Last year at the age of 64, Judy Grimes went on her first shortterm mission trip with her friend Hazel Miller. Her own children had done gap years between school, university and work and she supports other young people who are taking a year out. This time it was her turn to go overseas.

Judy and Hazel spent two weeks in India last Easter with Tearfund’s Transform programme. “I’ve been a Tearfund supporter since it began,” explains Judy. “You can read and pray about their work, but you get a much better understanding if you actually experience it for yourself.” Judy and Hazel went in a team of 10 people with two leaders and refurbished a health centre in an Indian village. “You need to be realistic about what you can achieve in just two weeks,” she says. “I was glad we were able to complete something; I didn’t want to let people down. And although we did leave something behind, we were the ones who were transformed by the experience.”

More and more people are travelling overseas on short-term mission trips, whether it’s for a couple of weeks in the summer or for a period of several months during a gap year before or after university. As Judy’s story shows, it’s not just young people who are taking part; there are opportunities available to people of all ages. But how can you make sure that the agency you choose to go with will give you a good experience? Or if a young person you know is thinking of doing a gap year, what advice should you give them to help them make the most of it?

There’s no doubt that short-term mission trips can be a life-changing experience. Clive Doubleday was a Baptist minister three years ago when his church collected aid to send to Kosova. The charity they hoped to send it with wasn’t able to take it and so Clive and his wife Ruth took it themselves, driving a truck each with their children as navigators. Eight days and eight countries later they were in the middle of a Kosovan refugee camp seeing for themselves what conditions were like. On their return, Clive felt prompted by God to leave the ministry and set up SMILE International to continue taking aid and ministry to people who need it most. SMILE now works in over 10 countries and have taken over 200 volunteers to Kosova, Montenegro, Albania and other countries on short-term mission trips where they have built homes for widows, taught music and football to gypsy children, worked with traumatised children and taught English.

Paul Lindsay is the executive director of Christian Vocation (CV), an organisation dedicated to helping Christians find the right opportunities to serve God and develop their gifts. Every year, CV publish the Short-term Service Directory giving details of mission opportunities with around 200 different Christian organisations lasting from two weeks to two years. The directory is a great place to start if you are exploring the possibility of doing a mission; it is full of practical information and contact details to help you find out more about different opportunities. While Clive’s experience is at the more dramatic end of the scale of responses to short-term mission trips, Paul agrees that there are many benefits to be had. “Short-term mission trips certainly strengthen people’s faith,” he says. “It gives them an opportunity to test out and use their gifts. People grow up as individuals and as Christians, and are able to gain a global perspective on life. There are no concrete figures available, but I suspect that a lot of people who go on to long-term service, especially overseas, have had short-term mission experience.”

But of course not everyone has such a positive experience. Amanda Digman is now a youth worker in Nottingham and took a year out between college and university when she was 18. She joined a small Christian organisation to do four months training and then spend the rest of the year going backwards and forwards to Albania to do evangelism and help build an orphanage. Although the training was very good, the leader of the organisation was very authoritarian and, in Amanda’s experience, quite destructive. When she tried to show initiative in a task she was given to do, she was told she wasn’t able to submit to authority and didn’t have a servant heart. She also found out that the year out was funded by a government employment training scheme which had rules about how long volunteers could be out of the country. These rules were being blatantly ignored. In the end, Amanda left because she was so unhappy about the way the scheme was being run. Fortunately for her she found another opportunity to work with asylum seekers in Germany for six months so her gap year wasn’t wasted.

Debbie James runs the Encounter and Praxis short-term mission programmes at the Church Mission Society (CMS). Encounter enables 18- to 30-year-olds to go overseas as a team with experienced leaders for three to four weeks to share in and learn from the lives of Christians overseas. Praxis is for older people and runs for a couple of weeks with similar aims. “My advice to people looking for a good short-term mission experience is to firstly make sure that the organisation they are going with have signed up to the Global Connections Code of Best Practice in Short-term mission,” she says. Developed about five years ago in consultation with lots of agencies, it sets benchmarks for providers to aim for in areas such as recruitment, orientation, supervision, pastoral care, involving the sending church and disciplinary and grievance procedures. Smaller organisations may find it more difficult to meet all the requirements, so if they aren’t signed up to this code of practice ask them if they have their own, and if you can see a copy.

As part of the selection process, you should expect the agency to explore with you your motivation for going on the trip and your expectations of what you will achieve through it. Alex Ison works for Arab World Ministries (AWM) who give people the opportunity to spend two to six weeks in an Arab country learning about the culture and needs, and getting involved in prayer and ministry. “We recognise that people come on our trips with mixed motives,” he says. “Some people have a call to ministry in the Arab world; others just want to experience a different culture. In recent years, we have had more ‘serial mission trip’ participants who have already been to a couple of countries with other agencies. On a short-term trip we hope to whet people’s appetite for ministry and help them to see the possibilities.”

