You step out of the van into this new community and you feel stressed. While traveling to your mission trip destination, you realized that you forgot a bunch of things in your scramble to pack your suitcase the night before. One of those things was your Bible, which hasn’t left its spot on your bookshelf since the last time you went to a Bible study almost two months ago.
You take a few steps from the van and synchronize a full-body stretch with a long yawn. Your sleep patterns have been a bit erratic the last few days and you are already looking forward to bed. Your teammates whom you barely know push past you, and seem excited to have arrived.
“Hola!” The yelled greeting jerks you out of your thoughts as you look up to see a kid across the street waving at you before chasing a ball down the empty street. “Uh… hello…” you half-heartedly yell with an uncertain wave to match. You are pretty sure that was Spanish, and suddenly you wonder if people even speak English here and why this area doesn’t seem as nice as the houses you drove through just fifteen minutes before you arrived. This doesn’t look anything like the community you went to on a mission trip last year, and you feel a tinge of frustration creeping in. You’ve just arrived and already things are not what you had expected.
It true: You probably don’t want this experience. But a lack of preparation now can negatively affect your mission trip in a couple months. Hopefully you’ve already taken some steps to get ready for an incredible experience of loving, serving and learning from another community. But even if you haven’t, taking time to prepare today can make your trip a much better experience for you, your teammates and those you meet during your trip. As you prepare, implement these…
1. Make a plan for after the trip
This is first on the list because it is often the last thing we think about… if we think about it at all! But what happens after your trip is just as important as the preparation that happens before! Make a plan for your team to meet and celebrate the mission trip afterward, schedule a time to share your story in church or in another way with supporters, and begin thinking now about how you will apply the things you’ll learn. On an individual level, find a few friends and ask each if they will meet with you and ask you a bunch of questions after your trip. Consider other creative ways to share the story of what God did in and through you during your trip.
This isn’t rocket science. If you want your trip to be successful, you need God’s help. Take time to pray for your heart, your team, your safety, your travel, your fundraising, the people you’ll meet and the service you’ll do. Not only will prayer invite God into this experience, it’ll help you prepare for whatever God has in store.
3. Develop healthy expectations
It’s good to be expectant, but sometimes our expectations can run away with us. You should expect that God will do great things in and through you during your trip. The trouble can come when we begin getting very specific with our imaginations of what our experience will be like. Be careful not to turn your expectations for a good trip into criteria for a good trip. Take some time to consider how you will respond if aspects of your trip don’t go as planned. Talk about what healthy hopes mean for your team. And if you’re headed back to the same community you’ve served in before, don’t fall into the trap of expecting things to be the same as last time. The best expectation you can have is that God will work how God wants to and that you will get to participate in God’s often-surprising plans.
4. Learn the story of the community you’re headed to
It will help a lot if you understand the backdrop of the scene you enter. Every community’s story is unique, and you are about to become part of that story, so read a book, watch a documentary, do a Google search or ask some questions of those who have been there before. Your mission trip experience will be enriched when you understand the history, struggles and beauty of the place you serve.
5. Learn the culture (and the language)
You don’t need to become fluent in cultural practices or a new language to do meaningful ministry, but you’ll be amazed how learning a little can go a long way. Take some time to learn about any cultural cues and, if applicable, a few phrases in the language (the more the better!). Putting these into practice will communicate great value toward the culture you are entering as a guest.
6. Grow together with your team
Simply put, growing as a team takes time – together! In the months before your mission trip find time when your whole team can be present. And be exclusive with who gets to be there – this is time for your specific group of people to begin to understand each other’s rhythms, strengths and rough spots. Make a team covenant, talk about the spiritual dangers of mission trips, pray, play and plan. You are about to experience something challenging, beautiful and incredible together!
7. Talk to your supporters
Not just the people who are giving you money – but yes, them too – but the people who support you in life. Who do you want praying for you, encouraging you and processing the experience with you when you get home? Who are the people who you want to understand this experience? Whether it’s a written note or (better) an in-person conversation, remind them of what you’re doing, thank them for being a supporter in your life and ask them to be in prayer for all the pieces of what you’re about to step into.
