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After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience

IVP Books, 128 pages
Reviewed by TJ Remaley

“It was a life-changing trip!”

So goes the all-too-common refrain of those returning home from a short-term mission experience. Perhaps the trip has challenged paradigms or broadened perspectives. Maybe it has suggested a need for shifting priorities or reallocating financial resources. Regardless, the rush of the post-trip enthusiasm tends to fade quickly upon reentry to the daily grind of life, and often, this reversal leads to the painful realization that what was once described as life-changing ended up changing far less than imagined or hoped for.

In his new book, “After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience,” veteran trip leader Cory Trenda suggests that we have cheapened the phrase “life changing” by using it before any change has taken root. He surely speaks from experience, having led hundreds of cross-cultural trips in his work for World Vision. He has learned that a more faithful response to those asking about his experience on any given cross-cultural encounter is to humbly say, “I hope and pray to God that my trip becomes life changing.”

This becomes the focus statement and guiding principle of the entire text, and Trenda spends the rest of this highly accessible book describing best practices for post-trip reflection. He demonstrates that authentic life transformation arises not from strong pre-trip planning or even a well-executed trip itself (although those things are certainly important!), but rather develops out of the prayerful reflection and decisions made after returning home. The most critical component of any cross-cultural encounter is actually what happens when the trip ends; unfortunately, it usually receives precious little attention from busy trip leaders.

Much has been written in recent years examining the shortcomings of short-term mission work in terms of the impact on those we seek to serve, so Trenda spends little time in revisiting this (see “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton and “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett for more on this). Instead, he focuses upon the shortcomings of short-term mission work for participants, arguing that true life transformation will lead to a life reorientation such that priorities (how they spend their money, who and what they advocate for) will eventually lead to lasting change throughout the world.

While I understand this premise, and even agree with the problematic assertion that most cross-cultural trips are actually more about the participants than about those being served, there were a few points where the concept came across a bit like a “trickle-down” approach to missional economics. Also, with very few exceptions, Trenda limits his view to international cross-cultural trips. As someone whose most transformational mission encounters have occurred stateside, I wish he had gone deeper here to capture the needs of a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s easy to apply many of the same practices he suggests for most domestic mission trips.

“After the Trip” is an essential read for anyone leading a short-term mission experience. Trenda’s emphasis on post-trip reflection alone is worth considering when planning a trip. With several insightful discussion and reflection questions as appendices, the text also lends itself well for a group study following a trip, or even as a self-guided resource for those who have returned from a mission experience with the fervent prayer that it might become life changing for them.

TJ Remaley serves the congregation of St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, as associate pastor for family ministry and discipleship.