Doing One Thing Well: Stepping through the Short-term Mission Experience

by Dawn Lewis-Anderson

The author suggests that a short-term mission trip focus on one thing: impacting the life of the participant in meaningful and measurable ways.

Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Often he or she who does too much, does too little. We have all heard similar proverbs or sayings. We also know from experience that focusing on too many different things is unproductive and often produces only meager results. How much better it is when we focus on one thing and do it well! However, when it comes to short-term mission trips, this common wisdom seems quickly forgotten. Listen to the wide variety of goals different churches have for sending out short-term mission teams:

• supporting and encouraging missionaries and nationals
• changing the worldview of participants
• helping participants grow
• getting participants engaged in ministry or service tasks
• getting to know people from different countries
• impacting nationals
• seeing people saved
• providing ministry to nationals
• increasing the support of missionaries
• increasing the mission vision, education, and commitment in the sending church
• mobilizing missionaries
• encouraging people to continue going on short-term mission trips

Often, when sending teams to different countries, we try to accomplish far more than is humanly possible. Of course, this is exactly what we want to see happen—more than is humanly possible. But because we do not have a clear understanding of our overriding goals and objectives, short-term mission trips can easily lose their effectiveness and become difficult to meaningfully evaluate. Therefore, I would like to suggest one overriding goal for short-term mission trips: to impact the life of the participant in tangible, meaningful, and measurable ways.

I am not suggesting that we spend thousands of dollars on a trip in order to have someone’s worldview changed; I do not think that is justifiable. What I am advocating is changing the participant’s long-term behavior and doing so in ways that allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts. This is not to say that we should never expect anything more to happen on a short-term mission trip than to have the participant’s life changed; this is where the “more than is humanly possible” part comes in. However, it is not necessary or even helpful to try and force a number of great things to occur. Doing so often leads to more chaos and fewer results. Far too often, missionaries feel pressured to create trips for their supporting churches that will support the sending church’s ministry goals, give opportunity for the missionaries to build relationships with the participants, and create something useful for the national church and for the missionaries.

There is no reason to create extra work that produces little benefit for otherwise focused and perhaps already overworked missionaries. Let us follow the KISS principle: “Keep It Sweet & Simple,” which, generally speaking, means doing one thing and doing it well.

Despite claims to the contrary, research indicates that short-term mission trips do not consistently benefit the national church or culture, increase mission giving, or benefit the receiving missionary.1 However, short-term mission trips can consistently influence the life of each participant. Therefore, why not focus our efforts on creating a sincere and lasting life-changing experience for the participant?

But how do we do this? Essentially, we need to encourage participants in short-term mission trips to be intentional about their experience not only before and during their trip, but after it as well. Admittedly, this is not a popular starting point. One mission pastor responded to this idea by saying, “We cannot require anything of people after they return from a trip; they just do not have the time.” Yes, participants are busy, but so are missionaries and national leaders. Often times, participating missionaries and nationals are the people following up on the trip well after it is over, even if the trip’s project was not directly related to their ministry. And, if the trip does not end for the missionaries or nationals once the team leaves, why do we expect that it immediately ends for the team of participants?

The Importance of Effective Experience in Participants
Think back to your favorite Christian camp experience as a child. You went to camp, had an amazing time, and returned vowing that your life would never be the same. Later that week, you got in a fight with your little brother, scored poorly on a science test, enjoyed the negative fruits of a friend’s party, and forgot all the amazing lessons you planned on bringing home with you from camp. Why? Because camp, like many short-term mission trips, is often only an emotional experience. Our camp experience did not lead to a lasting change, because once we left that environment and returned to the stresses of everyday life, our emotions became occupied with day-to-day living, causing us to forget everything we learned.

Just like young campers, it is easy for short-term mission trip participants to generate enormous excitement before and during the trip. But like campers, short-term participants often return home, get caught up in their busy schedules, and within weeks or a few short months, basically forget everything they learned overseas. One short-term trip participant unwittingly reinforced this idea. According to her, she needed a booster shot of another short-term mission trip every year in order to maintain all she had learned the previous year! When you have a life-changing experience, you do not need a booster shot for maintenance—it stays with you.

Therefore, we need to be intentional about helping participants make life-long changes as a result of a short-term mission trip. Effective trips need to focus on changing participants from their first preparatory meeting until well after they return home. This approach requires intentionality, a willingness to change, prayer, the ability to listen and hear God, a time commitment, and some extra work for the team leader from the sending country, as well as for the missionary mentor.2 But I’m convinced the extra requirements will yield exponential results. Let us look at each of the steps required in this process to see how to create a life-transforming short-term mission trip for participants.

Step 1: Preparation and training. Typical preparation for a short-term mission trip includes: learning about the host country and culture, planning ministry activities, discussing trip details, planning for the intended ministry, and addressing important character traits such as humility and interdependence. However, participants also need to take concrete steps that will prepare them to make significant lifelong changes as a result of their short-term trip experience. These steps need to be done with intentionality even before going on the trip.

1. Participants need to want to have their lives changed. It is easy to grow comfortable with life in the Western world and to try and maintain the status quo of one’s existence. In order to avoid this trap, participants should actively acknowledge their willingness to change and be willing to use the short-term mission trip experience as a catalyst for this change.

2. Participants need to confess their willingness to change before God. Perhaps this is best done by praying one of God’s favorite prayers: “Lord change me!” God loves a willing heart and delights in answering this prayer, as demonstrated in the life of Abraham when he willingly offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice. God can use short-term mission trips to change his children and to make them more into his likeness.

