When organizing an international mission trip, it is helpful to prepare your group to go with open minds and open hearts: open to learning from the people you will meet, open to listening to them, and open to understanding them and how they interpret the gospel in light of their history and reality.
Groups sometimes go with the idea of teaching or showing “our” way, or evangelizing. We should definitely always try to show God’s love and be a word of hope; however, we should remember that in the majority of the countries where mission teams go, the people are already Christian. Most groups who visit Nicaragua, for example, find that they encounter some deeply committed Christians and have their faith deepened by the Nicaraguan Christians. But the Americans have to be open to hearing new ways of talking about Jesus’ teachings.
People who go on mission trips want to help or serve in some way. We often think in terms of a work project—something concrete where we can see the result. We would suggest that a more useful way to help and serve the people is to learn from them: about their culture, their reality, their history, the history of our country in relation to theirs, how their country was impoverished, and the unjust systems that continue to impoverish it.
Go to Learn, Not to Teach
When groups come to Nicaragua, we try to have one to two days of encounters with people and organizations who can share this information and their perspectives with us. The groups are then better prepared to educate others back home about the country. Sometimes they learn of some U.S. policy that could be changed or improved, and in response they may call, write, or visit their representatives. In this way, they are helping in a long-term manner that might positively affect the lives of many, many people.
Consider planning an integral experience for your mission team that includes getting to know people and organizations in the country you plan to visit; learning about the people and their country; worshiping together or reflecting together on the differences and similarities in your countries and your lives in light of Jesus’ example and message. In Nicaragua, we usually include a day of tourism near the end of the time that also can serve for group processing and reflection.
Go to Support, Not to Lead
Most, but not all, mission teams include a work project. However, it doesn't make sense for mission teams to take charge of the planning and execution of work projects when local people need work and have the expertise suited for their environment. (For example, construction is very different in many earthquake-prone countries, and people native to the area know how best to build for their environment.) Instead, focus on raising funds before you go and on offering support work while you are there.
We host mission teams through the Nicaraguan organization to which we are assigned by Global Ministries: The Women and Community Association. Teams plan visits with us at least a year in advance and begin fundraising for a project they will support. Sometimes it is a construction project, and other times the group may paint a playground or plant trees together with members of the community. The rest of the donation goes for a health, education, or human rights program.
Let’s say the group is going to support the construction of a classroom: the Nicaraguan host organization, Women and Community, will coordinate with local leaders to choose and plan the project. The team sends money months in advance, and local people are hired to build the classroom. The money stays in the community economy; local people earn money and the mission team works on finishing touches—painting usually, or perhaps a drop ceiling.
When you consider the cost of an international trip, it just doesn't make sense to have the primary focus on work, given that we can spend a fairly small amount of money and put local people to work. (I think the groups that just want to work should find a U.S. location for their trip.) When the trip also includes a major emphasis on learning and on relationship building, I believe a lot of good can come out of international mission experiences for the groups and for the people they work with in the country—if they go with an open heart.
Suggestions that can help you “do no harm”:
- Contact your hosts and get any materials or orientation they provide. Take seriously suggested advance reading. If you don’t receive reading suggestions, search them out.
- Listen to your hosts both before and during the trip and try to abide by their orientations.
- If your hosts do not include at least one day of learning as described above – ask them if they could set up, or find someone to set up, the kinds of meetings described above, and let them know you are prepared for the extra costs of honorariums for speakers.
- Find someone to facilitate a group dynamics workshop to get to know one another in advance of the trip.
- Gifts and donations should go to churches and organizations and not to individuals. Individual gift-giving erodes community cohesiveness.
- If you plan to do an international trip every few years, attempt to find an organization or church to partner with. In this way, over time, people in both communities have a chance to get to know one another, understand the other’s joys and suffering, and grow in love and respect.
- Gather for shared prayer and study in the time prior to your departure and ask your church to hold you in prayer during your trip.
- Expect to be changed by the experience.