Mission Trip Aftermath: Spiritual Formation after Spiritual Awakening

By Stu Streeter
VP of Ministry Advancement and Church Multiplication

A few weeks back I returned from what I think was my nineteenth or twentieth mission trip. I’ve been on mission trips in several North American inner cities, Utah (the land of Mormons), Cameroon, Paraguay, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Read on: it’s not as spiritual or impressive as you might think.

You’d think by now I’d have the re-entry game figured out, too, but I don’t. I really, really don’t. I get tired and grumpy – really grumpy. Additionally, at some point in the first few days after returning, I cry for no reason – I hate crying for no reason. Then out of the blue I’ll feel overwhelming joy as I reflect on what God let me do and see. Sure, some of this re-entry difficulty might be from the travel, emotional exhaustion, long days, new people, and foreign languages. But I am growing confident there is more to this, something inside me crying out for change, and if I will be attentive, it could be the beginning of a great renewal in my life.

So I spent the morning of my return thinking about this and come up with some rambling thoughts and insights. They are in no way complete or comprehensive. They are really just designed to serve my friends I traveled with to Guatemala this past week. However, the airports are packed during the early summer months with teams in matching T-shirts and necklaced passports coming and going on mission trips, so I am sharing them more widely in case they can serve others as well.

A new normal

Here’s the thing: a mission trip serves as an opportunity to uniquely live as God designed his church to live normally. First of all, no matter what, there’s an indictment on my heart when I return. All the weird stuff that happened on the “mission field” is actually supposed to be normal. My street IS the mission field. And all the stuff that feels so normal at home was always supposed to be really weird.

Praying for random people on the street: Normal.

Giving all the cash in your pocket to a stranger for food or medicine: Normal.

Begging the Spirit for his words in most conversations: Normal.

Humbly submitting to people of another race, religion, or social group: Normal.

But it’s not normal at all. In fact, most of that is pretty weird. And stuff like consumerism, vanity, selfishness, seeking power, striving for esteem – these things are supposed to feel pretty weird for followers of Jesus but all too often it’s this stuff that feels normal to me.

You just got exposed for a week, now all you want to do is hide.

Mission trips have a way of exposing the best and the worst in a person. The areas of character weakness in you will show themselves. For some they will be clear ON the trip; for others, they won’t be clear until AFTER the trip.

Lazy much?

If you are lazy normally, there were likely several moments on your trip where you were blown away by how hard people on the field or in your team worked. “Man, these people work hard,” you thought. You probably wanted to hide when there was work to be done on your trip. You might have even justified why you shouldn’t be doing their same level of work. In fact, your first few days back might actually even feed this lazy-bug in you since you have a great excuse to lounge. This is a transforming thing to explore as a disciple of Jesus, so don’t hide. Instead, ask the Lord to lead you in a process of rehabbing your lacking work ethic.

What about MY needs?

If you’re selfish normally, the trip might have served as a really positive way of hiding who you really are inside. You simply hid all week by pouring yourself out. It probably felt great. But if you’re truthful with yourself and others, that wasn’t the real you. Now you’re back home and you are feeling REALLY needy: Demanding your way, insisting on certain meals, begging for attention, complaining of physical ailments, or gossiping about annoying team members. It’s a great time to detox a bit from your own selfishness, and God is longing to walk you through it all.

Gimme, gimme!

If you normally pursue power or esteem, the mission trip has likely served as fuel for that fire. Everyone thought you were a rock star for going, and when you arrived on the field, they were so thankful for you. Maybe they even handed you a mic and offered applause in gatherings for your willingness to come serve.

Ugh! It’s gross how much you loved it all, right?

Now you’re home, and there was no homecoming party or sign at the airport. No “heroes welcome” you anticipated. You find yourself thinking, “Why don’t my family and friends see how great I am?” A low-level depression sets in as you go through power/esteem withdrawals, and you simply want to hide. You feel the discrepancy between who you were to the people last week and who you actually are to the people in your life. Again, if you lean into this exposing darkness in your heart, God will show up and lead you well into transformation by changing the way you think.

One week away, now YOU are the moral compass.

You might find yourself thinking, “How dare they buy that when kids are starving?” and “What is she thinking, caring about THAT?”

You justify these indictments in your own mind as insightful or maybe even prophetic. But in all likelihood it’s just self-righteousness finding a root in your life after the trip. This is a weird thing for people returning from trips, they – you, and yes, ME – all of a sudden believe the whole world has somehow become more sinful than it was seven days ago, and we have somehow become far holier in that same span of time.

Despite all evidence to the contrary and the stuff going on in your heart (see above), you somehow find yourself as the self-proclaimed conscience for family and friends. Listening more and speaking less will serve you REALLY well in the hours and days ahead. It’s like that verse in Proverbs, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (17:28 NIV). Or put another way, remain silent and be thought of as a fool, or speak up and remove all doubt. Your best contribution these days is to ask God to create a right spirit within you and seek the road of humility.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
     and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

—Psalm 51:10

Yes, there are moments of detox and rehab that will present themselves to you in the days and weeks after a mission trip. However, there is also renewal waiting for you if you will lean into the gap between who you appeared to be the week prior and who you actually are on the inside. If you are anything like me, you probably just want to hide. It’s part of why you want to sleep all day, eat too much, or slip into chronic sins of escape. It’s weird, but you might actually feel MORE sinful after your trip than you did before.

All this provides opportunity for the renewing of your mind and the transforming nudges God has put in your path. Yes, you accomplished amazing things with God and people. Don’t miss out on the amazing things God wants to do in you in the weeks that follow. They will sting a bit, but the fruit they bear will be tremendous.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

—Romans 12:1–3