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How to Approach Your First Mission Trip

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By Heather Reynolds Heather is a member of EM's full-time U.S. staff. Over the years, she has planned and led both short and longer-term group mission trips in communities across the U.S. and around the world.


EM staff member, Heather Reynolds, sat down with Sydney Lange after she returned from from 3-month South Africa IMMERSION.

Sydney, you’re fresh off 3-months of IMMERSION life in South Africa! Thanks for being willing to share your experience. We know a lot of people who are considering IMMERSION are nervous about going, especially if they’ve never been out of the country before. But before we jump into all of that, can you give us some brief background about who you are? You know, things like your hometown, stage of life or what you like to do in your free time.

Yes! Like you said, my name is Sydney. I’m 23 and I’m from Grapevine, Texas. I graduated from Bible College in May of 2018, and I have been working at a media company post-college. Some of my favorite things to do are hanging out at local coffee shops, lounging at the lake, and spending a lot of time with my dogs.

I love it! I think you’re in a really similar stage of life to a lot of people applying for IMMERSION. So, what made you decide to pursue a mission trip at this point in your life?

During my last semester of college I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Typical senior year things. There were so many different jobs I looked into, applied to, and got rejected by. I’ve always had a heart for missions, even though I had never been on a mission trip before. A mentor of mine encouraged me to look into missions after college, so I’d say she really was the one who made me want to pursue it. It was my best post-graduation decision by far.

That’s a big decision. I think a lot of people feel the pressure to just keep going onto the next “adult” thing with school or a career, so a mission trip can often feel like it’s pushing against the societal norm. As you look back, what were your fears before leaving the country for the first time?

One of my fears was accidentally doing something that would be considered offensive in the culture, but thankfully the training we received was very insightful and the community partners had a lot of grace with us. My biggest fear was about the food. I had no idea what it would be like, and before the trip I considered myself to be kind of a picky eater. The food was so good! There were definitely things I probably would not have tried on my own, but I am so glad I did, because my taste buds have been introduced to so many delicious flavors.

I love that you were so open to trying new things! Being away from home can be really uncomfortable sometimes, but also an adventure. Did you face any homesickness throughout your trip? How did you deal with it?

I did face some homesickness half way through the trip. What helped me was calling my mom and my sister as soon as I got the chance. Just hearing their voices and being able to talk to them for awhile really encouraged me. It also really helped talking to my teammates about our favorite things about home and all the things we missed.

Being open with our struggles, and knowing we weren’t alone brought us all comfort. Leaning on one another was the best thing we did.

It sounds like you built some great relationships on your team and I know from talking with you at debrief that relationships in the community were also impactful. How did the local culture surprise you?

The local people surprised me with how intentional they are with every relationship. In their culture, people come first. After seeing how everyone is willing to “walk the extra mile” for one another, it made me want to bring that mentality back home with me. They take care of one another so well and pour out so much love even if they don’t know you.

I was a stranger, but you would not have known by the way they treated me. In America, we tend to love others at arm's length, but my experience in South Africa showed me how they love by being linked arm in arm.

That sounds like a beautiful thing to learn and try to model back at home. It’s the kind of spiritual impact we hope for on a mission trip. But how did you prepare spiritually before you left on IMMERSION? Or how did you continue to challenge yourself to grow spiritually during the trip even when days were difficult?

I spent a lot of time journaling before the trip. There were so many emotions and so many questions I had, so I would get it all out on paper and then I would pray about it. After writing my thoughts out, I would ask God for His to bring peace. Also, I read through different Bible reading plans on the Bible app to refresh different scriptures in my mind.

While on the trip, I read through different parts of the Bible I haven’t read in awhile. I would spend some time on each story, underlining things, asking the Holy Spirit what He wants me to see, and allowing God to speak to me more through His Word. It was much more intentional and I feel like I learned a lot.

It’s great that you prepared so intentionally for the spiritual growth element of this trip. What about some of the practical stuff? I know that can be a big stressor for people going abroad for the first time! Is there an item you packed that you’re so glad you had in your bag?

A cozy sweater was a game changer in South Africa. There were quite a few chilly days mixed in, so it saved my life. Even in the evenings it was nice to wear lounging around, because it made me feel more at home.

Ah, the simple things! I’m all for a cozy sweater, too. Was there anything you wished you would have brought with you on the trip outside of the packing list EM provides?

I really wish I brought some type of purse. Most of the time just having a backpack was perfect but when we went to church, or had a fun day out in the town, having a purse would have been so nice. Carrying a backpack around town just trying to get a cup of coffee is not very necessary.

That’s good advice! Obviously everyone has their own expectations about a trip like IMMERSION. How was this mission trip different than your original expectations or how did it match up to what you thought?

Before the trip, I thought it was about what I could bring to the local people. But this experience really changed my perspective on missions. It was so eye-opening going with an organization that is passionate about building relationships. Being able to partner with local ministries helped the team create so many bonds with the people who lived there and I did not expect to feel so much a part of a community on the other side of the world.

Real friendships were formed, and they poured into me more than probably what I poured into them. The mission field is not all about what you can give to someone. It’s realizing how this experience is a two way street. They have something to teach you, too.

That’s so great to hear and exactly what we hope people will take away from IMMERSION. As we wrap up, is there one final piece of advice you would give to someone who is just exploring missions for the first time?

Find people who are cheering you on and lean on them! Whether it’s your family, mentors, friends, or all of the above, you’re going to need a support group. People want to support you in whatever way you will let them. It doesn’t have to just be money. Find the people who will encourage you when face any doubts or fundraising gets overwhelming. Don’t go through this process alone. People want to walk alongside you on this journey, and you should let them. When you return, there will be a support squad waiting and ready to help you adjust back to your normal life.

Thank so much for sharing, Sydney! We hope you keep finding ways to live your mission at home. We’re so proud of you for stepping out and saying yes to this experience.


Want to go abroad on your first mission trip? Our staff would love to talk with you about how you can join a 1, 3 or 6 month IMMERSION trip just like Sydney.


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