Cross cultural ministry trips have fallen on hard times. Helpful critiques are calling out practices that need to change, found here, here and here. Wouldn’t hiring locals to do the work be money more wisely spent? Leave your phone in your pocket for crying out loud and stop it already with the endless selfies. Is it really all that helpful to descend upon an orphanage for 8 days, drop tons culturally inappropriate gifts and leave to never return?
They’ve got a point. The ability to instantaneously post pictures from across the world have a crushing ability to make it “look at me!” However, if ministry trips are done right, they can have life changing – and lasting – impact for good for all involved
When I was 15, traveled to Haiti on my first ministry trip. The dirt roads, bloated bellies, poverty, tarantulas and witchdoctors remain with me to this day. In fact, similar experiences have shaped who I am and how I lead others. The potential for spiritual formation is immense; so let’s figure out how to run these trips effectively. By developing an executable blueprint, I hope in the process to answer some of the above noted critiques.
Big Idea #1 - What’s your focus?
As a pastor leading and commissioning ministry trips, I’ll let you in on a secret: I truly hope we are a blessing to those we visit. But my primary focus is on the team I’m taking. Ministry trips are a discipleship tool in the tool belt. They are one of the most effective paths to spiritual formation and to literally change someone’s entire outlook on life.
What are some of the benefits of participating in international ministry trips?
1) It develops gratitude. Most often, when Americans travel they realize how truly blessed they are in this country. So many creature comforts! When visiting Russia in college, I recall my friend remarking, “I bet you have your own personal automobile which is climate controlled with a stereo system.” Ouch.
2) It offers an opportunity for focused ministry, which in turn reminds us what we’re called to as Christians: to serve God and others.
3) It fosters dependence upon God. When you’re out of your element and stretched out of your comfort zone, you lean on Him more. It’s funny how your prayer life suddenly spikes!
4) It costs you something. Most people have to raise money. It’s a good place to be, to work hard and request others to help. How wonderful for others to participate in this way, who may not be able to go themselves!
5) One of my favorite aspects of these trips is to experience worship in cross-cultural settings. You get to see how BIG God is. We see the power of the GOSPEL in cultures and languages we know little of. Seeing God at work reinforces our faith and prepares us for what heaven will be: every nation, tribe and language present around the throne. Worshiping Jesus. Read Revelation 4-5!
6) Deepening of relationships. Church is all about people, right? How often do you truly connect with others on a deep level? The rat race is maddening sometimes. But on these trips, you have a lot of shoulder-to-shoulder time in often-undesirable situations – all of which deepen friendships, promote vulnerability, and produce “hey I’ve gained new brothers and sisters” experiences.
Big Idea #2 – Working with those on the other end
You may be partnering with a fellow American on the other end or indigenous ministry workers. Regardless, keep the following focus and you’ll be good news over there.
1) Who called this meeting? If you’re inserting yourself where you’re not desired or needed, go back to the drawing board. With my church, we limit trips to those ministries we actively support. By support I do not just mean a monthly check. I mean there’ s a relationship. Technology today connects us with virtually everyone. You’re going over to people you know. You love them and they love you. You’re invested in their success and thriving. Either they invited you or you inquired and they told you how you could help. Make sure you purpose is helpful and your presence desired.
2) Know your ministry partners. What are their challenges? What are their needs? How can you encourage them, help meet their needs, get them to the finish line, and breath life into their weary souls? Coming with this posture makes all the difference. We’re here for YOU: to support you, help you, encourage you, enter your world and help you thrive. And perhaps, to remind you afresh why you’re here in the first place.
3) Don’t be a burden. When hosting teams there is always an element of hospitality and effort. But be mindful of when you’re coming – is it good timing or could it be better planned another time? Are you helping your ministry partner accomplish a goal they’re already pursuing or are you creating an unnecessary extra job when they should be focused elsewhere?
4) Build relationships. Where appropriate, schedule return trips. This lets folks on the other side know you're committed to them. It also deepens friendships, builds memories, and refines service execution.
5) Small but important add-on: bring Oreos! Or whatever they love and can’t get over there, particularly if they left their home country to minister there. Such little gifts mean the world. Remember the last time you craved chocolate and realized you were fresh out? My point exactly.
Big Idea #3 – Mind your manners.
Ever have someone in your home that is inconsiderate to others and disrespects your property? You can’t wait for them to leave but you know you have to clean their mess once they’re gone. Don’t be that guy overseas.
1) Know basic cultural cues. Know enough to not offend others without even knowing it or embarrassing your hosts when in public. Whether it’s placing your Bible on the floor or flashing the soles of your feet – make an attempt to not be a liability.
