A pastor friend recently emailed, asking “I was wondering if I could get some tips from a missionary on preparing a short term mission trip for about eight people this summer. Also, if I get a pool of people how what is the best way to choose who goes?” I am far from an expert on short-term missions but I have gone on, lead, and hosted enough short-term mission teams to have some thoughts on the subject. So, for the benefit of others who may find themselves in the same boat as my pastor friend, I include below some answers to his questions, together with links to articles about the nature and purpose of short-term missions (links are at the end of this post)
Preparing a Team for a Short-Term Missions Trip
To prepare your short-term team, the first thing that I would do is talk to the missionaries that you’ll be working with. How do they want you to prepare? If your team is being processed by a mission organization or your denominational mission board, there is probably a short-term coordinator of some sort who will want to help, or have some requirements of their own. Talk to both the organizational contact and missionaries on the field, but at the end of the day it is the missionaries that you’ll be doing ministry with, not the short-term coordinator, so listen to the missionary most of all. That said, I have found the short-term coordinators for our organization to be really helpful in evaluating and orienting teams before they come out, which has made life much easier for everyone involved (even if it does require some more work and communication). The shorter amount of time that you are in-country, the more prep you will want to do ahead of time to maximize your ministry time there in the country.
But let’s say you don’t get much help from an organization or the missionaries you’re going to help. First thing to do is to get together with your team a number of times before you leave to take a look at Scripture together, pray together, talk together.
Talk about what you are going to do, hopes, fears, expectations, goals, etc. Lots of folks go on short-term without knowing why they are going, or go with the wrong expectations. I went on my first short term expecting I would see people get saved. I figured out quickly that was not necessarily a realistic expectation.
Talk about culture shock and how people respond when out of their element, when asked to do new things, when they feel disoriented, etc. Unless you’ve going to a country where you and your team already speak the language, then language difference will likely be a big shock for them if they haven’t been out of the country.
Get some information on the country you’re going to, the specific people group (esp. if tribal), and ministry that you will be working with. The more you know before you go, the better. Your host missionaries can probably recommend something for you to read. If your host missionaries have prayer letters that they send out, then read those and have your team read them (at least the last few letters). If the host missionaries have a blog, website, or Facebook page, then get your team connected with them that way. It is a fun way to start to “get into” what they will be doing.
How to Choose People for Your Team
If you are going with an established mission organization or denominational mission board, then the short-term coordinator there can probably give you some good advice, or may even request that all potential team members fill out an application and be screened first. Don’t view this as a hassle as they are trying to be helpful to both your team and the missionaries who will receive your team. One person who is really unsuited for the trip can cause a boatload of problems for themselves and others, besides doing more harm than good for the ministry that they are supposed to be “serving”. With that said, here are a few criteria that that are important in helping evaluate whether people are ready to go our your short-term mission trip.
1) They must be Christian
This should be obvious but sometimes non-Christians go on Christian mission trips. Don’t do this. You will be sorry. Even if you are “just” doing construction work, the mentality, goal, purpose, and attitude needed on the trip is Christ-centered and a non-Christian doesn’t have that.
2) Servant attitude & Flexibility
Regardless of what you plan to do on your mission trip, it may change. And your team needs to be willing to do whatever the host missionaries ask you to do (or not do!). You don’t want to have someone on your team who says, “I didn’t pay all this money to come and clean toilets.” Well, if your goal is SERVING the Lord, than yes you did come to clean toilets if that’s what is needed.
3) Easy going / willing-to-rough-it kind of people
No high-maintenance people allowed on the trip. Things may get dusty, dirty, muddy, and smelly. Maybe there will be more trash, chickens, and other unpleasantries on the street that you ever imagined. Public transport may be very different from what the team is used to. The team needs to have the attitude that if they don’t get a chance to get online the whole time that they are there, that’s okay. Pretty girls who can’t deal with hair out of place or fingernails broken should stay home. Wimpy guys should also stay home. Also, the team may not like the local food. You need people who can smile, be polite, and eat it.
If everybody who applies to go on the trip fits these requirements but you still have too many people, then you’ll probably have to choose one or two key leaders that you definitely want to have on the trip and make it first come, first serve after that. Set an application deadline. If you are concerned about having lots of people apply but that they might not all be quality, you might grab one or two other church leaders and interview each person (or at least have them fill out an application of some sort). Actually a short application might be good - have them write their testimony, write out what the Gospel is, why they want to go on the trip, expectations, fears, and how they hope to contribute to the team. At the very least, it will help you get to know your team better.
For further reading, here are some articles that I have found helpful
The Future of Short Term Missions (Paul Borthwick - RoundTripMissions.com)
Are Short-Term Missions Worth Doing? (John Piper - Desiring God)
Resources for Training Short-Term Mission Teams (Mark Rogers - The Gospel Coalition)
The Place of Short-Term Missions (Bill Taylor - Urbana)
What else can we do besides send short-term mission teams? (Mark Rogers - The Gospel Coalition)