8. Get prepared physically
You might be ready in every other way imaginable, but then get sick during the trip because you just weren’t ready for the physical requirements. Here are a few quick things to do to prepare physically:
- Exercise You’ll likely be on your feet and on the move during every day of your trip. If you currently don’t exercise, then start. It might be as simple as going for a 30–60-minute walk each day.
- Break unhelpful eating habits You might not have the same food available to you during your trip. If you are accustomed to going to McDonald’s every day or drinking Starbucks each morning, it might be a rude awakening when you don’t have those opportunities on your mission trip. Consider what habits you can give up on your own before you are forced to during your trip.
- Adjust sleep patterns Find out the schedule of your mission trip then adapt your sleeping pattern to match. Good rest will greatly aid you during your trip. Train your body beforehand to sleep and wake up at the times you’ll need to during your trip.
- Avoid sickness Do whatever you can in the weeks and days leading up to your trip to stay healthy, so you can enter your trip in tiptop shape.
9. Pack your bag
That’s right! Start doing this two months before the trip! So often packing is a last-minute afterthought that can cause unneeded stress and unhelpful issues when you forget something. Packing early is just as much about remembering the things you need as it is about sifting out the things you don’t. Chances are you’ll be spending some of your trip alongside people who often go without. In a small way, you can begin to understand others by intentionally removing from the picture some of the possessions you usually rely on. A good place to begin thinning things out might be to think twice about bringing stuff that plugs in. Go ahead – take two months to pack your bag! The presence of a partly packed bag in your bedroom will be a constant reminder of this upcoming experience that needs your prayer and your intentionality.
10. Seek spiritual health
Showing Jesus’ love to others is awfully hard if you are not experiencing that love in your own life. Maybe you’ve been putting spiritual practices on the back burner, maybe there’s something you’re struggling with, or maybe you’re lacking good Christian community in your life; whatever it is, seek to grow closer to Christ as you prepare to serve and learn from others on your mission trip. If that sounds hard, talk to someone you respect for their commitment to Christ. The reality is that we all struggle in some ways and no one who goes on a mission trip is perfect – not even close! But the more you can seek a good relationship with God before the trip, the better equipped you’ll be to live and speak God’s love to others.
With intentional preparation during the months before your mission trip, imagine the difference it will make in how you love others, learn from a community, grow as a person and connect with Jesus…
You step out of the van into this new community and you feel excited. The drive to your mission trip destination was full of conversations with teammates who already feel like family. You even got to share a couple things you feel God has been telling you during the last couple months as you’ve spent time praying for this trip.
You take a few steps from the van and reach toward the sky in a full-body stretch. You then reach for your toes as if you’re about to enter your daily exercise routine. Instead, you breathe a short prayer thanking God for finally landing you in this community you’ve been reading and thinking about for months. As you look down the street, you spot one of outdoor wall murals you learned about when you Googled this neighborhood a few weeks ago. You wonder if you will get to see more murals.
“Hola!” The yelled greeting jerks you out of your thoughts as you look across the street to see a kid wave at you before chasing a ball down the street. “Hola! Cómo estás?” you yell after him, grateful for the ten Spanish phrases you took time to memorize before the trip. As he picks up the ball, he gives you a surprised grin then runs back to his friends. As you survey the neighborhood, you realize that after only a few minutes of being here, it feels very different than the last community you visited on a mission trip, and you feel a trace of excitement run through you as you wonder what God might have in store for you here.
Sam Townsend helps write training, programming and marketing materials for YouthWorks mission trips. He’s currently busy reading about the history of Haiti, getting into a better exercise routine and learning a little Haitian Creole to prep for a youth mission trip this summer. When he isn’t hanging around students at church or digging into seminary homework, he is generally looking for a good conversation over good food.