Sunday, February 28, 2016

4 Dangers and 4 Joys of Expanding Your Short-Term Mission Trip into a Longer Commitment

Something that I definitely didn't think about when Ben and I were preparing to do our sixteen-month internship in Burkina Faso, West Africa, was that we'd get to meet so many great people from across America while there. Short-term teams came from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, all earnestly working for their one-to-two weeks abroad to make an impact for the Lord. They drilled wells, built church hangars, distributed food, ran special English and women's camps, attracted attention that brought villagers out to see evangelistic movies, distributed special trikes to the handicapped, and loved on people—all in the effort to see more people come to personally know Jesus Christ. And they did come to know Jesus; not in herds, but slowly through the evangelism of the local pastors in partnership with what the missionaries and short-term team members were doing.
One of the many great short-term teams that Ben and I got to work with during their time in Burkina; this team's main project was to build the church hangar they're standing in front of and give the area pastor a platform for evangelism

Now, you might be aware that whether these kinds of short-term mission trips really have a valuable impact or not has become a topic of some debate. This could steer into a whole different topic where I don't intend this post to go, but I do want to quickly point out that I remain one who sees the value in short-term missions done right (the “done right” part being the key), which I believe Envision/Engage does do their very best to try to do it right in the cultural context of Burkina by partnering with the local pastors and supporting needs and projects led by the local churches. Are all short-term mission trips done effectively worldwide? Of course not. But I've now been a part of leading enough of these trips to know that short-term trips done right can indeed make a difference and have a very positive impact simultaneously on both the Americans and the Africans (or whichever two cultures are involved).
One of the well-drilling trips Ben helped lead, during which the local pastor gathered those nearby around to pray over this newly completed well

Yet even putting together the most wonderfully effective short-term mission trips cannot replace those people who make the extended commitment as missionaries. For those people on whose hearts God has put a passion for reaching the unreached for Him overseas, and especially those who make return short-term trips to a particular country or even to various countries time and time again, perhaps committing one week a year isn't the best thing to do, or even the right thing to do. One thing that I often heard from Americans who came on these one-to-two week mission trips was something along the lines of, “I'd love to do something like what you're doing if I could.” I always found that interesting, because my thought was—Then you should do it! God is big enough to work out all the details for you just like He did for us!

However, I do realize that it's quite intimidating to think of changing your entire life to make a commitment to missions, regardless of whether it be for several months, several years, or indefinitely. Making plans to go for a week or two, as much work as that certainly is, isn't the same as making plans to quit your job, pack up everything you own, sell your home, learn a new language, and step into the unknown for your everyday life. Of course it was hard. But I'm pretty certain that if God could take care of those many things that needed to fall into place for Ben and me to go, He can do it for everyone else whose heart He's calling to the mission field.
Our very last time of standing in front of our apartment in Ohio, our home together for the first 2 1/2 years of our marriage, before we moved to Burkina

My being open to committing to a missions internship started with a two-week trip to Mali and Burkina Faso when I was 14; God may use a short-term mission trip in people's lives in many ways, but one very real possibility could be that He's used your short-term experience to prepare your heart to do more extensive missions work. So this (unintentionally lengthy) post is my reflection on what I realized through expanding my own short-term trip into a longer commitment, as well as encouragement for those people—the ones who have felt God's tiny tug on their hearts toward missions but are holding back from making that longer commitment. 

The Dangers:

Danger #1: You'll be uncomfortable. In moving to another country for missions, you will step out of your comfort zone. A LOT. It starts with the initially uncomfortable task of fundraising, which for us, eventually turned into a blessing through knowing that we had a huge network of support and we weren't in it alone. Then, if you happen to go to a place like Burkina Faso, you'll be daily experiencing some of the most miserable weather conditions you have ever felt; trust me, having sweat dripping from every part of your body all day long gets old fast. But then again, there's more to life than living in the perfect climate (I'm trying to convince myself of this too!). Maybe the place God calls you to will even have some violence or political trouble like Burkina has had several times in recent years, during which we got to have the experience of bunkering down in our home for about a week in October of 2014 when the country's president of 27 years was overthrown; that could definitely classify as a bit of an uncomfortable time.

