Setting out on your first mission trip can feel daunting. Of course, many people see the Lord work through such trips and their lives are changed forever. We all want this to be true. We want to look back on our trip and believe we accomplished our goals and were used for God’s kingdom. However, for people taking their first mission trip, these goals can be elusive.
What kinds of things should I focus on as I prepare for my first mission trip? And what is a helpful standard for measuring success or failure?
Setting Out in Confidence
As you set out on your first mission trip, it is very easy to focus on details. Logistics and other things require our time and energy. These are important, but we should not lose perspective. First and foremost, we should set our mind’s eye on God’s attributes.
We should set out with the rock-solid confidence that God loves the nations much more than we do. Far be it from us to think that we are more compassionate than He is. Sadly, many mission trips are filled with people who think that God is really lucky to have them, as if God needed them. What an arrogant and blasphemous thought to even pass through our minds! Make no mistake: God is not dependent on us to do His will. Certainly, he chooses to use people. In fact, we are participating in a mission God is already on! But our inclusion in this task is a privilege and an honor. We must not make the mistake of thinking that God is helpless without us.
God is all-loving. In his infinite mercy, he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). In His love for all people, He is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And these are desires He is able to fulfill! “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near” (Hebrews 7:25).
Furthermore, God is powerful enough to break down even the most difficult barriers. Transportation logistics, language barriers, cultural differences, lack of experience, personal fears, and personality limitations all fall under the sovereign authority of God. Like Moses, we may give God excuses regarding our limitations and past failures (Exodus 4:10), but God is bigger than that. He chooses to use imperfect vessels to show the nations his perfections.
Reorienting Our Expectations of Success
Everyone wants to be successful, and we need to have a plan for success. Yet, failure and success in ministry are tricky terms and are subject to misinterpretation. Tim Keller provides a helpful corrective when he says that our criterion for evaluation should be fruitfulness, which can be measured in various ways. Aiming for fruitfulness allows us to keep a proper perspective when evaluating our trip. On the one hand, certain aspects of our work can be quantified and measured. On the other hand, we should not be overburdened by numbers or by trying to quantify the Spirit’s work. This approach is consistent with Paul’s agrarian image in 1 Corinthians 3:6–7:
I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
We plant and water, but it is ultimately God who gives the growth.
Knowing Your Context
We should strive to do the work of evangelism and discipleship effectively. One way to do this is by contextualizing our efforts, which often allows our work to flourish in organic and sustainable ways. Questions to ask might include: Do I have a clear and concise way to share the gospel? Does my gospel presentation match up with the biblical narrative? Does my presentation capitalize on the local culture’s art, literature, stories, and worldview?
Making yourself aware of the local culture’s worldview can have a great effect on your witness. For example, non-Western societies will tend to emphasize narrative and story in their cultural expressions. In turn, they tend to minimize legal rhetoric, which is more common in Western cultures. They may also be more aware of spiritual activity in everyday life. For example, one Scripture reference might immediately impact them while another might not have the same direct force. In an honor-shame society, for example, passages like Colossians 2:15 can have an especially acute power to affect the mind and heart: “He [God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him [Jesus].” This passage uses language that would vividly picture Christ publicly shaming demonic forces.
So, with these general principles in mind, what should you expect from your first mission trip?
Begin With the End in Mind
If your goal is simply to have fun, experience some new things, taste some different foods, and share about Jesus along the way, then you’ve set the bar far too low. Before the trip begins, consider what you want to see accomplished. Of course, there are spiritual goals that can’t be quantified this side of heaven. But we should have some specific plans.
One major question to consider when making your plans: What if God actually answered your prayers for the trip? How big would the impact be? Would you be blown away by God’s work? Would it lead you to greater depths of worship?
When we plan for a trip, we must take into account the end, or goal. The goal will determine how you set out. Of course, you should always be sensitive to how the Holy Spirit chooses to work. However, it would be dishonoring to God to walk into a trip without any sense of direction or purpose. One way to honor God is to trust Him for something only He can do.
There is a direct connection between how we view God and what we ask him for. If we ask him for small things, then we may be guilty of thinking He is limited in his power. But God can do anything, and He loves the nations even more than we do; our prayers should reflect that stunning truth. Thus, we should ask for God-sized things that only He can do. Then, only He will get the glory!
Tim Keller, Center Church, pg. 13