3. Participants need to listen in order to hear what God has for them. Perhaps he wants something as subtle as a change in attitude, greater humility, more patience with co-workers, greater love toward one’s neighbors, or more time spent with him. Or perhaps he wants participants to change in a more obvious way, a way that reflects his love for the world as expressed through their actions. Ideally, this behavioral change would be related to missions, either overseas or at home.

4. As participants begin hearing from God and getting a sense of how he wants their lives to change, they should develop one or more goals that reflect the changes they anticipate making as a result of their short-term mission trip experience. Participants will have a chance to refine their goals throughout the process as God speaks to them before, during, and after the trip. These goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time specific. They might include things such as committing to pray on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis for the country they visit, the nationals they meet, and/or for the missionaries who host them. Regularly volunteering in their community, discipling one or two people, increasing giving to missions, or committing to a longer mission trip of three months to a year are other examples of how lives may change as a result of a trip.

5. Once participants determine their goals, they should write them down and give a copy to the team leader and the missionary mentor. This will help the team leader and missionary mentor better understand and know how to help people who are going on the trip. It will also help the missionary mentor intentionally engage with participants who have goals related to career missions. Participants should also begin thinking about who would be an appropriate accountability partner to help them follow through on their goals.

Step 2: The trip. Once participants arrive in a country their time will be filled with planned activities and ministries. However, it is important to remember that the trip is also part of a process that God is using to change their lives. This life transformation process can be enhanced in three ways during the trip.

1. Participants should continue to pray that God would speak to them and change them. God often uses the times that we are out of our comfort zone to get our attention and help us to grow into his likeness.

2. Participants need to continue listening to God and seeking his direction in order to learn how he wants them to change. One helpful way of doing this is by journaling or, in some other way, documenting their experiences. Participants should capture their thoughts, feelings, and observations about the country, noting what they are learning, what God is saying to them, and how he is working in their lives. They can then evaluate their experiences in light of their written goals. Upon returning home, their written reflections will reinforce what they heard and learned during their trip, making lasting change more likely.

3. Shortly before returning home, the group should intentionally debrief their experience with the missionary mentor. This may be the group’s last chance to process their trip with someone who understands both cultures.

Step 3: Post-trip debrief. Debriefing and helping participants process what God said to them during the short-term mission experience is an important part of the trip. The debriefing time also helps participants further clarify their goals and work toward life-transforming change as a result of the trip. The team leader should lead the home debrief about two weeks after the short-term mission trip has ended. This 2-week time frame gives participants a chance to get over jet lag and start processing the trip on a deeper level. At the same time, two weeks is typically not long enough for participants to get sucked back into their normal routine and forget the impact of their time abroad.

The goal of debriefing is to help participants normalize and process their trip experience. This is done by sharing what they have learned with others who have had similar experiences. One of the ways debriefing can be done is by asking questions to help participants understand what they learned during the trip. Questions might include asking participants what they learned about themselves, God, the country they visited, and the people they met. Other questions might include asking participants how God spoke to them, what themes they noticed in their experiences, what significant experiences they had, and how they anticipate their life changing as a result of the trip. It can also be helpful for participants to discuss highlights and frustrations from their trip.

Before debriefing, participants should review their journal entries to see what insights they gained and to note how God spoke to them during and after the trip. They should also prayerfully revisit and finalize their goals. After debriefing, participants should give a copy of their goals, along with the name of their accountability partner, to the team leader. The missionary mentor may also want a copy of these goals, especially if there are people on the team who have an interest in missions and in making a longer-term overseas commitment.

Step 4: Follow-up with accountability. Participants should meet with their accountability partners for a minimum of six months to ensure they are putting their goals into action and are creating new behavioral patterns. Ideally, those returning from the short-term mission trip would act as accountability partners for one another. This is because their shared experience will give them a greater understanding of one another, as well as a bond of trust. Accountability partners can be of help by listening, encouraging, and holding participants accountable as they work to reach their goals and objectives. Accountability partners may decide to meet as often as every week, but should meet at least once a month, preferably in person.

Step 5: Concluding the experience. At the end of the six months, the team leader should follow up with each participant to see how his or her life has changed as a result of the trip. The team leader should also document how many people followed through on their goals, if participants met with their accountability partners, how often they met, and by what means (face-to-face, or via telephone or email). Collecting this kind of information will help evaluate the effectiveness of this approach, so that together we can continue to make short-term mission trips more beneficial for everyone involved.

By doing one thing and focusing on participants during short-term mission trips, we can create more effective and life-changing experiences. As we focus on the participants, we should intentionally help them create and accomplish life-transforming goals, and then evaluate if these goals were reached. In the end, perhaps we will accomplish even more than is humanly possible.

1. A summary of supporting research can be requested from the author at:

2. The role of missionary mentor can enhance short-term mission trips. Ideally, the missionary mentor should be the missionary who receives and works with the team in-country. The missionary mentor is beneficial as this person knows and understands both cultures, knows about missions, and has likely had his or her life changed by living overseas. This puts him or her in a position to encourage others in the change process. The missionary mentor should also follow up and offer guidance to those who show interest in some type of mission involvement, including longer-term overseas ministries.

Dawn Lewis-Anderson and her husband Kirk serve with One Challenge in Bulgaria. In addition to facilitating short-term mission trips, Dawn supports the growth and reproduction of local churches through discipleship, cultural research, and spiritual mapping. For a free copy of short-term mission trip manuals that will help you implement the concepts in this article, please visit

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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