1. Plan a celebration
Throughout the Old Testament, we see the nation of Israel taking time to celebrate after a significant event in their journey. You (and those who love and care about you) should take time to do the same.
For some people, having a celebration when they get home from a mission trip might mean a quiet evening at the coffee shop with a few close friends. For others it might mean a big party with cake and funny hats. Whatever it looks like for you, take some time to celebrate what God has done. Even if your mission trip was the most difficult thing you’ve ever faced in your life, God was at work in you and through you and that is something to celebrate.
Try to have your party as soon as possible after your return. The potential for some nostalgia and even some depression hitting you within a few weeks of your return is real; you might not feel like celebrating once those emotions come to the surface.
2. Deal with any leftover “baggage”
Don’t leave any issues unresolved. If you come home with theological questions like, “What will happen to the millions in that country who have never heard the gospel?” or “How can a loving God let innocent children live in such squalor?” don’t leave those questions unaddressed. Make an appointment with your pastor or other trained Bible teacher to help you work through those issues.
During the intensity of a cross-cultural mission trip, it’s almost inevitable that people’s feelings are going to get hurt. Either someone is going to hurt your feelings or you’re going to offend someone. Don’t let those offenses go unresolved. Make appointments with people to restore any broken or strained relationships.
Research and experience both confirm that feelings of nostalgia, and even some depression, can be very likely reactions of short-term missionaries returning from their trip. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wrestling with some sadness or being a bit teary. God can use those feelings to increase your compassion, deepen your prayer life, and conform you more into the image of Christ. But don’t let yourself stay there. If your sadness or depression starts to interfere with your personal relationships or your normal daily routine, get some help. Meet with a trained pastor or professional counselor who can guide you through the process of healing.
3. Tell your prayer and financial partners “thank you”
One short-term team came back from a trip during which they saw God do some tremendous things in and through them. They gave an exciting and passionate report to their church on a Sunday night. Afterwards one of the church leaders commented that the church had invested heavily in this team through finances, prayer, and other assistance, but not one person said “thank you” during their report. Like the nine men healed of leprosy in Luke 17, this team failed to express their thanks.
Take the time to write thank you notes, Skype, or make some phone calls. However you do it, make it a priority to personally thank all those who were part of your team through prayer, finances, or other support.
4. Be prepared to answer the question, “So what’s it like in…?”
A common misconception that many short-termers have is that people are dying to hear about their trip. The reality is most people would rather die than hear about your trip. But they’re glad to see you back and they don’t really know what kinds of questions to ask, so they ask this simple, open-ended question.
Open-ended questions are good, but this question is so broad and vague it is almost impossible to answer directly. As a short-termer who has just recently returned home, your mind and heart are full of so many things you want to tell that you don’t know where to begin. What often results is a short, almost rote answer of “Great!” or “God really blessed” or some other comment that does more to deflect the question than to reflect it with a well-considered response.
Or, on the other extreme, some short-termers respond to these types of questions by unloading a dump truck of feelings, experiences, and observations, leaving the questioner overwhelmed and looking for a way of escape.
Be proactive. Be intentional. Be prepared to answer those questions with a one to two minute response. Tell a very brief story about someone you met, or an experience where you saw God at work, or even a story about something that broke your heart. Choose a story that affects you emotionally—makes you laugh, or smile, or cry. If it has an emotional effect on you, it will likely have a similar effect on your listener. Keep the story short, and if possible, have a picture on your phone or in your pocket that you can share along with your story. Then see what happens.
A lot of listeners will be satisfied with that and move on—and they leave having learned something of value about your trip, and you feel just a little bit better because you’ve shared something meaningful. But some people might be so captured by your story that they show genuine interest in hearing more. Those are the people you want to make a lunch or coffee date with so you can share more fully about your short-term mission experience. Maybe some of those people will catch a vision for how God could do something similar in their lives if they engage in short-term missions.
5. Follow up on any commitments you made
Hopefully you didn’t make a lot of empty promises, but only committed to the things that you truly felt called to. Did you promise to write or e-mail someone once you got back home? Set up a plan for doing that. Did you promise to pray for someone or some ministry? Write that down on your prayer list.
It’s easy to make promises when swept up by the emotion of the moment—the hard work comes when it’s time to fulfill those promises. Ecclesiastes says, “It is better not to promise anything than to promise something and not do it.”
6. Apply what you learned
One of the most common laments of pastors is that their church sent an individual or team on a short-term mission trip, but there seemed to be no long-lasting change in the ones who went. They came back all excited about what God had done in and through them, but within six months or a year, all that momentum was gone.
After your trip, ask yourself what you learned: about yourself (strengths, weaknesses, gifting); about God (His love for the lost, His work in people’s lives); about cross-cultural missions (the needs, the opportunities, where you fit). Then take steps to apply those lessons back home. Did you discover a new spiritual gift, or confirm a particular gifting? Find out where you can exercise that gift in your local church. Did you come home with a new or renewed passion for reaching the lost? Look for ways to engage with your community. Did you sense God calling you into more cross-cultural ministry? Find out if there is an unreached people group near your home, or contact a mission agency that could help you go to another culture or country and start taking steps in that direction.
Don’t come home and just return to life as usual. A short-term mission experience should change you. Identify those changes and see how God wants to use you in new ways.
7. Get debriefed
None of us is sufficient to work through all these things on our own. We need help. If the church, school, or mission agency that sent you out offers a debrief, take advantage of it. If they don’t, ask around to find someone who has experience in debriefing missionaries, particularly short-termers, and make your own arrangements to be debriefed. Take some focused time to look back, look forward, and make your plans to take the next steps God has for you.