I wholeheartedly believe missions trips are awesome. I got saved on a missions trip 13 years ago so it would be hard for me to argue to the contrary. Over the past seven years as a missionary I've been blessed to have worked with many teams and have experienced both not wanting a team to leave as well as really wishing the team would leave already! There is no silver bullet when it comes to planning and executing a missions trip, but I've identified three things below that will help any church do missions better.
1. Come to Serve
Please, please, please come to serve. Most everywhere you go in the world will have a local body of believers and you should be coming to work with them, not in spite of them. The easiest way to do this is to plan your trip with a church or mission on the ground. They may have a program or event happening that coincides with your visit, or maybe you can plan one together with them taking all of your God-given talents into account.
Working with a local ministry or church helps them even though it’s a lot of work to host a team. When 5, 10, or even 20 servant-hearted people come to minister alongside you, it's hard not to be encouraged! The energy and enthusiasm a team brings is infectious. (So are infectious diseases, so please don't take them with you when you travel!)
Working with a local ministry can also help you immensely on the ground. If you are going to do practical or construction work, they will know deserving families in the area, local workers in need of a job, and the best places to buy local. For more traditional ministry trips, local ministries will know good translators, have connections with the local pastor network, and maybe even have the space necessary to host a seminar or small group. (Bilingual seminary students benefit from a summer job that gives them ministry experience!)
Even without all the benefits, coming with the mindset of serving is just more like Jesus. Even He didn't come into this world to be served, but to serve and give His life for others. A missions trip will better serve both you and those you are ministering to when you come with the right attitude. You cannot be someone's savior, only Jesus can be that. Don't take His job.
2. Be flexible
Things happen. Things also seem to happen more when a group of people is traveling in a foreign country. Delays, missed bags, not understanding the language, and in some cases, not being able to freely travel make a missions trip stressful and ripe for things to go wrong. This is where being flexible will serve you well.
When you are a foreign visitor, there are many things you may not understand about the local culture. Even among countries that speak the same language, there are so many differences in how things operate. Generally speaking, we don't have to think too hard about living in our current environment. We can anticipate when traffic will be at its peak, what things are cause for concern, and in most cases how to react appropriately. All of that knowledge is useless where the environment is different, so be flexible. Open to change.
I met one team leader that required every team member wear a rubber band around their wrist like a bracelet. Every time the plan changed or didn't go as planned, he'd remind them to pull on that rubber band.
3. Have a missions strategy
This is the tip that makes me the most excited. I love talk of strategy and big initiatives and the like. So first let me define what I mean by a missions strategy. A missions strategy is simply a plan to be intentional with your global activities. It doesn't matter if you are an individual or a congregation. Pray and find like-minded individuals that are serving abroad to partner with. Don't throw money at them, partner with them. Pray for them, call them, build relationship with them the same way you would with your small group leader or pastor.
It's magical because as you develop relationship, long-term discipleship success follows. Your team leaders start to become more familiar with the local culture, you see the people you minister to start to grow, you become more trusted, and you are better able to connect your church to the great commission.
One of my favorite teams is one that comes down 2-3 times a year usually. Always to do work with the same people. They are committed to the long-term success of those people. As the church has become more experienced working with locals they have been able to focus in more on exactly the best way to disciple locally as well as disciple their team members. That's huge! They can connect the pastor's Sunday morning preaching to their practical work on the ground and in the lives of the locals. Could you ask for a better result?
The key is having a missions strategy and sticking to it.
So how do you develop a strategy?
A. Be prayerful and intentional about what focus you have.
If you have a passion for at-risk teens and young adults, then a mission providing clean drinking water may not be the best fit. Like I said before, we are each a part of a whole body and you should be looking for a ministry that aligns with God's calling on your life. It is much more natural if you do globally what you already do locally and that helps connect the dots of vision and practical work.
B. Do some research
Some churches have developed strategies in working with a particular people group while others focus on a ministry type. Either way, do some web searches or asking around for different ministries that work with your calling. Do you already have an existing connection somewhere? That might be a good place to start. After you find a few, spend some time in prayer and in talking with them to help determine where God might be leading you to work.
C. Stay focused
You can't do it all and I would go so far as to say that you shouldn't do it all. When you try to do all things all the time you are at best ineffective and at worst burned out and suffering from a savior-complex. Stay focused on what God has specifically called you to do. It might seem like God needs some extra help, but trust me when I say that there is no way we can ever understand all of the vast amounts of things that God is doing in this world. Let the foot be a foot and you stick with being the eye.