Source: www.freeimages.com

Last month a blog (Where you go changes who you become) used a quote to illustrate how long term mission workers are changed by their experience of living abroad.  The same applies to short term mission workers.  In their case, the intention is slightly different and is in fact closer to the original context of the quote – encouraging people to visit different places in order to grow and develop.

Many short-term mission programmes are designed and marketed around the desire people have to stretch themselves through change and to see their own horizons broadened.  Although such programmes may be focussed on meeting the needs of a marginalised community abroad or supporting the ministry of long-term mission workers, they often intentionally address the desire of people to experience different cultures and to grow in character as a result.  Sometimes such programmes can degenerate into voluntourism, but many of them are well-planned, highly-contextualised programmes which introduce people to a world beyond their own experience with the hope of encouraging them into a life of ongoing missional engagement – whether as a long-term worker or a home supporter.

You’ve probably sat, as I have, in church on a Sunday when a returning team of short-termers has been welcomed back, and you’ve heard many of them say “Wow, I’ll never be the same again!”  Sadly, they often do remain the same.  Peer-pressure to conform, demands at work, the need to succeed academically and the worldly demands of lifestyle can all conspire to rob people of the life-changing impact of their mission experience.

As this summer’s short-termers return home from their potentially life-changing experiences, how can we help them develop their missional engagement, whether at home or abroad?

  • Help them realise the privilege it is to step outside one’s own culture for a bit.  If you hear them starting to become critical of church life, help them understand that others haven’t had the opportunity which they have.
  • Welcome them back by asking serious questions about how their experience is likely to impact them in the future: does this impact their choice of degree/career?  How will their prayer life change?  How are they likely to use their finances differently?  Might they take early retirement to be free to do more overseas mission?  Would they consider bringing up their family abroad?
  • Help develop a church culture where mission, whether at home or abroad, is a regular part of church life.  Then people who come back inspired can slot straight back into doing mission at home.
  • Encourage them to see this experience not just as an opportunity for themselves but as a way of service the church more effectively, sharing their thoughts with others and acting as an ambassador for the agency they went with.
  • Ask them what new skills or gifts they’ve used, and suggest they should try to find ways of using those in the church.
  • Make sure your returning church members get an opportunity for a professional debrief, which should be provided by the agency which sent them.  The church should also consider doing one, or asking Syzygy or another independent provider to help.
  • Be available to them to help them work through the challenges they now face.  Offer to talk over issues with them, and be available to mentor them.
  • Point them to our guide to coming home!

The period immediately after the exuberance wears off can be disorientating for people returning from mission.  We call it reverse culture shock.  People can make bad decisions as they go through a time of adjustment, but with support and encouragement they can turn a short-term thrill into a truly life-changing experience.