While mission trips almost always begin with good intentions, the end results vary quite a bit. Some mission trips leave much accomplished in the area visited. Others leave no visible imprint. Because mission trips often require quite a bit of time and money, it's important that much thought goes into the trips prior to departure.
My wife Alice and I took part in a two week mission trip to India in 2005. I've also been on trips to Huntington, WV and Rochester, NY. Having been in the church almost all my life, I've seen and heard about many, many different mission trips. Below I've listed seven principles that, if followed, can help almost any mission trip do much good.
1. Understand the culture. A mission trip to India will look different from a trip to Tanzania. A trip to England will not be the same as a trip to the Czech Republic. Additionally, tribal groups within countries often have vast differences between them. The best way to handle this is to learn as much as possible before the trip, and then engage the culture with humility when arriving. Be willing to learn from the moment you reach your destination.
2. Determine a specific purpose. Trips differ widely based on why they are occurring. Ensure that a clear definition is in place before making the trip. Wasted time is a terrible thing once on the ground in another part of the world.
3. Assist the missionaries already in country. Follow their lead. If Christian missionaries are already on the ground, they will know far more about the needs of the people than will anyone back here. The best mission trips ask the missionaries how they can be helped, and then do exactly what the missionaries say. Be willing to work across denominational lines. Those differences matter little when the gospel is at stake.
4. Partner with local churches. If possible, partner with Christians in the place where you are headed (if you know of any there). The nationals will know infinitely more about the culture than anyone else. They may have specific, concrete needs that can be met. Take their advice.
5. Set a goal of lasting service. Determine to do something that matters. Serve in a real way. Ask for ideas from the missionaries and/or national Christians. Try to relieve suffering. While doing these things, proclaim the gospel whenever the Spirit leads.
6. Remember that a mission trip is not a sightseeing venture. Mission trips are times of hard work, semi-discomfort, and potential tummy trouble. They are are full of spiritual warfare. Be on guard spiritually, and be ready to work hard. You can sleep a lot after getting home. Set aside some limited time for visiting somewhere fun (if available), but the rest of the time should be full of serving others.
7. Avoid creating dependency. We in the West live fairly comfortable, wealthy lives (at least compared to the majority of the world's population). When serving overseas, we must avoid doing anything to create dependency. The local believers must be able to sustain any changes by themselves. This can be complicated. However, it is a must.
Not all mission trips are created equal. Following the above seven principles will help do some lasting good.