God has blessed us with many friends who are seasoned missionaries. We have gleaned much from their influence and would like to share what we have learned from them and from our limited personal experience. By remembering these few basic principles, we can maximize our intercultural experience and make the greatest impact for the Kingdom of God.
1: Go Expecting to Learn and Grow
Typically when we think about being part of a short-term missions trip, we imagine ourselves putting on our superhero capes to save the world.
Yes, a missions trip is largely about service, but it is also about learning and growing personally and spiritually. Expecting to learn and grow will better enable us to capitalize on every learning opportunity.
2: Understand that Different is just Different
Going to another country for the first time is shocking on many levels. How easy it is to respond with delight at what is new and exciting. How equally easy it is to respond with disdain when things become uncomfortable and appalling. At this point we tend to think that our way is the right way and that our culture and customs are superior to theirs. The fact is that different is just different. We must be careful because an expression of disgust can be very offensive.
3: Emphasize People, not Projects
A common danger in planning a missions trip is to allow projects to become the emphasis. Projects do have their place, but if we fail to intricately design our activities to build relationships, we are missing the main element. We knew of a specific missions trip on which the Americans were so consumed with their building projects that they barely learned a single name.
Many cultures outside of the U.S. prioritize relationships. If we try to impose our task-based system on these cultures, we only come across as being cold and rude.
4: Seek to Discover the True Needs
To avoid long-term problems, it is essential that we seek to discover the true needs on the field and then allow those needs to dictate our activities. These needs must be established and communicated by field hosts rather than by the team.
Much harm has been done when mission teams fail to follow this principle. When we first arrived in San Gabriel, we perceived the needs to be primarily economic. After two years we realize that this is the least of their needs. In fact,
we have been embarrassed to later discover that our misconceptions at times came across as demeaning.
5: Make Togetherness the Goal
One of the highest goals of any type of missions trip should be togetherness. In other words, the ideal should be the missions team working in harmony with the locals to accomplish the given task.
When all the work is done by the visitors alone, it hinders relationship building and implies that the nationals are inferior. On the other hand, there is mutual fulfillment and encouragement when we successfully work together. We personally learned that this principle also applies well to financial issues.
The San Gabriel church youth group often uses a volleyball net that was brought to them by a visiting team. Instead of being a gift, it was purchased by the team and then sold to the youth group at a reduced price (all of which was agreed upon previously). Because there was participation on both ends, the youth now have a sense of ownership. The net continues to be well-maintained