Thursday, August 9, 2007

Advice for Next Year's Mission Trip

My kids started back to school today, and so for our family, the summer season has officially come to an end. With the end of the summer comes the end of the mission trip season as well. Now is the time to begin planning for next spring and summer’s mission trips (as well as getting a passport if you need one). Having both hosted mission teams as a church planter and planned trips for churches of which I have been a part, I have a few ideas (in the realm of “my personal opinion”) about avoiding some of the common pitfalls of sending and receiving mission teams. The following are a few tips for both the mission team planners and the host missionary:

Tips for Mission Team Planners. There are several pitfalls associated with mission teams. One of the big draws of mission trips is the benefit these trips have for the sending church. Because of these benefits, some churches send mission teams merely to provide an experience for their church or group and do not look at things from the host missionary’s perspective. While an uplifting experience is certainly one goal of m-trips, it should not be the most important one. Other churches come with a preconceived idea of what will work (usually a variation of what they are doing in their home church) with no knowledge of or regard to the cultural difference of the host culture, basic missiological principles, or the current goals of the missionary. Some groups arrive with their own agenda which has not been communicated and is often in conflict with the strategy goals of the missionary. Any of these scenarios can have serious consequences. At best these can lead to a reduced effectiveness of the mission team. At worst, the team can cause real problems or can even be detrimental to host missionaries and their work.

These pitfalls can be avoided, however, if the group approaches their planning with the proper attitude and perspective. Groups that wish to go overseas should do so with an attitude of humility and a servant's heart. They should be teachable and be willing to follow the lead of the missionary. They should seek and follow the advice of the missionary concerning cultural and contextual information needed in planning the trip. Additionally, churches need to make sure that the needs of the missionary shape the agenda of the trip. Team leaders should be in close communication with the missionary before the trip so that their visit is of mutual benefit to the m-trip group and the host missionary. In a mission-board model, part of this problem is addressed by having the missionary on the field request specific mission projects to be done by those teams. Churches who wish to take a group then are connected with missionaries requesting a team, etc. In an independent missionary model, or for “home” mission trips, churches should contact various missionaries to find out what their needs are and coordinate trips that are a help to them, allowing the missionary to take the lead. In all cases, team leaders should do their best to make sure the needs and goals of both the team and the missionary are a good fit. Finally, team leaders should do all they can to be as self-sufficient as possible during the trip. The less the missionary must be responsible for in terms of meals, lodging, transportation and other logistics, the better (obviously this will vary depending on the context).

Tips for Host Missionaries. Missionaries who do receive mission teams also have a responsibility if they agree to host a team. The missionary needs to realize that for an effective relationship, there must be a mutual benefit. Many mission teams have come home discouraged after investing their vacation time and financial resources on a domestic or overseas trip where the host missionary was disinterested, unorganized, or did not effectively use the team. Nothing is more discouraging for a mission team than to travel a great distance to sit around and do nothing for a missionary who is unprepared, or worse, really does not want them there (this does actually happen sometimes).

To be effective, the missionary can do several things. First, do your best to incorporate mission teams into your overall strategy rather than adding them on and trying to make them fit. This keeps the missionary from seeing mission teams as a distraction, but as an essential part of the plan. There are several things that mission teams can do well and that can be a real asset to the missionary. Second, recruit teams whose ministry goals meet the goals of the missionary. If a mission team is not a fit, it is better to acknowledge that before the trip is planned than after the team is on the field. Third, make sure the team has any essential information they need about the culture and how their trip fits in your overall strategy so they can orient themselves before they leave their home. Finally, see the hosting of the mission team as a ministry to that group. When done well, mission trips can result in significant spiritual growth of the participants, increased fellowship, and avid missions supporters.

These are just a few ideas. As always, there is certainly much more that can be said about the issue. I for one have an earnest desire to discover ways to mobilize churches toward effective partnerships with missionaries for the mutual benefit of both, for the advancement of God's kingdom.

(Disclaimer: This is advice for working with an existing missionary. New models are emerging for churches to make long term commitments to engage unreached people groups for which this advice may or may not apply. But that will have to wait for another post . : -)

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