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Debriefing Short-Term Trips

Spending nine weeks in the Middle East during the summer of 1994 challenged my worldview, shaped my identity, and redirected my life’s ambitions. That summer was not my first exposure to the world of short-term missions, but that time gave me a glimpse into God’s kingdom and how he desired to use me in the years ahead. What changed everything for me, however, was what happened after that trip. I returned to my university and met regularly with my discipler, who challenged me not to let the short-term mission trip be just a “fading experience.”


Fast forward to my current role, where I now have the chance to participate regularly in short-term trips and send multiple teams of students each year to go and serve across the nation and around the world. I believe short-term trips can be invaluable for you, your church, and the field.


In many ways, short-term trips are approaching their “adolescence,” with all the promise and potential that goes with this season of life. Before the expanded use of these trips, most missionaries were expected to serve for their lifetime. The result of this long-term commitment meant there were seasoned missionaries all across the globe. With the rise of short-term missions and an emphasis on including students (those roughly between fifteen and twenty-two years old), the missionary force is now characterized by younger, less trained missionaries who serve cross-culturally for much shorter periods. All of this leads to a spectrum of questions related to the importance and impact of short-term mission trips.


One of the largely untapped tools that will help increase the long-term impact of short-term trips is intentional debriefing. Taking time after a short-term trip to consider, assess, and prayerfully take next steps is central to moving short-term trips from a fading experience to an opportunity for long-term Great Commission formation.


One passage that helps us think through the value of debriefing after an intense season of ministry, like a short-term trip, is found in Luke 10, when the sent-out disciples return and report to Jesus. In verse 17, Luke records the disciples’ joyful report centering on their experience that “even the demons are subject to us.” Jesus quickly refocuses the exuberant group on his authority and identity. Then, in verse 19, he makes a bold statement: “Don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Jesus is grounding their joy in something richer, lasting, and greater than their recent experience. He is grounding their joy in their salvation. 

The Christian life is not so much characterized by the sensational but by faithfulness.

By emphasizing the ordinary over the sensational, Jesus is doing something important here as it relates to short-term trips. Jesus is reminding us that the Christian life is not so much characterized by the sensational but by faithfulness. Additionally, this passage helps highlight three key changes that are needed as we think about debriefing short-term trips:


1. A Change in Discipleship


Frame short-term trips in a way that moves them from short-term experiences to “long obedience in the same direction” discipleship.


One of the key ways we can move participants from an experiential to a discipleship posture is through relationships. It is the job of trip leaders to cultivate the relationships it takes to sustain the growth that occurs in the greenhouse of a short-term trip when these individuals come back home 


Short-term trips are part of the larger picture of discipleship. Upon returning, spend time teasing out the implications of spiritual growth and formation, a deeper understanding of the global church and discipleship in other contexts, and what will characterize the participants back home based on how they have seen God work during the short-term trip. One of my favorite questions to ask someone who returns from a short-term trip is, “How do you pray differently?”

Short-term trips are part of the larger picture of discipleship.

Two key debrief questions for you and your church:

  • Do you have a plan to move this from a short-term trip to a long-term vision and lifestyle?

  • What is your longer-term discipleship plan, and how does this short-term trip fit into and enhance it?


2. A Change in Perspective


Move from a short-term perspective to a Revelation 7 perspective. In other words, keep the end goal in mind.


If Revelation 7 is a glimpse of what is to come—God rescuing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation—then perhaps we should consider our short-term trips as onramps to deeper ministry back home as well as opportunities to partner with the global church. If the emphasis in our short-term trips is merely to fill dates on a calendar, a way to give back amid our busy lives, or collecting experiences, then we short-circuit the potential for long-term impact.

If the emphasis in our short-term trips is merely to fill dates on a calendar, a way to give back amid our busy lives, or collecting experiences, then we short-circuit the potential for long-term impact.

Two key debrief questions for you and your church:

  • What lessons did we learn from the missionaries and/or global church, and is long-term partnership helpful or hurtful for them?

  • How can we reach that same people or group in or around our community, and who will consider helping lead that initiative? 


3. A Change in Approach


Utilize short-term trips as a part of cultivating and calling out long-term missionaries. 


Short-term trips are not a replacement for long-term, seasoned missionaries. In fact, they often provide an environment that is the seedbed for a calling to long-term missions. This was certainly true in my own life. Seeing the debrief time as an extension of the trip and as an opportunity for extended discipleship allows you to move beyond momentary celebration to helping those you disciple consider their potential calling to serve cross-culturally as a sent-out missionary, pastor, or employee.


Additional key debriefing questions for you and your church: 

  • How did participation on this trip contribute to the advancement of the gospel? 

  • What bearing did this trip have on your understanding of your role in God’s mission among the nations?

  • How did this trip connect to what God is doing in the wider global church?


The fruit of short-term trips is not always immediate. Like the disciples in Luke 10, while visible results should be celebrated, we should not prioritize the sensational experiences we have above our identity in Christ and our call to lifelong faithfulness. Employing a strategic debrief time will go a long way in deepening the value and impact of short-term trips. As I’ve seen in my own life and in the lives of many others, debriefing done well is a vital aspect of making disciples committed to God’s glory among all peoples.

 

Greg Mathias is Director of the Global Missions Center and Associate Professor of Global Missions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family lived and served in the Middle East with the International Mission Board. Since that time, he has been involved in training and equipping through theological education and the local church.

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