Different challenges come with different locations, but there will be new challenges to living in whatever place God has called you to (yes, even if He has called you to reach people in the U.S., which is a mission field as well). But God doesn't call us to a life of comfort, and He always sustains us through what He's called us to if we turn to Him for our strength. (Isaiah 41:10)
A view outside of our house's front gate during the revolution, when people were burning houses belonging to those connected with the president

Danger #2: You'll have to get used to looking silly constantly. If you go to a place where your skin color puts you in the vast minority, you automatically stand out every hour of every day. And then there's the weird stuff you do as you're adapting. For instance, I got quite a few stares as I was practicing riding my little motor bike around the block over and over. Then if you don't know the language, it's a very humbling experience to at first have to rely on other missionaries to help you do everything from going grocery shopping to calling the plumber to ordering food at a restaurant. Even if you are one of the fortunate people who actually knows the official language before moving, in a country like Burkina, only a part of the population even speaks the official language of French. Learning another culture's customs, greetings, and general way of life takes time and willingness to be taught, but all of that looking and feeling silly doesn't matter much when you get to the point where you can look back at where you started and know without a doubt that you've grown so much and are so much better for it (and better able to do ministry for it).
Me learning to ride a moto

Danger #3: You'll miss out on life back home. Weddings, funerals, graduations, family reunions, holidays, concerts, seasons, favorite restaurants, after-Christmas discount sales—you name it. We missed out on all of these and many additional important things throughout our sixteen months abroad, and of course those who live abroad permanently miss out on so much more. However, when the internet works well enough, e-mail, Facebook, and Skype might become some of your favorite inventions ever and can help incredibly at times when you feel disconnected. Just think of people who moved overseas to be missionaries when their only connection with home was through the mail or very occasional short phone calls if they were lucky; those people were tough! (And we had the privilege to work alongside several missionary couples who experienced that kind of life back in their early days on the field.)

Generally, though, you just have to learn to choose to make sweet memories where you're at rather than dwelling on missing out on big events back home. In fact, making such memories overseas even turned into one of the greatest joys of my internship.
Celebrating Ben's 26th birthday at our house in Burkina with other missionaries and a short-term team right after the conclusion of a well-drilling trip (there were way more people crammed into our living room than this picture shows—such fun!)  

Danger #4: You'll change. Not in the sense that you'll lose your passions and who you are, but I would argue that it's nearly impossible to do extended missions work without it affecting some parts of your values and self and how you see need in the world. Coming back from an extended internship on the mission field, I see life a little differently. I look at ideas of how my life could make an impact in the future with excitement and not anxiety. I'm not afraid of the possibility of God calling us overseas again. I pray more for missionaries. I consider more carefully whether or not it's necessary to purchase various items. I've caught the “travel bug.” I have more of an urge to reach out to people. I have come to realize that the typical life pattern of going to work, checking tasks off a daily agenda, and looking forward to time off isn't all that there is to life.
At the airport at the end of our internship as we were leaving Burkina—as different people than when we came

Some people can absolutely have permanent life changes after just a week or two abroad, but for many people after returning home from short-term trips, the passion slowly fades. It is not so after living life abroad. In various areas of my soul, God has permanently remolded me so very fittingly through my missions internship. I would not want to go back to what I thought I understood or what I thought I wanted in life before living in Burkina. And that brings us to the joys . . .

The Joys:

Joy #1: You get to learn all about and experience a new culture. Do you know how to weave a stick-shift LandCruiser in and out of heavy traffic, filled with way more motor bikes than cars? Can you negotiate for prices in a foreign language by yourself in the marketplace while vendors pressure you from all sides? Are you able to properly greet and abide by the customs of the different culture, such as only using your right “clean” hand for eating, handing people things, etc.? Me neither. That is, until I lived in that different culture for day-to-day life.

Yes, you do learn a lot about life in a different country by visiting there and doing short-term mission trips. But you don't get to learn the ins and outs of life in the same way. For me, when I just visited Burkina Faso, the facts that I was told of the country's history, politics, and missions all blurred together; after living there, though, I can teach others about the country because I know those things well. Also at first, every street looked about the same—shop after little shop, selling who knows what; after living there, not only did the streets and what's along them look different, but I personally recognized different vendors and knew who gave better deals. At first, every Burkinabé person looked to me like they could have come from the same family—dark skin, hair, and eyes (just as they might think that all of us who have light skin, hair, and eyes look related); after living there, I learned how to recognize different features of different tribes and realized just how very different people actually looked. 

It really is such a joy to get to live in a culture that's different from your own. Despite my previous short-term overseas travels, I had no idea. Your world expands figuratively as well as quite literally when you actually do life overseas.
A greeting ceremony with dancing and music to celebrate the arrival of one of our short-term teams to a village

Joy #2: You meet so many new, fantastic people. This is really one that I didn't even consider before moving to Burkina. I had planned on meeting many wonderful Burkinabé locals of course, which I did, but there were also just so many people fluctuating through the international community and through the different ministries that there were always new people to meet and new friendships to form. Obviously I can only speak from my own experience in a capital city, and this would be a bit different if you were to live somewhere like a secluded village, but even then, it might surprise you how missionaries are able to network and how God fulfills your need for friendships in your life. 

