Every year we have the privilege of hosting interns alongside our missionaries in South America. We see the many ways God challenges and deepens their faith as they step out of their comfort zones and experience new cultures. Even further, we see a correlation between length of service and areas of growth. This year our interns have primarily served for at least three months and we rejoice to hear how God worked in their lives while they served overseas.
It’s estimated that more than two million teenagers from the US participate in short term missions each year. For adults, there’s an average 1.5 million US participants who serve annually and return to the same organization or location. But what happens when someone who has served in short term ministry transitions to a longer length of service?
SAM intern Hallie Dilworth served in Bolivia for three months and reflected on her experience first transitioning to Bolivia after having already served on short term trips before. She said that in short term ministry “it’s easy to feel busy and valuable. But when you’re on a ‘mission trip’ for three months, every day is not like that, especially here in Bolivia where life moves a lot slower than most places I’ve been.”
These words reflect the shift in culture and lifestyle often experienced by new missionaries who transition overseas. It’s not uncommon for new missionaries to feel a “slowing down” of life when they step outside of the US and into a rural or developing country.
Hallie arrived in January to work with Jason and Jenna Weigner, who serve in the countryside of eastern Bolivia and are currently working alongside Fundación Raphá to build a discipleship center for the indigenous church.
Living in the rural South American countryside is challenging, yet beautiful in many ways. As Hallie puts it: “San Jose is a very small town, charming in its own unique way. In the plaza there is a huge, gorgeous church that is the main landmark. Many of the roads are dirt, and the buildings are very rustic. Sometimes you walk into what looks like a shack, but inside it’s a nice restaurant with white tablecloths.”
More importantly, Hallie began to wrestle with her own expectations of serving overseas, as many missionaries do soon after arrival. Her self-awareness and reflection are one of the key steps to longevity in missions:
“I didn’t think I had many expectations going into this experience, but I’m slowly realizing that I actually did. My missions experience thus far has consisted of trips that were no longer than two weeks. On such short trips, every day is typically packed with VBS or feeding the homeless or building houses… This change of pace has been interesting to get used to, but I think it’s a very good thing. “
Likewise, Hallie discovered the difference between an identity rooted in what she does and an identity rooted in who she is in Christ:
“Back home, I fill every single moment with school, work, Bible studies, volunteering, social life, etc. On the rare occasion I have free time, I get stressed because I don’t know what to do with it. I put my identity and value in how productive I can be or how many plans I have, instead of letting God show me how to depend on Him. But now, I’m being forced to change my pace and be still and know that He is God.”
Ultimately, Hallie concluded what we hope for all of our missionaries: when we rest and wait upon the Lord, we hear him more clearly. “It’s easy to miss Him [at home] when I’m constantly filling my schedule so that I can feel good about myself, but here I feel more aware of Him than ever. I’ve learned to appreciate the little things a lot more and to be aware of the blessings God showers all over His creation every day. It’s been a humbling experience so far, doing small tasks as part of a much bigger mission, and trusting God that He will use me as His servant.”
If you’ve thought about participating in short term ministry, or have even imagined longer experiences like an internship, consider how God could be calling you deeper into relationship with him through missions. Allowing God to strip away so many of our cultural norms and to reveal his character in surprising ways through new cultures is truly a humbling and faith-growing experience.