A mission trip or a discipleship trip?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever returned from a short-term mission trip, saying, “Wow. Seeing poverty first hand really affected me.” Maybe you even committed to living differently—simplifying your lifestyle or volunteering in your community. But if you’re like most of us, a few weeks later, you were back in your usual patterns. Even seasoned mission trip leaders find themselves spending their time the same way, spending money on the same things, and moving in the same social circles as they did before their trips.
Now imagine that, instead of coming back on a spiritual high, you and your team came back as more faithful followers of Christ. The process of becoming more like Jesus is called discipleship. It’s an ongoing process: As Christians, we have been justified by Christ and are continually being sanctified through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Because discipleship is a process, it’s important that it happens when we’re on mission trips and when we return home. We don’t want to cultivate a life of spiritual mountaintops; we want life to look like an ever-climbing path. That path will surely have some bumps along the way, but the whole trajectory is upward. If we see mission trips as our time to “get close to Jesus,” then they will usually result in mountains and valleys on our path. If we view mission trips as part of our spiritual journey, during which we are continually being shaped to reflect the image of Christ more and more, we will experience them in a very different way.
A mission trip is one way that we can live out our faith, and we should see Jesus in new and powerful ways through those experiences. But a trip can’t be the only way that we live out our faith. True faith in Christ is lived out in every aspect of life: “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6).
Shifting to a culture of discipleship
If you are ready to help deepen disciples on a mission trip, but your group sees the trip as a mountaintop moment, then you won’t be speaking the same language. Set up clear expectations and establish a shared vision to help your team engage in discipleship before, during, and after the mission trip. Here are a few ways to embed discipleship in your trips.
Before the trip
1. As a team, talk about what discipleship is—what it means to faithfully follow and grow in Christ. This will give you the opportunity to educate members of your group who are new to the Christian faith, new to the church, or just new to the idea of discipleship. If your church has a discipleship pastor or team, invite them to come and talk with your mission group.
2. Set two goals for your mission team: one for service and one for discipleship. If mission trips are part of how we grow in Christ, then the experience is just as much about how we grow in faith as it is about how we serve others. In addition to the goal of serving, have each participant set a goal for growing spiritually (“pray daily” or “see what the Bible says about God’s love for all people so that I love all people, too”). Share the goals as a group and challenge your team to start working on them even before your trip.
3. Establish a culture of mentors in the faith. No one grows in faith alone. Pair students with older members of the congregation or form small groups of varying ages to share their faith goals, pray together, and hold one another accountable before, during, and after the trip. (Note: These should be continuing relationships, not just prayer partners who agree to pray for team members while they are gone. Prayer support is essential for all mission trips, but mentoring involves a longer-term commitment.)
After the trip
4. Follow up, follow up, follow up. Mission trips remain “mountaintop experiences” when people don’t have a way to connect ordinary life to the trip. To help participants incorporate their experience, make a plan before the trip to follow up with each person regularly. Schedule group follow-up meetings to debrief the experience, share stories, and talk about how the trip experience is shaping the way they live today. Let people share the progress they’ve made on their goals or the difficulty of coming back to the same old thing. The best people to support mission trip participants in continued growth are other mission trip participants.
5. Share your experience. After the trip, report back to your congregation. This is an opportunity to share God’s work in the world with others who weren’t able to be with you on the mission trip. Remember that this is the group of people who supported you through prayer and that they were a part of the mission trip, too.
You may also have opportunities to share with individuals or small groups. Following up with donors, prayer supporters, and other friends or family is an important part of mission trips and another opportunity to talk about what God is doing in the world.
6. Continue to grow as disciples. As the mission trip comes to an end, encourage each participant to set a new goal, this time for how they want to live out at home what they learned on the trip. Reflect on how each of you have grown and ask God what you are being called to do when you return home. Each participant should also make a plan to carry out the goal.
For instance, a team member who is deeply impacted by the poverty he witnessed during the trip may feel God calling him to love the poor in his home community. His goal might be to serve in a community soup kitchen and get to know the people who go there. His plan would then be to contact the agency that runs the soup kitchen and find a regular time that he can volunteer each month.
Accountability can help your team live into their plans. You might ask mentors to follow up with team members. Your team could have regular follow-up meetings to share how plans are going. Prayer partners could become plan partners, joining in prayer and accountability. Whatever format your group chooses, be sure that each person has someone who will ask them about and encourage them to follow the vision God has given them.
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Stephanie Soderstrom is coordinator for Short-term Mission for the Reformed Church in America. You can connect with her by email at email@example.com.