I’m back from my short-term missions trip! …Now what?

A couple weeks ago, a group of us from my church’s mission committee took a trip to Mexico to survey the work our missionary contact is doing down there, and consider future partnership together. As we were wrapping things up on our last day, I was suddenly reminded of all the short-term trips I had taken in the past 10 years since I’ve been involved in missions. I started thinking about all the people I had met and even shed tears over upon departure – but now hardly talk to, let alone give a second thought. I was reminded of all the small towns and villages I had seen and all the needs that were there – but how they’ve become vague memories. I thought about the “spiritual high” I felt after every trip, and how I felt seemingly closer to God – and yet my “spiritual life” continued to go on long after those trips ended.

When this flood of memories and feelings resurged during our final night in Mexico, I started thinking about the so-called “PMS” that settles in for so many who return from short-term missions trips: Post Missions Syndrome. Through my years of involvement in short-term missions, I’ve noticed a number of responses that people have during this “PMS” period, ones that many of us have had, or currently are experiencing (if you’ve recently returned from a short term missions trip).

Three Responses of PMS (Post Mission Syndrome)

1) The “Take-Me-Back” Response

The most natural response I’ve seen when people return from a short-term mission trip (myself included) is to reminisce on their trip and experiences. Because so many people felt closer to God while on their short-term mission trip, their natural desire is to return to the country they have just left and regain the felt “closeness” and spiritual high. While a return trip may be possible for some, for most, limits on time, money, and accessibility, leave them to their nostalgia, and to do anything they can to feel like they’re back on their mission trip.

Teammates will gather together and have “reunions” nearly every week, or even every day for the next 2-3 weeks after they’ve returned. They’ll share stories of when they were in that small town and met those sweet kids; they’ll think back on all the fun (and usually stupid) moments they had; and the majority of their sentences with one another with start off with, “Remember when we…” They’ll look through the 5983 pictures that they took on the trip, and sit through 32 hours of video footage just to place themselves back in the experiences that now feel like something between a distant memory and a vibrant dream.

Sadly, even many missions debriefing sessions and retreats can turn into a glorified version of this, as teams talk more about what they saw and did, and how they felt, than what they’re going to do with these feelings and experiences.

2) The “I-Hate-Everyone-and-Everything” Response

While most people go through this romanticized nostalgia over their mission trip, some will return and respond much more negatively. Whether they had a horrible trip and are traumatized from their experience, or they had so great a trip that the world they return to now seems dull, and even – at times – evil, some will respond by hating everything and everyone.

I’ve seen people return from their STM trip and never wanting to have anything to do with their team or the country they visited ever again. For these select few, the trip was huge disappointment at best, or at worst, a traumatic experience turning them away from everything Christian. Unfortunately, for these individuals, the mission was never their focus; something else – whether their own growth, another person, or another personal agenda – had become the focus of their reason for going (for more reasons why NOT to go on a STM trip, see 3 Reasons NOT to go on short-term missions). These people respond by loosing touch with their team, removing themselves from anything that reminds them of the trip, or even leaving the church all together.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who have had a great trip, and who even share in their team’s nostalgia over the trip, yet responding with similar hatred. For these people, their hatred is not necessarily aimed at Christianity as a whole, but rather anything and everyone who hasn’t shared their same experience or passion as a result of their mission trip. Some will judge the church for not being “missional” enough in their own town; some will judge other Christians for not caring about missions and their person trip as much as they do; some will simply hate everything that’s not familiar to their mission trip (e.g.: running water, Western toilets, American culture/language, etc.). For many of these people, their nostalgia over the trip has turned into pure resentment. These people will respond by holing themselves up in their house and refusing to readjust to their culture, church, and community back at home.

3)  The “Life-Goes-On” Response

Finally, most people will, at one point or another, respond by allowing life to go on and forgetting all the experiences, feelings, and even commitments made on the trip. For some, this will come just as soon as they step on American soil again. For others, this will set in after the nostalgia passes, and they realize that returning to the mission field will take a lot longer than a couple months. Either way, these people will eventually let go of their trip, and acclimate back to life at home as normal.

An Alternative to PMS

Instead of being left to our nostalgia, anger and frustration, or apathetic responses during the “post-mission” period, there can be another way to respond after returning from a short-term mission trip. Instead of desperately seeking to maintain our “spiritual high”, there are ways we should respond to continue to be involved in missions – involvement that will be the fuel for not just a spiritual “high” but a great spiritual commitment and passion for the Gospel.

