After the Trip

Cory Trenda: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience

After the Trip
Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience
(IVP, 2018)

WHO: Cory Trenda, a senior director for World Vision.

HE SAYS: “We need a clear window into the thousand unique experiences and lessons and realities we encounter on our crosscultural trips.”

THE BIG IDEA: Through useful tips, personal stories and proven principles, this book helps readers transform their mission-related travel into lifelong learning and change.

This unique resource provides a guide for teams and individuals returning from mission trips process their experience and allow it to change their lives.
Starting with an explanation of the book’s goals, the author emphasizes the importance of integrating cross-cultural experiences after the trip. He shows the importance of sharing stories, explains how it is normal to feel conflicting emotions and discusses ways to learn from different cultures.
Showing that a cross-cultural trip’s impact doesn’t have stop after we return home, this quick read shows the trip isn’t the end goal—it’s the beginning.

“Discover a cause that stirs you, and use your cross-cultural encounter as a launching pad to do something about it.”

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What misconceptions have you discovered that people going on short-term mission trips have?

The No. 1 misconception participants have is that the trip will be “life-changing.” This is magical thinking. A trip may challenge us, may stir us, but it can’t change us. Only our choices once we’re back can do this … the first choice being whether we will nurture the memories from the trip and welcome those when they come, that we will look for God’s invitations and nudging from those experiences and be willing to say yes to God.

Last week I was with a woman who teared up in anticipation of the upcoming trip we would both be making with a group in a few months. Her tears were a beautiful thing—it says to me that she desires to be open to what God wants to say to her through the experience. Let’s view anticipation like hers as a sign of the kingdom of God, as a prayer that the traveler would be stirred and changed, would not forever be exactly the same. We come back the same, really, because any course-corrections in our lives will take place over time, after the trip. But we don’t have to stay that way, as we let those powerful experiences weave themselves into our ongoing life.

We should not tell prospective travelers the trip itself will change their lives, and they shouldn’t come home and suddenly declare that it did. Instead, let’s pray that travelers will allow their crosscultural experiences to be God’s tools to mold and shape and change them over time once they’re home … and that they will have the courage to say yes to those invitations.

What can churches do better to prepare people for what they will encounter on mission trips?

We make trip recruits believe that the trip is “the thing,” not the spring to a deeper walk with God and commitment to God’s world. Most churches spend the vast majority of their effort in recruiting trip members and training them for what they’ll do and for how to be culturally sensitive. Travelers are made to believe that the trip is the end of that process, the culmination of their commitment, not the springboard to their real commitment. Then once they return and report back triumphantly to the church, the trip leader gets busy recruiting for the next trip.

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Let’s face it: painting a school, running a VBS in a foreign language or holding babies in an orphanage has very little impact on the world. This “work” is mainly a vehicle to expose us to distant peoples and their cultures and engage in redemptive relationships. But we take the “work” so seriously we often miss the whole point! In universities, these trips are sometimes called Service-Learning trips. That emphasis is backward. The trip shouldn’t focus on service but instead provide amazing learning opportunities … for connecting, for questioning, for gaining perspective. The real service happens when we’re back home—as we get involved long-term with the people and issues we’ve encountered there, as well as local expressions of those same issues near home.

Churches need to do a much better job of nurturing this learning during the trip. Even more important is to help travelers understand that the commitment they make includes additional discovery, reflection and debriefing once they are home, times when the team members can meet and unpack the experience over a period of a few months. A huge priority for local churches is the spiritual nurture of their members, and yet we’ve turned short-term missions into a numbers game and missed the point entirely. You may be shocked to know that virtually all the studies show that (despite returnees heartfelt declarations to the contrary) no measurable change is happening in the vast majority of travelers. What a missed opportunity.

We can do much better. And the message trip recruits should hear loud and clear is this: “Go as a learner, learn all you can, interact and engage all you can, then continue the journey of discovery and transformation once you’re back.” Imagine the difference we’d see in the impact these trips could actually have on the lives of the participants.

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What are some ways trip participants can attune their attentiveness to see what God is trying to teach them through the trip?

It’s so important to recognize that no human culture is a perfect reflection of the culture that Jesus sketched out for us as the kingdom of heaven. He told us over and over what the kingdom looks like, and he even went around showing us signs of that kingdom through his actions. Yet our culture hasn’t grasped this central message of Jesus very well. But now I read Scripture and contemplate how it’s understood by the poor and marginalized, by wonderful people I’ve met from other cultures. For a lot of us, that in itself takes some guts. We’re so afraid that we’ll misinterpret Bible verses that we simply miss them. Our culture has trained us on which verses are very important and which ones are not. But why are we correct while other equally committed believers with a different view of the world wrong? We need to humbly learn from each other.

Attentiveness requires commitment, and courage. It starts with memorializing the experiences you had and what they meant. It continues when the memories flood back and you’d rather not be bothered with them—or when you catch yourself doing the exact same things you did, from the same value system, after you swore you’d be different after your trip. In those moments when the temptation is to just give up, forget the whole thing and shrink your worldview back down to what was comfortable before your trip, can we instead calmly and earnestly ask God if this is an invitation from the Holy Spirit?

Can we follow the beautiful example of Mary, who “pondered these things in her heart?” A friend pointed out the other day that the early church fathers looked at remembering as “re-membering,” appropriating the experiences God has given us as valuable, virtually as parts of our body. It’s one thing to take a big gulp, hold your breath and convince yourself you’re going to do something bold for God for one week of your life. It’s another thing to try to live in this place of continual reflection and openness, recognizing that our journey loving God and our neighbor takes a lifetime.

It’s shocking to realize: I can be a lifelong learner from a one-time experience; I can continue to glean treasure today from a long-ago crosscultural encounter. Continuing to choose attentiveness is half the battle.