Debbie James believes that preparation before the trip is crucial. “In terms of the spiritual and personal development gained from the trip, preparation can make all the difference. I’d also look for opportunities for reflection during the trip and a chance to debrief afterwards.” The Encounter programme includes all three elements; participants attend a general preparation weekend where they cover cross-cultural issues and how to take the gospel to another culture. Closer to the trip they have a more specific briefing session appropriate to the country that they are going to. The team leaders facilitate a time of reflection every day on the trip and a whole day towards the end of the trip where participants are helped to process what they are experiencing and learning. Some organisations will provide preparation in different ways. AWM has found it difficult to get participants to attend a weekend, so they provide lots of documentation before the trip and an orientation session once people arrive; this option may suit people with lots of commitments.

Sue Towler who heads up Tearfund’s Transform programme (pics pages 41-42) agrees that the debriefing process once people return is really important. “Often coming home can be harder than when you go,”she says. “People have been away for four to six weeks and seen poverty at first hand. When they come back, many find the materialism in our society a shock. They have also had quite an intense experience with ‘new best friends’ so some can feel lonely and isolated.”

People may suffer from reverse culture shock, finding it difficult to cope with the materialism and choice of western life after a period in a developing country. They may find that family and friends quickly tire of hearing about the trip, but they still need to talk about their experiences. This year Tearfund plan to involve their regional staff in preparation and follow up to short-term mission trips. They will put people from the same region onto a team together to make it easier for them to get together to prepare and then to support one another once they return. Tearfund’s debriefing weekends also include information about advocacy work and how participants can continue their involvement and interest once they return.

People who are exploring gap year possibilities need to ask about pastoral support during their year. However good the preparation may be, you need to know that you will be looked after while you are away. Time for God (TfG) arranges gap year placements for young people aged 18 to 25. They recruit about 150 young people a year from all over the world and then send them out all over the world Sheree Dawkins did two gap years with TfG , one in America and one in Dublin and she liked it so much that she joined the company; she’s now a field officer supporting UK based placements.

During her year in America she was the youth director at a Presbyterian church in Miami, Florida, responsible for all aspects of the youth programme. TfG has strong links with the Presbyterian church in the US and they made sure that Sheree had local support. She had a supervisor at the church for her work, a field officer who checked that the placement was working and a spiritual director for her personal growth. TfG provided background support, but in places where that level of local support is not possible, they will be much more involved. Sheree now provides support for TfG volunteers in the UK, visiting them twice a year and making contact by phone at other times.

It seems that to get the most from a short-term mission trip, you need to be prepared to ask lots of questions from providers and from people that you know who have been on trips themselves. As well as the areas highlighted above, you may want to ask about the training and experience of the leaders on the trip. What do they know about health and safety, or about dealing with emergencies? It’s important to find out exactly what the fee for the trip will cover; you don’t want to be hit with hidden extras while you are abroad. And does the provider foster links with your home church? This can make all the difference in getting people to support you while you are away, and then when you return.

But although good organisation is essential and you need to be satisfied that the provider knows what they are doing, don’t expect everything to be too rigidly tied down. Laurie Homewood (pictured across) did his first mission trip with SMILE three years ago at the age of 74. He and his wife Janis have since been on another five SMILE trips to Kosova, Macedonia and Bulgaria. He admits to having a few doubts before he went. “As I arrived at the airport, I thought to myself, is this just one big ego trip?” he says. “What can we possibly achieve in a week?” But he has found it a really rewarding experience. “I think flexibility is the key. You have to be ready to let God use you. There needs to be a happy balance between expectations, organisation and flexibility.” He admits that he came back from the first trip a little dissatisfied that they hadn’t been utilised fully but that didn’t stop him going back. A highlight on a recent trip was being able to give a keyboard in a case that he had made to the youth group of a gypsy church. It turned out that they had been praying for a keyboard for six months. Another key aspect for Laurie was that SMILE had the same theological perspective as him on the ministry of the Holy Spirit - this is an area that you may want to check out too.

And for those people with a heightened sense of adventure, there are opportunities to get involved in exciting mission activities. Steve Phelps works for

Revival Chinese Ministries International (RCMI) which is committed to helping the Chinese Underground Church grow and develop. RCMI take Bibles into China on a daily basis and you can join them as part of your holiday or on a team organised by RCMI. Steve stresses that what they do is not illegal, although it is exciting. Westerners who take Bibles into China will have them confiscated if they are caught, and the Bibles are kept at the border to be collected on the way back. Local Chinese Christians on the other hand may face up to two years in prison. Last year 96% of RCMI trips were successful. “There are 30 million people in registered churches in China,” explains Steve, “and around 30 million official Bibles have been produced so the Chinese authorities don’t think there is a need for any more. We think there are over 80 million believers in total, most of whom belong to churches other than the official state church and so there is a huge need for more Bibles and teaching materials.”

So if you are thinking about a shortterm mission trip, or know someone who is, be prepared to do a bit of homework before you go. And be prepared for a lifechanging experience too.