International Ministries

Some Hints about “Mission Trips”

April 12, 2010 Journal
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“So who is this trip for: us or them?” This question was asked by one of my Kanto Gakuin college students recently, as we were preparing for this year’s service-learning trip to Thailand.  I thought it was a terrific question!

Over the past decade, we at Kanto Gakuin have led over 500 students on mission trips to various places, both inside Japan and overseas.  As a KG chaplain, I’ve personally been involved with taking high school students to the Japan Inland Sea area, and with taking college students to Thailand.  Of course, as IM missionaries, we’ve also been involved with a number of teams and individuals from the States who’ve come to serve in Japan.  So in this short update, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned about mission trips over the years…

1. Mission trips change lives—take them seriously. 

Nobody should take short term mission trips lightly.  I, along with many of you reading this note, have seen lives dramatically transformed as people have come to discover new things about the world, about themselves, and about their brothers and sisters around the globe.  I’ve seen students change their lifestyles, their career choices, and even their choice of life partners because of their experience in short term missions trips!  Experiencing Christian love in action in another part of the world often brings people into a living relationship with Jesus.

2. Pre-departure reality checks are vital. 

The “for us” vs. “for them” question is a deep one.  According to an article recently published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, some 1.5 million U.S. Christians participate in short term mission trips every year.  That’s not including anybody else in the world!  Short term missions have become a big business for some, and in that respect, they can be done badly.  The line between “mission trip” and “mission tourism” can be very thin.  We in Japan have a very high standard of living.  Because of that, many Japanese students can afford to get on a plane and fly anywhere in the world they want to—they can consume all sorts of interesting experiences.  But we often take mission trips to places in which the normal person could never afford a plane ticket to Japan or to the U.S.  What do those people think of us jetting over in our brand name clothes—especially if we’re coming to “help them” by donating something or other, which in fact amounts to less than the cost of our airfare?  We participants need to be aware of how we’re perceived and to be aware of the inequality of power and resources between us and the folks we often serve with.  So participants need to think about questions like, “How can we give voice to our brothers and sisters in different places?  How can we honor them?  How can we show appropriate humility?  What do they really want from us?”

3. Learn to rely on local knowledge. 

The college volunteer group I co-advise has been going to the same places and working with the same folks in northern Thailand for almost 6 years now.  We’ve learned that our hosts in Thailand know their own situation much better than we do.  We’ve learned, for example, not to try to tell local builders how to construct their buildings—if we have hints, we tell them to a local leader in private.  Maybe next time or in a different situation our hint will be applied, but we make an effort not to make any local person lose face because of something we say or do.  We’ve also learned that some local people use mission money to build private empires.  It’s best to develop a long-term relationship with an area of service so that you can learn who you can trust on the ground.  Going to a new place every year, especially one organized by a relatively unknown middleman, opens your group (and sometimes your hosts) up to exploitation.

4. People want to be honored more than to be given to. 

This is one of the most important lessons we’ve learned. Charity is highly overrated, and there is a way of giving that demeans and demoralizes the recipient.  Our best experiences are when we’ve asked students to prepare their own personal study plan before going on a trip, having them draw up a number of questions about their study theme of choice (maybe it’s “child labor” or “the daily life of a typical worker” or “male-female relationships”), ask folks about that theme during the trip, then write up a report afterward.  This helps students focus on listening and learning.  We in developed countries often think we have to leave something behind when we visit our brothers and sisters overseas—a building or a water system or the like.  But in many cases, the best thing to leave behind might be the sense among local leaders that their lives and work were genuinely honored and understood by visitors. People want to know that we understand their struggles and their joys, even if we can’t necessarily always solve their problems. That is, we have to learn to be truly present to the other as brother or sister—to learn to be genuinely generous without being patronizing, and to think seriously about what genuine generosity might mean for us, personally, after the trip and for the long term.

5. Relationships make these trips worthwhile. 

At the simplest level, the relationships among group members are almost always strengthened.  Of course, we hope that participants' relationships with God are deepened, as well.  To facilitate this, debriefing and evaluation time is critical—this may take months following a trip.  But the best trips are those which allow you to build relationships with partners in your area of service, too.  For this reason, I’ve become convinced that there are real merits to going to the same location multiple times. The temptation for mission trips to become mission “tours” is much higher when you’re going to a new place every year.  And if your partners see year after year how your group is changing and growing as participants understand the needs on the ground more fully, your hosts grow to respect you and your commitment to partnership more, as well.

Have you ventured out on a mission trip lately?  I encourage you to do so if your church offers the opportunity.  Our brothers and sisters around the world are living much different lives than many of us are, and as we become aware of them as people rather than as glossy pictures on a mission brochure, we come to understand more fully our obligations as members of the one body of Christ.

P.S. To see more pictures of our recent KGU Service-Learning trip to Thailand, click on this link:

God bless you as you reach out in Christ’s name this season,

Dwight & Kari Davidson

ABC/USA Missionaries in Residence
Kanto Gakuin University, Yokohama, Japan

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