1) Keep Learning about Missions

Instead of being paralyzed by nostalgia, keep learning about missions beyond just your one short-term trip. Reminiscing on your trip and experiences isn’t bad at all; however, if your excitement over your trip never causes you to pursue missions beyond that one trip, you’re missing the point of short-term missions.

Short-term missions is never meant to be an end in itself – it’s a means of accomplishing the expansion of God’s glory to the corners of the earth where he is not yet worshipped. Your spiritual “high” and nostalgia over your trip should lead you to be further involved in that mission, not paralyzed and stuck on stories and photos. If you love the feeling that comes with being involved in missions and the experience itself more than the mission and the lost whom Jesus is seeking, then you are far more in love with yourself and your own mission, than Christ’s mission.

Go beyond your pictures, videos, and stories – even your own teammates – and learn more about this mission that God desires to be accomplished in the country you’ve visited, or with the people group you worked with.

Pick up a book! It surprises me how so many people who have gone on a mission trip, and even loved it, have not even considered investing in a book on missions. If God has blessed you with the great experience of being involved in his mission, seek to invest the “talent” that God has bestowed upon you to multiply it! (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

Go online and learn about the unreached people groups in the country you’ve just visited. Sites like JoshuaProject.net and FinishingtheTask.com have great resources to help you learn and be more equipped for missions.

2) Stay Involved in Missions

Instead of hating the world around you, or judging your church or community for not being more involved in missions, be an advocate for missions – not just through your words, but through your actions. Though adjusting back to life at home after living “radically” for the past few weeks may be hard, it is much harder – but much more impactful – to intentionally continue your involvement in missions.

Pray for the missionaries and the lost you have just visited! Too many people come back from mission trips, share of how great their trip was, and even judge others for not being involved – yet fail to give even a passing thought to these missionaries and lost people in their prayer life. Pray for the missionaries you’ve grown to love; pray for the lost your heart is broken over. Pray not just for their mission to be accomplished, but that you may also be continually reminded of our unfinished mission.

Give financially to the long-term missionaries and others preparing for short-term. Many people take it for granted that tens, even hundreds of people have invested in them financially to make their trip possible. Don’t forget that there are many others who have yet to experience a trip like yours – and who need the financial support to make it possible. And instead of judging the church for not giving more money towards missions, consider giving your own money to support the long-termers whom you’ve met. Put your money where your mouth is, and give – sacrifice – for others to be involved in missions.

Mobilize for the Great Commission. If your trip really was that great, then don’t just tell people about what you did – share with them how they can be involved. The best mobilizers are the ones who have already gone and experienced first hand what God is doing globally. And don’t just mobilize for your trip; mobilize for missions that goes beyond your country, beyond your misssionary, beyond the work you were involved in. Help people understand that missions is not just about the VBS you held, the house you built, or the children you fell in love with. Help them understand that missions is about much more; that missions is about the spread of God’s glory to those people and areas who have yet to hear and sing the name “Jesus.”

3) Plan a Life for Missions

Instead of letting life go on and living as if nothing happened, plan for your next mission trip. If your trip was so impactful, and your nostalgia causes you to reminisce so much, why not consider going on another trip? And don’t just be content to return to the same trip, same country, same ministry, for the same length of time.

Yes – we constantly need people going to serve our long-term missionaries who are faithfully building upon their ministry through the short-term teams. But don’t limit yourself to that one trip. If you do return to the same trip, do so by mobilizing and bringing a newcomer along to disciple them in the area of missions.

Otherwise, plan to challenge yourself and sacrifice more to serve for 1 month, 6 months, or even 1-2 years with other missionaries who are much in need of people and resources. Plan to go on a harder trip, to a harder to reach people (overseas, unreached, unengaged). Don’t let fear, comfort, or even safety enslave you to your American life of security. Consider following the example of our Savior – giving up his life and dying, that others may live by His Name.

For those of us who have had the immense privilege of being involved in short-term missions, don’t bury it like the servant given one talent from his master, paralyzed by fear and safety, not desiring to take a risk for his master’s profit (Matt. 25:24-25). Let us take the experience God has blessed us with, and seek to multiply it to the profit of the Master’s Kingdom.

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