On my recent flight back from Haiti, the plane was full of short-term trippers. It was the matching t-shirts and sunburned skin that gave them away (no judgement from me… my skin color matched theirs, and I’ve worn my share of matching t-shirts).
I wasn’t trying to be nosy, but I overheard one enthusiastic high school-er comment, “I’ll never be the same.” And I sincerely hope she’s right.
Like few other experiences, short-term trips have the potential to help us see our own materialism, grow in our appreciation for other cultures, form paradigm-shifting friendships, and experience the Gospel outside of our cultural blinders.
As ease of travel, income, and global awareness have increased, the number of short-term trip participants in the U.S. has increased from 540 trippers in 1965 to an estimated 1.5 million annually today. And unlike some who are calling for an end to short-term trips, I think the radical jump in those who’ve had these experiences has much positive potential. In fact, I’d be thrilled if, as a modest goal, the number of short-term service trippers matched the number of Americans who go on cruises every year (currently over 20 million).
For short-term service trips to make a lasting impact on our lives, though, it’s crucial for us to ensure we go with greater humility, we serve in a way that doesn’t perpetuate paternalism or dependency, we listen and support local leaders who continue to serve after we leave, and we give thought and attention to our experience after we return. Ironically, what happens after a trip typically receives the least thought and attention, yet it’s an essential part of every experience.
Here are five suggestions for ways to ensure that your short-term trip makes a long-term impact:
1. Love your neighbors—the ones next door.
Sometimes, it’s easy to love people who are far away or to give generously and selflessly to others on a short-term basis, while missing the need and hurt that surround us every day. While a week-long service trip in another part of the world can absolutely make a difference, we can often have an even greater impact on those we see every day—our family members, friends, and neighbors. Love your neighbor.
2. Suspend judgment of others.
I consider myself a pretty peaceful person, but when I returned from Cambodia on my first longer-term cross-cultural experience, I almost erupted in a grocery store. Having just spent time living with those in poverty, I entered the store and was overwhelmed by the excess of America. I hit my breaking point in the cereal aisle, where I saw a child complaining about wanting a different kind of cereal than her mom was unwilling to buy. People were starving. And she was a selfish, wealthy, and entitled spoiled brat.
In my self-righteousness, I forgot that not everyone had seen what I saw, felt what I felt, experienced what I was privileged to experience with my Cambodian neighbors. As Christ said, “Take the plank out of your own eye”—before judging people in the cereal aisle.
3. Look for ways to stay connected.
There are many downsides to social media—but one of its greatest advantages is offering an incredibly easy way of staying in touch with people far away. When you return from a trip, become Facebook friends with the people you met on your trip. Share photos and messages about your time and nurture those new relationships. And make sure your friends globally would be proud of the way you are talking about their country, their friends, and your experience with them. Enter into long-term relationship, and continue to learn through the gift of global friendships.
4. Simply fast.
As much as we promise “we’ll never be the same,” the reality is that we will quickly forget the experience unless it’s combined with habits to help us remember. An uncomplicated but powerful way is to start fasting, committing to a complete fast or to eating a simple meal like rice and beans one day a week. Globally and historically, we are living in unparalleled opulence; we must be intentional about remembering just how much we’ve been given.
5. Share, pray, and give before you go again.
It sounds modest, but after a trip, invite friends over for a night of sharing about your time, commit to praying daily for those you met, and grow into greater generosity. Don’t allow yourself to go on another short-term trip, if you haven’t spent your time and your money supporting the people and causes you experienced. Become a friend and ambassador to the people and projects which stir your heart and move you to action.
Want more resources on short-term trips? Here are four excellent resources I recommend:
- Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Leader’s Guide
- ReThink Missions Book Bundle
- Round Trip: A Short-Term Mission Documentary and Curriculum
- Sticky Faith Service Guide: Moving Students from Missions Trips to Missional Living (*coming in February 2016*)
What else do you do to make sure that your international service experiences make a lasting impact?