October 2019 | Volume 14 | Issue 10 | by Ellen Livingood
Essential post-missions-trip conversations
Debriefing sessions after short-term missions trips usually revolve around the spiritual impact the trip had on the life of the short-termer and what the returnee will do next. While important, these topics neglect key areas where the trip experience may have inadvertently skewed the participant’s perspective on missions. Post-trip discussions need to go deeper.
7 DEEPER CONVERSATIONS
Here are seven topics for discussion with both youth and adults who have completed a missions trip. Delving into these questions and their implications should be the responsibility of the church’s missions program leaders, not just delegated to a trip leader.
1. Proclamation and presence in missions
In our increasingly polarized Western societies, the missions community today is also often polarized in an either/or battle over the ministry of presence (incarnational service that provides some type of compassionate help) and proclamation (evangelism and discipleship). This either/or mentality can be unconsciously fueled by short-term missions experiences.
STers are often engaged in only one aspect of proclamation/presence, often a presence-type ministry because of language limitations. Unless the connections are clearly draw, they will fail to understand that, for instance, their construction of a house for an impoverished family needs to be accompanied by an ongoing effort to develop that family’s Christian faith and walk with God. Or that the VBS program they run in an impoverished village has been given credibility because a clean-water project increased the child survival rate there.
Don’t assume that your STers will automatically discern the relationship between the gospel and compassion. Discuss how the Great Command and the Great Commission go hand in hand. While the impact of poverty or human trafficking may be very evident, make sure your STers are equally aware of the desperate need for spiritual transformation and how missions efforts help bring it about.
2. God’s global allegiance
God and country are closely aligned in the minds of many Western Christians, especially those in the US. Stated or unstated, they believe that God is on America’s side. On a short-term trip to another country, STers are likely to interact with Christians who may be quick to point out reasons to doubt that God is pro-America (or pro-West). If not well processed, this can create internal confusion for your STer and set off alarm bells at home if they return with changed perspectives.
Take time for open dialog with returning teams about their expanded view of God’s equal love for all people and nations. Use Scriptures such as Ps. 67:4, “May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth” to emphasize that He desires the best for every country and its citizens.
Discuss how that understanding should influence how they think about patriotism for their nation. How can they challenge others to understand God’s equal and unlimited care for all peoples without criticizing someone’s love of their own country?
3. Missionary life
STers get only a brief glimpse of the life of a missionary. That quick snapshot of missionary life may create an image of an idyllic lifestyle of constant, joyful service. Or it may communicate primarily the deprivations and difficulties of serving overseas.
Help your STers balance their view of missionary service by understanding both the joys of cross-cultural service and the hardships. Challenge them to read a missionary biography such as There’s a Sheep in My Bathtub to be introduced to the ups and downs of cross-cultural service.
Emphasize that all missionaries at times struggle to love their adopted country and people, and wonder if they are really called to missions service. At other times they believe they have the best job in the world. That’s why the decision to become a cross-cultural worker must not be based on emotions but on a strong sense of God’s leading and providing even in the hard things.
4. National believers
Many STers return home with an attitude that all national believers are super saints. Indeed, they likely will have met godly men and women deserving of great respect for their commitment and sacrifice for the cause of Christ. But it is important for your STers to understand that every believer in every context battles a sinful nature and struggles in some areas of discipleship. Regardless of where they live, Christ-followers wrestle with pride, selfishness, and other sins.
Use a discussion of this truth to lead into a dialog about how to pray for the believers your STer met on their trip. What hard things do they face that could defeat their walk with God? Remind them that their prayers could make a difference as these new friends grow as disciples of Jesus.
5. The impact left behind
Your STers may come home feeling as if they made a huge impact by their presence and work. Or they may wonder if they made any contribution at all. Help each STer understand how their work fits into the bigger picture of what God is doing in the place they served. Ask the on-the-ground leader for an honest evaluation of the STer’s long-term impact, and share this with them.
