What Should I Expect and How Can I Prepare for Short-Term Missions?

Article by Daniel Topf, PhD

A crucial aspect in cross-cultural ministry and when going on a mission trip is to manage one’s expectations. Serving in missions can be one of the most exciting things you will ever do in your life, but it can also be extremely challenging.

Serving in missions can be one of the most exciting things you will ever do in your life, but it can also be extremely challenging.

As part of your short-term preparation, it is therefore essential to look at what you can expect when serving short-term. In the following, we highlight five points regarding what you can expect and how you can prepare yourself for your mission trip or internship.

Anticipate Culture Shock

To begin with, expect to be stretched. This stretching experience when serving overseas can be related to several factors, such as having to operate in a different climate, eating new kinds of foods, and being in an environment where people have a different standard of living than what you are accustomed to.

When you are hit with this kind of differences, you may experience culture shock. Culture shock is a phenomenon that was first described in 1954, by the Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg.1 Culture shock can be defined as the “reactions experienced by exchanging a familiar culture for an unfamiliar one.”2 According to Oberg, people typically go through four different phases when they are in a cross-cultural environment: the honeymoon phase (when everything seems new and exciting); the disillusionment phase (when things are perceived mostly through a negative lens); the adjustment phase (which usually happens when you bond with the people around you); and the adaption phase (when you start to feel at home in the new culture).

as Christians, we need to learn to lay down our rights, following the example of Jesus

Serve Like Jesus

What it comes down to in such an environment is that, as Christians, we need to learn to lay down our rights, following the example of Jesus as portrayed in Philippians 2:5–11. Please take a moment now to read that passage, as well as Mark 10:45. In light of these biblical truths, what does it mean to lay down your rights when you are on a mission trip?

Instead of trying to hold on to what is familiar, the key lies in entrusting to God:

For example, it may mean that you are willing to give up:

  • Having three meals a day, and eating familiar food
  • Seeing results
  • Being in control of yourself, others, and your circumstances

Instead of trying to hold on to what is familiar, the key lies in entrusting to God:

  • Your health and hygiene
  • Your likes/dislikes of food
  • Your sense of security

Remain Flexible

Growing to become more like Christ is especially important when it comes to the area of relationships. As part of your cross-cultural experience, you will meet many different kinds of people. Oftentimes, you will be serving among other Christians, such as your teammates, long-term missionaries, and possibly also local believers. Working in such an environment is a privilege, but it also comes with its own set of challenges.

For example, your teammates may have habits that you find annoying, the missionaries on the field may make decisions with which you disagree, and local believers might behave in ways that confuse or disappoint you (of course, it is very likely that they will also inspire you). When faced with such circumstances and potential conflict, make sure to stay flexible and engaged, as you look for ways to contribute to what you are trying to accomplish as a team.

Be a Learner

As a short-term participant in missions, it is particularly vital that you see yourself primarily as a learner and remain firmly anchored in a posture of humility. In addition, here are a few specific suggestions that can help you to manage your relationships on the field well:

  • Regularly pray for your teammates and every person you will meet during your assignment (this is a spiritual discipline that you can start practicing right now!).
  • Learn to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials when it comes to spiritual or theological matters. Especially within a non-denominational missions agency like World Team, it is crucial that we keep in mind what really matters (such as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) and what is secondary. Regarding less essential theological issues (such as different views regarding the millennium or the rapture), it is okay to have different points of view.
  • When in doubt, follow those that have authority over you rather than insisting on your own point of view. Persons with greater authority might include those in leadership positions (such as an elder in a local church), as well as the missionaries who have been on the field much longer than you have.

As a short-term participant in missions, it is particularly vital that you see yourself primarily as a learner and remain firmly anchored in a posture of humility.

Give Yourself to Prayer

If you keep these principles in mind, there is a high chance that your mission trip will turn out to be a positive experience, both for you and the people whom you will meet. The good news is that you are not alone in this endeavor; you can always turn to God and ask for help.

In fact, let’s turn to Him in prayer right now and make this a regular prayer: “Father, direct each of our steps on this short term mission. And as we prepare to obey You in taking the gospel to the many, help me to be sensitive also to the divine appointments here and there, people who You will bring across my path. As we are careful to plan, lead us in a path that lifts up Your name. And Father, we desire to see an abundant harvest from this mission, and so we set our hands to our preparation, asking You to multiply and extend our impact far beyond that which we could plan or hope for.”3 Amen!

Points to Think and Talk About

  • Have you ever been in a cross-cultural setting before? If so, what was your experience like?
  • Besides Philippians 2:5–11 and Mark 10:45, what other Bible passages can you think of that emphasize humility and servant leadership?
  • Do you remember a time when you had a conflict or disagreement with another believer? Why did it come to that and how were you able to resolve the issue?
  • What kind of questions or concerns do you have as you think about your upcoming mission trip or internship?

Endnotes / Suggestions for Further Reading

  • 1 Kathleen M. DeWalt and Billie R. DeWalt, Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2011), 67–69.
  • 2 Marjory Foyle, Overcoming Missionary Stress (Wheaton, IL: EMIS, 1987), 100.
  • 3 Jack Hempfling, Before You Go: Forty Days of Preparation for a Short Term Mission (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2009), 34.

Get Started