You spent the last six months fundraising to participate in a 127 Worldwide GO Team traveling to Kenya. Even though you had to dig into your savings to make up the last portion of the cost, you know the sacrifice will be worth it. You’ve been in a spiritual drought lately, and you’re sure that going on a trip to another country will pull you out of your stagnation. There’s also a free day at the end of the week dedicated to exploring some of Nairobi… and to be honest, this is the part of the trip you absolutely can’t wait for!
You board the plane the next day and settle in for the long flight. You know it’s going to be a busy week, so you want to take advantage of the time on the plane to rest. But you just can’t seem to fall asleep. Hours later, just as you’ve begun to drift off, an announcement jolts you awake: landing will be delayed because of adverse weather.
This trip is not off to a good start.
When you finally land and drag your suitcase off the plane, novel sights and smells overwhelm your senses. Nothing sounds familiar, smells familiar, or looks familiar. You just want to hide in your hotel room and catch up on sleep, but there’s a meeting scheduled with your team for shortly after arrival at the hotel. You only have enough time to change into clean clothes before returning to the lobby. During the meeting, you learn that the team will leave for the children’s home at 8:30am tomorrow and drive back for dinner at the hotel around 5:00pm. It’s going to be a full day, but you’re excited to finally be in the country.
Everything seems to go wrong the first day at the children’s home. From what you had heard from friends who traveled abroad with other nonprofits, you expected to spend the day cuddling babies, helping with construction projects, having transformative spiritual experiences, and maybe snagging a photo or two for your Instagram page. Instead, the team only seems to spend time with the workers at the children’s home. In fact, most of the first day was spent in prayer with, and for, the caretakers of the children’s home. You were also asked to help prepare a lunch for these caretakers and to wipe down classrooms. While both of these activities were fine enough, you’re disappointed that you’re not getting to do any “real” work. You haven’t spent much time with the children, and there hasn’t been any sort of concrete project to complete. Nothing important is getting accomplished.
The other days pass in a similar manner to the first. You stop expecting to have extended time to play with the young students at the children’s home. You give up badgering your team leader about when the “real work” starts. You resign yourself to the fact that there will be no spiritual awakening on this trip. In fact, your time praying and serving the caretakers feels very similar to the mundane service you do at your church in America.
Even more, all your excitement for the exploration day at the end of the week has been swallowed up by jet-lag, sleep deprivation, and homesickness. You miss your own bed. You miss your routine. You miss American food. You decide that this endeavor has been a failure and that you’ve wasted your money. You want to go home.
The above narrative might hit pretty close to home for some of us. That doesn’t sound like what we signed up for. Most of us travel with unrealistic expectations about what we will get out of our “mission trip”. As westerners, we tend to value projects with concrete results over spiritual encouragement and relationship-building. Some of us harbor secret (and often unrealized) hopes that the trip will feel like a vacation, seeing the “service” part as the barrier we need to overcome to get to the “fun” part. We want to work, sure, but in a new place, with new food, and new people. All of which we will obviously fall head over heels in love with.
Perhaps more harmful than these expectations, though, is our belief that international service will heal our spiritual brokenness. We don’t board the plane considering how we can encourage local people; we come expecting them to fill us. We imagine ourselves returning to the States with a euphoric feeling in our hearts and the caption “I felt so at home there!” on our Instagram posts. Before joining a 127 GO Team, it is important to dispel these unrealistic and unhelpful expectations.
Let’s discuss three things that a 127 GO Team is not:
- A 127 GO Team is not a project-focused mission trip.
For many achievement-focused Westerners, it is hard to serve without a mindset that values efficiency and productivity over patience and relationship-building. This often comes into play in short-term international service, especially for those who have been on a traditional mission trip where the project was, indeed, the highest priority. If the school isn’t painted when we leave, why did we come all this way?
127 Worldwide encourages our team members to prioritize supporting local leaders in the work they are already doing in their communities more than completing a project. A local painter might really benefit from a day’s salary to get that building ready to open, and the spiritual encouragement you can provide to other members of Christ’s global body is unique to you and invaluable.
In addition to encouraging local leaders, GO Teams serve to open the eyes of Westerners to better advocate on behalf of local leaders and build cross-cultural relationships. Thus, we see praying for and serving local leaders as the most productive use of our teams’ time abroad. A GO Team that ignores the local leader and their spiritual encouragement would be seen as a failure, no matter how traditionally “productive” that team was. A GO Team that slows down and focuses on encouraging the local leader and building long-term relationships would be considered a success… even if there were no tangible “results” from the trip.
- A 127 GO Team is not a vacation in disguise.
While many of us would readily assent that international service is not a facade for a vacation, I think we still secretly expect it to be fun and exciting. Even if we don’t expect an all-out vacation, we anticipate some level of exotic adventure. While 127 Worldwide does sincerely hope that people enjoy their time as part of a GO Team, fun and excitement are not the underlying goals.
In fact, we expect GO Team members to struggle as they witness the suffering that many people outside their normal spheres of life experience. In short, we go to serve God by joining his mission to care for the orphan and oppressed and not so that we can get a break from our ordinary lives. Take comfort in the fact that, even if you don’t have a lot of fun on a particular GO Team, that doesn’t make it a failure. After all, service is about laying aside our own comfort for the care of others.
127’s indirect approach to ministry could seem much more like a vacation than the traditional schedule cram-packed with activity. Ministry of presence requires slowing down, matching the pace of the ministries we partner with. While some westerners might think we get bored at this pace, we actually believe the patient, humble waiting gives us extra time to listen, learn, and pray.
- A 127 GO Team is not a spiritual retreat.
While it is wonderful to have an open heart to what God might teach you in another country, it is a very different thing to travel abroad under the guise of service with the hidden expectation that the locals will fill a spiritual void in your life. Only God can do that. If you’re looking to vulnerable communities to give you a spiritual high, then maybe your service is more about playing savior than serving the Savior.
You should come ready to pour into others, both your teammates and locals. We encourage GO Team members to humbly learn from local leaders as part of a mutually-edifying relationship, but seeking from other people and new experiences what only God can give you is both dangerous and unhelpful to the team.
Nothing from our “what a GO Team is not” list is intended to drive people away from serving others on a short-term team. Rather, they are meant to help those who do decide to join a GO Team make the most of their time by entering with realistic expectations and a humble heart.
Short-term international service is a wonderful way to obey God and build up the global body, but when we jump in with unrealistic expectations we risk spending our limited time overseas frustrated, stressed, and disappointed. If our reason for going is our own checklist or wanderlust or a spiritual dry spell, we will do more harm than good to the ministry God is already doing through believers in the places we travel. On the other hand, knowing how to correct our misguided expectations frees us up to embrace indirect service to vulnerable communities by pouring into the people who will continue to serve them long after we’ve returned home.