I have been looking back over the last seventeen years--thinking about and analyzing my involvement in mission work. I have never lived on the mission field. All my mission activities qualify as short-term missions--trips and visits of a few weeks at most. Nonetheless, I am amazed at the number of pivot points in my life that are associated with mission activities. In fact, many pivotal experiences are connected with mission trips. The combined result of these pivot point experiences has been for me a different view of the world, renewed hope in the possibilities for the future, fear, wonder, new friends, and new commitments. It is not unfair to characterize these pivot points as life changing--because my life has taken a different course as a result. The memorable moments march through my mind as I remember my imagination stirred, my hope renewed, and my confidence secured. I am also amazed that mission memories and pivotal points have often sustained me through the difficult days of life's routines on the home front.
I believe it is no accident that important pivot points in our experience, thinking, dreams, hopes, and plans often occur when we are away from home and among strangers. There are several factors at work, each of which represents value that can be gained from short term mission efforts if the efforts are planned as spiritual experiences. First, we are not in our comfort zone and we see different things and things differently. Also, we are not in our usual peer group and we can escape expectations and rethink who we are. Third, we see through fresh eyes various aspects and dynamics of the world that we have not seen before. Finally, we are generally more open to the presence of God and the Spirit in our lives when we are uncertain of our place.
One tendency in short term mission planning is to take care of every detail with such tight planning that God can barely work and is not likely to be visibly involved. I much prefer looser scheduling and letting God guide. A common joking observation on short-term mission trips that I plan is that we are working on "Latin Standard Time." Of course, we want to ensure the safety of trip participants, but there is a place for exposing group members to life as they have not seen it before, doing things out of our comfort zones, giving time for rethinking our identity in Christ, and seeking to see God's presence and the work of his Spirit in our lives. These things are more likely when we are not quite comfortable and some level of uncertainty is considered a good thing rather than a bad thing.