I have had a dim view of church mission trips for much of my life. At best, they felt exploitative and self-righteous. At worst, they were damaging to vulnerable populations and an opportunity for a new Facebook profile photo. Anecdotally, that view is common among non-church goers.
I think we’re getting the messaging wrong. We lead with dates and times and leave the stories of mission work untold. We spend a lot of time organizing classes, curating curriculum, finding volunteers, or otherwise managing programs and worship services offered by the church. And you know what else? We’re good at it.
We’re especially adept at getting people excited about a mission trip. We send out registration deadlines, packing lists, and dates for pre-departure group building sessions. We’ve got a timeline and a checklist. We need your paperwork and passport. It’s an effective way to get folks signed up and on their way to grow in faith and love outside their normal context. This whole practice is process driven and effective.
But that’s not the whole story. Actually, it’s none of the story.
We’re so focused on communicating the logistics of a meaningful experience that we forget to follow up, quickly moving on to facilitating the next trip.
We have church members going out into the world and engaging communities and cultures outside of their regular bubbles. They’ve likely grown closer to each other, to people they’ve met, and to God. These relationships are why mission trips are planned at all. It’s one way people grow and change.
I’m convinced that it’s not enough to know that our church has a team of soup kitchen volunteers or that a group built a house in El Salvador. We need to know why we’re called to go and with whom we’re meant to serve.
We need to tell the stories of transformation. Of relationships built on shared labor, laughter, and love. Of awkward language barriers and group friction. Of community built outside of our socio-economic status and culture. Of growth, struggle, and partnership.
What if we made a point to invite outreach teams to give a minute for mission during worship? To blog about their experience? Communicating the highs and lows of mission work draws the congregation into the experience. It creates space for non-traveling members to talk to folks who went on the mission trip, closing the communication loop and bringing the entire congregation into the experience.
Following up on telling the stories of mission work casts a wider net of partnership and weaves new cultural experiences into our faith communities. Following up is good for the faith development of everyone. Try it.
Josh Richard is Communications Director at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.