A discussion of long-term impact provides a great opportunity to emphasize the importance of ongoing commitment and relationships in order to see lasting fruit from missions involvement. How will the STer maintain contact with the new friends they made? WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media platforms provide easy avenues to stay in contact. But talk about how these SM relationships can be intentionally used to build up far-away friends.
Help each STer understand how their work fits into the bigger picture of what God is doing in the place they served.
Will your STer invest in intercessory prayer for the ministry they served? In what ways can they motivate others to pray with them? Are there opportunities for financial investment in this ministry? Could they serve on some type of support team for the work/workers they served on their trip? Are there members of the people group living locally with whom they could connect? Are there long-distance ways that they could serve (such as continuing ESL lessons via Skype)? Determine a plan of action and how the person will be accountable for follow through.
6. Material possessions
Many STers return to their comfortable lives in the West disturbed by the poverty they have come face to face with on their trip. They often return with pity for the poor and a sense of guilt, but struggle to know how to process these emotions or turn them into positive attitudes and actions. Some are angry and judgmental about what they now perceive as misspent wealth in their family or church. Others wrestle with how and how much to change their lifestyle in light of the needs they have witnessed. Debriefing around these issues is vital for all who have done a short-term mission with the poor.
They often return with pity for the poor and a sense of guilt, but struggle to know how to process these emotions or turn them into positive attitudes and actions.
As you guide discussion around this topic, recognize the importance of being honest and humble. Many Christians in the West enjoy a comparatively luxurious lifestyle, and there is the constant pull of material possessions. Admit that there are tough questions to grapple with.
Corbett and Fikkert’s book, Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, has both a leader’s and a participant’s guide that includes questions for valuable discussion. Perspectives on Global Poverty is a helpful 8-week study produced by Hope International.
Many younger believers are especially sensitive to the needs of the poor. Is God calling Millennials in your church to lead your people to a more biblical stewardship of material wealth and ways to address global poverty? What might that look like?
7. Going back
Is God asking your STer to return in the future to the same location for another short-term assignment or perhaps a longer-term commitment? Clarify in advance with trip members if you are praying that God will call some of them to return. If instead, this is a stepping stone to a more challenging ministry/location, then you will need to help them understand that you will be asking them to follow this experience with a different type of next-step involvement.
In many cases, you will want to offer STers ways to return to this ministry in the future. In follow-up discussions, help STers think about what gifts and skills they have to contribute now that they have been introduced to the various ministry opportunities. Is there a need for their expertise or service? If so, what would be the timing and type of engagement?
If their next trip involves a longer field stay and there is an agency involved, the best procedure is usually for them to go through the agency’s screening and preparation process. You may need to help your STer understand why this is valuable and how to proceed since they served earlier without these requirements. Process with them how their anticipated longer-term assignment will be different from their past experience on a short-term group trip ministry.
MAKING SURE THAT IN-DEPTH DEBRIEFING HAPPENS
Most church missions leaders can see the value of in-depth, post-trip debriefing. But the challenge is finding the time to organize and lead it. Plus participants return to busy schedules, and it is hard to regather them for these dialogs. The result is that essential follow-up gets neglected.
There are no easy solutions but here are some ideas.
- Rebrand “trips” as “missions internships” (especially for youth/young adults) or “partnership building projects.” This allows you to shift the focus from the one- or two-week experience to a period of four to six months of preparation, service, and follow up. You can clarify up front that the required commitment does not revolve around just the time away but the larger process of change.
- Recruit a former or retired missionary to run these in-depth discussions. Their on-field experience should uniquely prepare them to lead these sessions.
- Shift your post-trip report to revolve around STers’ long-term perspective changes, and the post-trip impact both on the field and in the lives of the people who went. This will mean delaying the report, which again helps to focus on the fact that the trip itself was not the only significant part of the overall internship/project. It will also help set a different standard for future participants.
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