Now granted, my closest friends and mentors in Burkina all were fluent English speakers, considering that my three months of French language training couldn't put me close to having deep conversations with non-English speakers, but I would imagine that the enjoyment of community could be even stronger once the language barrier isn't an issue with locals. There's really a whole new dimension of relationship between people when you're living outside of your home country together, though, and I found it so vital when facing those “dangers” of life in Burkina Faso to have those other foreigners there who were facing that alongside me, the ones who really did understand the challenges and who made it easier to be removed from my former sense of normality.
The English-speaking women's Bible studies having our joint Christmas party

Joy #3: You see how God is at work outside of your bubble at home. I will be the first to admit that when I was living my “normal” life in Ohio before I committed to moving to Burkina, my insight into how God was at work around the world was pretty limited. However, when you are living your everyday life in not just a new place but in a new culture, you get to see how God also relates to people other than Americans. In fact, I was pretty thrilled to realize just how relatable Bible stories were to the Burkinabé culture. For instance, while it may be a stretch for Americans to relate to the accounts in the Bible that are centered around wells, donkeys, sheep, dusty feet, living in community, and so on, this would be no stretch for the Burkinabé to relate to because these things are involved in their current everyday experiences. It was neat for me to realize while being in village after village that I could now not only see the Bible in a clearer light, but I could also see how the Bible transcends cultures. 

When you're on a short-term trip surrounded by people from your home area and you're following a schedule of work set up for you, it's not the same view as when you're in that place living on your own. Nor do you get to see progress over time in the same way. When you really break away from all of your norms and live in that new culture, you get to see some pretty awesome things happen. We got to see someone who not only accepted Christ as his Savior but also burned his fetishes that he used to believe would protect him when he was bound up in animism. We got to be a part of villages transforming after they received  new church buildings and new wells drilled in Jesus' name. We got to watch as two people chose to go to the front of a crowd to accept Jesus at an evangelism night, an action that does not often happen there where shy hand raising is much more the norm.

And after all of the ways that God opens your eyes and stretches you while living abroad, you might come to realize, as we did, that maybe you needed Africa (or insert other place of internship/missionary commitment) more than it needed you. What a joy indeed!
Ben and me with some of the people who live near a well that our team had just finished drilling

Joy #4: You get to be involved in something purposeful for eternity. I'm not going to pretend that I think that our being in Burkina Faso for sixteen months changed the entire country or influenced hundreds of people to come to Christ. Actually, Ben and I were almost never the ones who directly taught the Word (with the exception of times we were able to share in English at the English-speaking youth group or ESOL camp); as I alluded to earlier, coming into a country without knowing the language or culture is limiting and takes quite a bit of time for one to get to the point of being able to have real conversations with people, let alone to be equipped to effectively share the message of Christ in that new language.

But in spite of what we couldn't do, our being there did play a part in supporting the local church. It did help to make it possible for American short-term teams to bring needed partnership with local pastors and churches. We did assist in giving local pastors a platform for evangelism, where many came to Christ. We did work with the international youth group, which included both students in need of discipleship and students who didn't yet know Jesus personally. We did do anything and everything that was needed behind the scenes to support the ministry work that was happening.
One example of doing "anything and everything": organizing tubs with supplies for teams to use on bush trips

While some people's giftedness is directly evangelism-related, others are needed for support roles as Romans 12:4-6a points out: "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." Missionaries in the support roles of hospitality, service, and helps are needed on the mission field alongside those that we think of as in the more traditional role of evangelism, enabling those who are called to teach and preach to do so effectively. And I believe that our doing that did make an impact for eternity by God's work through us. 

So all of this to say, if God is calling you to make an impact for eternity where you're currently at, that's so needed; do the best job of it that you possibly can, and meanwhile do what you can to support missionaries in prayer and finances as well, because they can't do it without your support. But if God IS putting a little tug on your heart to go and make an impact for eternity overseas, perhaps even in the very place that your heart has been drawn to during a short-term mission trip you went on, don't ignore that. God will get you through the dangers and will surely bring you so many unexpected joys through your obedience to His plan, just as Ben and I can now look back and see His hand throughout our life-changing internship in Burkina Faso. 



  1. AMINA! Well expressed, my dear friend. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, friend! I will forever appreciate that you were one of the main ones that I got to share in those dangers and joys of Burkina alongside!

  2. You and Ben have been an inspiration to those of us with a mission heart. Where I have wanted to go and what I have wanted to do have not been what has happened but ever grateful for where the Lord has used us to equip others on the field. The opportunity has developed to spend a week with missionaries we have supported for over 35 years this coming summer. Appreciate your prayers. Mrs. B.

    1. Thank you so much, Mrs. B! Your support of missions definitely has been a blessing to Ben and me, as has your continued encouragement in my life. How neat that you are able to spend that upcoming time with missionaries you've supported for so long! Will be praying.