If you've grown up in Christian circles, chances are very high that you've gone on (or led) at least one mission trip. I've done my share of both. Whether your trip is short or long, with a big group or a small group, foreign or domestic, there are a few key issues which every group member should consider beforehand.
How to Survive a Short-term Mission Trip:
1. Take earplugs. And I'm not just recommending earplugs because most mission trips involve teenagers (see below). I'm recommending this because the vast majority of mission trips involve third-world-country sleeping conditions. Such sleeping arrangements are not only often physically uncomfortable, but also involve a nightly barrage of sounds which include (but are not limited to) barking dogs, gunshots, backfiring cars, voodoo parades, teammates talking in their sleep, pairs of insomniac roosters having frantic crowing contests, teammates falling out of bed, torrential downpours on a tin roof, teammates snoring, the drone of kamikaze mosquitoes hovering an inch from your face the entire night, teammates coughing, the generator sounding like a helecopter just outside the window, teammates scratching their mosquito bites incessantly, teammates' alarm clocks/beeping watches, charismatic church services in foreign languages being conducted across the wall from the compound where you are staying, teammates firing up the buzz saw at 6:00a.m. in order to take advantage of first light, etc. You can see that a good pair of earplugs could be worth their weight in gold. (Though I don't actually recommend gold earplugs. Especially if you're going to a developing country. Because gold earplugs are just ostentatious.)
2. If possible, join a team of mixed genders/ages. Each strata of humanity has something unique to bring to the team.
- Men: Sure, they may have a few harebrained notions, such as thinking that using the power drill to put screws into the wall on which your pillow is resting is a good idea at 6:30am because then you'll have somewhere to hang your towel "whenever you wake up." They might show up to dinner with sawdust plastered to the sweat on their faces and smelling like something left overnight in the bottom of a drainage ditch. But when the chips are on the table (and by that, I mean when the giant spiders lurk in the bathroom and the rats chew their way through the luggage), it's nice to have a few Y chromosomes lurking around.
- Women: Okay. I know, all right? If it's a work team, it's sometimes hard to find enough appropriate tasks for the women to do. I would know: I once spent two days flattening out bent nails and sorting them according to size. (Fun times.) Most women aren't exactly handy with raising a roof or hand-mixing and pouring cement. But I know from personal experience that when you come down with a fever of 102 and other uncomfortable symptoms which cause you to wonder if it might just not be a better idea to lay out your mattress on the floor of the bathroom for the rest of the trip, then the knowledge that there are no other women on the team is enough to make you feel as if the end of all things has come. The last time I was ill on a mission trip, there were no other women on the team. One of the men held his hand to my forehead and said, "Yeah. Okay.... so.... I can't tell what this means." (Super times.) Had another woman been along, I would have already been given a cool drink, had my own personal fan brought in to blow directly on me, and some soothing comments whispered into my ear. (In this man's defense, when my fever didn't break after two days, he did load me into the back of a flatbed truck and have me driven out to the beach so that I could "have a swim and cool down." But that's another story.)
- Children: They are the ultimate entertainment, ice-breaking conversation points, and smoothers of cultural tensions. Take a few little cuties along whenever possible.
- Teenagers: Sure, they're sort of a mess, and 95% of the time their laughter may be inappropriately loud, and they tend to talk rather a lot. And then there's the whole issue of staying focused. But when they're on point, they'll work harder and on less sleep than any other beings in the universe. Put a few teens on your team, and your project will be completed in record time with plenty of friendships being forged along the way. Teenagers on mission trips are rare and beautiful creatures.
- Adults: Yes, they may spend up to 50% of their pre-lunch conversations discussing every noise that they heard during the night and all of the various other reasons that they feel tired. It's true that the closer to the end of the trip they are the more grumpy and frazzled they may tend to appear. The fact remains, however, that without this group, the vast majority of mission trips would never get off the ground. These are the people who keep the gang together in the airport, ensure that toilet paper has been packed, organize the meal cleanups, hold on to the cash, pack medical supplies, and worry about what time everyone needs a wake-up call. To every adult who's ever gone on a mission trip: bless you.
- Senior Citizens: or, as we like to call them on our trips, Senior Saints. You may think that this group might not be up for much hard work or many midnight popcorn sessions, but you would be wrong. Geriatric mission trippers are a surprising bunch. They work hard, don't complain, and (best of all) if the teenagers can stop talking long enough, the Senior Saints can tell stories like nobody's business.
3. Don't forget your Bible. Forgetting your Bible is not only very embarrassing because it makes you feel unspiritual, but it is also a genuinely bad idea. Due to jet lag and/or the aforementioned third-world-country-noise issue, waking up in time to pair your devotions with the sunrise is rarely a struggle while you're on a mission trip. Don't miss out.
Coming Soon: How to Survive the Toilets of the World.