cultural rules you learned while visiting another country and apply those as well. Be sensitive, but most of all love as Jesus did.
So as you come back after your short-term mission trip will life ever be the same? Hopefully the answer will be "no way."