It is summer in North America, the season that many short term teams travel across the world. Recently I hosted two different short term mission teams from the United States, one was very fruitful and another was unfruitful. This made me think: what makes a mission trip fruitful?

This a response from an African host’s perspective. Preparation is the hinge on which the door of short term missions turns. Good preparation oils the door and enables it open to fruitfulness, but poor preparation will lead to unfruitfulness. What you do in the preparation will determine the outcome of the short term visit.

There are three areas that are fundamental in preparation for a short term mission trip.

Prepare your heart.

Preparation of the heart involves aligning one’s heart to the heart of God. You cannot give what you do not have. If you are not walking closely with God how do you expect to draw others to the path of the Lord. Prepare your heart in the place of prayer and study of scripture. This is aligning your heart with the heart of God. In the process our hearts are united to each other. Prayer is central to this alignment.

One of the teams that visited us met weekly for over eight weeks in prayer and study for the trip. It was clear that they had bonded. When they arrived this discipline continued daily as they served in Uganda. The other group mobilized a team of people that met for the first time at the airport. It felt like herding cats by the team leader, as everyone went in a different direction. It will show for a team that is one in heart with God and each other. The place of the oneness in heart is critical.

How do you know if your heart is prepared? This is a test of dependability. The focus on God and his word. How dependent are you on God as you step out? This is important especially in Africa because if you demonstrate dependence on God, people will emulate. Many short term teams have visited and left people more dependent on Americans than on God. It happens because they themselves were not dependent on God in the first place.

Prepare your head.

Prepare to be a learner by beginning to learn of the people. It is important the individuals on a short term trip come as learners that might teach and not teachers that might learn. The church in the America needs to the realize that there is opportunity to teach but to also opportunity learn from the global south, it is a mutual learning experience. If you are only going to teach without learning anything then you’re unproductive.

This learning is about the people, their beliefs, values, feelings and worldviews. This is learning the culture in depth. A point in case is when to use your camera. Small as it might seem, this can be offensive. One team that I hosted visited homes and took pictures of each local food before they ate it! To the person that has cooked, this is offensive and disrespectful. Some members entered people’s homes with shoes, etc. This can be mitigated by a willingness to learn from the hosts what can be done and what might not be done.

Technology has made it easy to learn from each other using various online means that the internet provides. Learn the people that you are going to work with; this will help build trust. Building trust is gradual and happens over time. This involves investing time to build meaningful relationships. When trust is absent between the host and the guest there is no fruitfulness.

How do you know if your head is prepared? This a test of credibility. This is a test of the level of mutual trust and integrity for each other. Both parties have understood each other and communicate in terms each party truthfully understands.

Prepare your hand.

The hands should be open and not clinched, willing to embrace and not exclude. Prepare the hands to do what will be most effective and sustainable that will continue and be carried on in partnership with the local churches. This is deliberately working towards making a significant difference in the society.

On this basis, it is important to invest in relationships and not just programs. This is for sustainability. Invest in people before investing in projects. It is important to realize that a single visit to a remote rural village will result to total transformation of the Village. Change of communities is gradual and unpredictable. It is never a straight forward path. It is a work in partnership and not patronage.

How do you know if your hand is prepared? This is a test of sustainability. Will whatever you have done continue long after you are gone?

Preparation is the axis on which the door of short term mission teams moves. This is preparing the heart, the head and the heart. The goal is to depend on God, be credible to each other and sustain what has been started. Short term mission teams can have an eternal impact when preparation is a priority.

Dennis Kilama holds degrees from Africa International University, Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, and Makerere University. In 2021, he earned a M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership from Wheaton College. He currently pastors Lugogo Baptist Church and teaches at Africa Renewal University, both located in Kampala, Uganda.