W hat makes a good guest? Think about someone who you love having over to your house. What about the way they act in your home makes it a joy to host them? Do they wash the dirty dishes, play well with your kids, roll with changing plans? One of the best guests I’ve ever hosted did our dishes every day, just because she likes to do them and she knows a lot of other people do not. Her joy in doing my least favorite chore made me feel loved and cared for. Thinking about how we can care for the people who host us allows us to actively love them through our words and actions.
When we go on short-term mission trips, we also need to consider how we can be good guests. Too often we are focused on what we will accomplish or experience, and we forget that we are entering someone else’s life as guests. Having been a participant, leader, and planner of mission trips for more than 15 years, I can honestly say that I have been both a good guest and a difficult guest. I have seen groups encourage missionaries and communities, and I have seen groups who made life very hard for their hosts, even though they were trying to help. So what can we do to make sure that we are good guests on our next mission trip? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.
1. Do your homework.
Before you show up in a new place, find out what the culture is like. Read a book or an article about that community and try to understand how their lives might be different from your own. Talk to your host about what daily life will be like, and set your expectations accordingly. We all experience culture shock to some degree when we travel to new places. If we understand what will be different in advance and have clear expectations, we can recognize that difference isn’t a bad thing; it is just not what we are most familiar with.
2. Be flexible.
Did you know that some cultures are oriented around tasks while others are oriented around people and relationships? Cultures that are concerned with completing tasks, like much of North America, can be frustrated by cultures where the main concern is building and maintaining relationships. People who are used to operating on a schedule that they know about in advance can feel uncomfortable in places where the plan is always changing. However, as guests on a short-term mission trip, we need to adjust ourselves to the culture and the specific ways of operating that are normal to our hosts. I recently served on a trip where the schedule, though planned by our hosts in advance, changed from hour to hour, based on weather, availability of space, and the general feelings of the group. This was normal for them, and no one outside of our team thought twice about the many changes. We needed to become more flexible in order to serve them well.
3. Expect to fall in love.
When we enter a new situation with a good attitude, we almost always offer a better version of ourselves to those around us. Be open and on the lookout for something about this new place and culture that you will love. When we expect to love something, chances are we will. When we expect to be miserable and uncomfortable, chances are we will. Your host, whether a missionary or a local, probably loves the place where they live and work, and they want you to love it as well. One missionary told me, “I just love it when other people can see the place where I am working and start to love it too.” Expect to love the place, the culture, the people, the food, and remember to tell your hosts when you experience something amazing. They want to know that you love it just as much as they do.
4. Ask for directions.
One downfall of short-term mission trips is that we often think we know what needs to be done in a community. We see a project or have an idea about what we think should happen, and we dive right in. The problem is that we don’t live in that community, and we don’t know what their priorities are unless we ask first. So start with open questions like, “What would you like us to do when we come?” The answer might include a work project, but it also might focus on learning and relationships. Be ready to ask your host to take the lead, and then follow their directions. The best guests respect the community by responding to what the local people have asked for. You might think something else is more important, but you don’t live there. Also, don’t forget to honor their space and priorities. A pastor once commented that a short-term team came to paint their church but didn’t take the time to lay down drop cloths. They ended up ruining a table and staining the carpet, leaving the congregation feeling sad and disrespected. Ask for directions, consider how to honor the partner and community, and you’ll make a positive impact.
5. Remember it is not about you.
Short-term mission trips are not primarily about the people who go. We may learn and grow and have amazing experiences, but those things are not the primary goal of the trip. The primary reason for serving on a short-term mission trip is to show the love of Christ to others through our presence, our words, and our actions. The mission trip is primarily about the people who host us and their local community. Ask yourself these questions: what can you do to show God’s love to these people? How can you honor and dignify them? How can you encourage them? How can you bless them? And remember, the things that make them feel loved and encouraged may be different from what you originally thought your trip would be about. Perhaps really loving the people will mean sitting with them and hearing their stories, rather than finishing a project. Or maybe it will mean serving behind the scenes, so that others can engage the community. Whatever your expectations are, remember that it is about the people you are serving and not about you.
I hope that as you prepare for your next short-term mission trip, you will gather your team and talk about how you can do your homework, be flexible, expect to fall in love, ask for directions, and remember that it isn’t about you. Being a good guest is as much about how you prepare as about how you naturally interact with people and situations. Put in the work before you leave so that your host will remember your group with joy and appreciation because you were great guests!
Stephanie Soderstrom is coordinator for Short-term Mission for the Reformed Church in America. You can connect with her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.