2) Limit screen time. This is an area we’ve grown in. Set an hour a day aside for people to connect with loved ones, post a few pics, and review their newsfeed. Then be done with it.
3) Be respectful with pictures. I recommend you don’t pull out your phone the first day. Get to know people before taking a picture. Go easy on the selfies. Don’t ever post pics that don’t accurately represent what you’re doing or why you’re there.
4) Bring gifts? Great. Just make sure they are not excessive for the target population. Make the people are glad they met you, not just get your stuff.
Big Idea #4 – Mindset matters!
The battle is always in the mind. Make sure yours – as well as your heart – is well prepared and ready for action!
1) It’s not about you. REPEAT TEN TIMES. You’re not there for you, you’re there for others. You’re there to serve Christ, build up His church, and spread the Gospel. Get over yourself.
2) Be humble. Be ready to do anything for the cause. Maybe it’s cleaning toilets or serving others. It doesn’t matter. It’s all for the Kingdom. And Jesus set the bar pretty high on serving others.
3) Be prayerful. I can tell you from experience, what the Bible says about spiritual warfare is true: we have an adversary who likes to mess with our minds, discourage our hearts, destroy unity at all costs. After all, what good would a bunch of confused, self-centered, bickering foreigners be…keep them distracted for 10 days and they’ll cause more trouble than good. Not only bathe your efforts in prayer, but solicit the earnest and regular prayers of others while you are gone.
4) Prepare well. Get in the right frame of mind. Get enough sleep and hydration. Get in your Bible. How does an athlete train for the championship game? How does an actress prepare for the big show? How does a musician prepare for the concert of his or her life? Apply that same tenacity, training and focus. Know the culture, know the plan, know His truth. Have prayer and accountability partners.
5) Plan well. Have your team know what to expect and understand what their role is on the ground. Yes be flexible, but that’s no excuse to not have a plan. Provide a packing sheet so people can be packed the day before to alleviate stress. Have adequate medical plans in place should they be needed.
6) Screen well. This will be a growth experience for everyone, but some people may not be a good fit due to emotional, spiritual or social maturity. Physicial limitations may come into play, as well.
7) GET EXCITED! What a privilege to ministry abroad. It’s exciting to see other places and experience new cultures. And to represent the King of Kings.
Big Idea #5 – Removing the money tension
It’s not cheap to bring a team across the world. But I believe the pros outweigh the cons and make these trips well worth the effort. Is it sometimes wiser to wire money over to let locals purchase materials and hire village laborers? Yes! When that’s the case, do so. Our church certainly does that. Currently we are sending money over to India so a church can buy materials to repair their roof with local labor. But I’m also preparing to take a team to Kazakhstan in which we’ll assist in some construction. Let’s start from the beginning:
1) Work hard to fund your trip, solicit help from others, and let your church defray costs. That’s always worked for me. It’s effective and doesn’t make it overwhelming on any one person.
2) Make sure your host tells you what it’ll take to cover your costs, so you can cover them yourselves. That way, you’re not a financial burden. Try to leave some behind when you go.
3) Be creative in fund raising and execution – isn’t that how we attack it in the workplace? Let me explain. I charged a local construction company to use our church parking lot – I told them I’d use the money to help youth and orphans around the world. We took that money and wired it over to Kazakhstan so they could purchase materials for a strategic construction project. They’ve already started on the work, but some of our teammates are going to join them next week. So – mix of local and int’l. We fund because we’re able and benefit from the blessing of being able to work hard for ten days alongside our brothers and sisters. Local materials, local workers, with a few Americans thrown in. Win-win.
4) When fundraising, be clear in how funds (and overages) will be used.
5) Be sure to employ excellent bookkeeping and know tax laws.
6) Clearly convey to potential donors what they are contributing to and why. Be sure to send thank you letters with clear examples of how God used their funds in your life. Make sure the church reaps the benefits knowing the blessings, triumphs and heartaches of your trip.
I could go on. Some time in the future, I probably will. Once I get your feedback and ideas on this piece that is, ha! Here’s the thing. If you’re feeling a tug to go – GO. I’ve never come across anyone who’s regretted going on a cross-cultural ministry trip. If you know someone going, PRAY for him or her. Seriously, get behind them before the Throne. When you receive a support letter, don’t groan inwardly…here’s an opportunity to invest in Kingdom work! Skip a latte or dinner out – put your money where it counts best.
I’ve written from the perspective of an American going overseas. But we are by no means the only ones involved. These principles work for everyone.
Thanks for reading. I would love your feedback or reactions. Ministry trips have been a blessing to me in my formative years and I love leading others. I’m always looking for ways to improve my game.
Sincerely in Christ,