If you’re planning a trip to another country, you’ve probably already looked at lists like this of must-haves (chewable Pepto tablets, blister band-aids, and dry shampoo are some of mine) and must-dos (I love to have locals show me their favorite spots that aren’t tourist-heavy).
But if you are a Christian, I believe there are certain things you must not forget in order to get the most out of your trip so that you grow from the experience and also serve as a good ambassador for Christ during your time abroad.
#1 – Say yes when the opportunity rises.
So many people I know—myself included—have turned down opportunities to travel abroad because they think it is too much of an inconvenience, too expensive, too risky, etc.
Travel is more possible than you might think it is, especially with planning. And the first step to planning a trip is prayer. After all, Proverbs 16 says that man plans his way but that the Lord establishes his steps.
Ask the Lord for guidance and help, and then trust that He will work things out.
Ask for time off, for financial help if you need it, for a housesitter, etc. and see how the Lord works. Remember the story of Esther, and how she was called to live among foreigners “for such a time as this,” though the purpose of her time there at first was unclear.
#2 – Support the missionaries where you are.
Before you leave, talk to someone at your congregation who oversees missionary work and see if there is a missionary where you will be going. Contact the missionary and see what you can do for him or her on this trip.
Maybe the person need something from home, or maybe you can help him or her with a project. Regardless, plan to visit them and support their work: bring them goodies from home, see what they’re doing, help with something, pray for them, give them financial support, etc.
Living abroad to do the Lord’s work is hard, and it means a lot to even just have someone share that they’re thinking of them, praying for them, and loving on them. We see such edification in Paul’s example in Philippians 4 and Romans 15.
#3 – Learn what it means to be gracious in the culture.
When it comes to showing respect in other cultures, things can get complicated. For example, as a child, I was taught to smile and maybe say hi with anyone I made eye contact with. But for many around the world, this makes them feel uncomfortable, like maybe you are trying to trick them into something or making fun of them somehow. Certain gestures and phrases you say might be offensive in other cultures, whereas things that you would consider inappropriate might be totally acceptable.
Learn what’s right in the country where you’ll be so that you do your best to be respectful and polite where you are. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9 that he became like the people around him in order to best serve and teach them. Learn from this example and do the same to be educated so that you can fit in well.
#4 – Find a group of believers to worship with.
Not only is it instructed to not forsake the assembly, as Hebrews 10 says; but we are also told to support the saints in 1 Thessalonians 5, Ephesians 4, 2 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 16, and other passages.
Worshiping with a group from another country has the same benefits as in your own: you are refreshed and encouraged, you encourage others, and you form a network to help you through your walk with God.
But there are specific benefits of worshiping with another culture.
There’s nothing quite like hearing a familiar worship song in another language, and you can see diverse ways of conducting worship. Maybe there’s dancing, maybe the lesson is hours long, maybe most of the time is spent in group prayer, maybe the Scripture reading is aloud in unison, maybe making the communion bread is part of worship, etc. It’s refreshing to see traditions that are different from your own.
#5 – Embrace situations where you have no idea what’s going on.
I would argue that this is one of the biggest growing points for anyone traveling. Especially for English-speakers, it is uncommon to be in situations where we cannot communicate because English is rapidly becoming a global language. And as Americans, we live in far more luxury than we often realize.
So at first, you might fight these moments of mystery, wanting everything translated or interpreted and wanting your comforts addressed. In time, you will learn that you can survive with not knowing or with being uncomfortable, and before you know it, you might actually enjoy these moments of ignorance and unknown.
I have a US friend who says she is actually more comfortable now with people who have a different language, than she often feels around other Americans, and I find myself inching this way too. Being in a situation where you don’t know what people are talking about, what people are doing, where you’re going, etc. can be very liberating.
But it is also a practice in humility and trust. Being vulnerable and unaware is the opposite of being proud and haughty, and it teaches us to rely on others and really to “not lean on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
What’s more is that it is also a practice in empathy; remember how it feels not to know what’s going on and have compassion for those in the States who might be feeling the same way.
#6 – Be aware of your privilege.
One thing, however, that you never want to be ignorant about is your position of privilege in most cultures, especially if you are white. Many cultures might try to put you on some sort of pedestal, even claiming that you are somehow a “better Christian” with “deeper understanding” because you are from a “Christian culture.” This is obviously not true. Even secularly, you might be offered a better seat at the table, a better deal while shopping, faster service, etc.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to combat this other than to be humble (Philippians 2:3-4), serve and empower (Matthew 23:10-12), and try to fly under the radar when possible.
Realize too that your whiteness might put others at risk. If a large group of Westerners are invited to a Chinese assembly, for example—especially to teach—this may be eyebrow-raising to some in the area who believe there might be some foreign ideology being introduced into their community, and a whistleblower can put the Chinese brethren in danger. As the Scriptures say in Matthew 10, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, as if sheep in the midst of wolves.
#7 – Visit a place of worship for another religion.
Whether it’s a Buddhist temple, a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque, an atheist center, or a similar establishment, try to make an effort to visit and learn what you can. When Paul visited Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens in Acts 17, we see not only that he first visited the synagogues but that he also credited the Athenians as “very religious” based on the presence of their objects of worship in the Aeropagus.
You might feel uncomfortable with the thought of invading a place of worship for a religion you are not a part of, but when you consider how much you welcome visitors to your congregation, you can imagine that others feel probably the same way about you and your interest.
Visiting these places can have many benefits in building a relationship with the society there, like better understanding the beliefs of the people and earning their respect. Plus, many religions are rich in history, art, and design, so there are sure to be things that will better help you appreciate the culture too. Do make sure, though, to know the rules of respect at these places, like what you should wear and whether or not you can take pictures.
Being vulnerable and unaware is the opposite of being proud and haughty, and it teaches us to rely on others and really to “not lean on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
#8 – Be present.
In our time now where we are bombarded with all sorts of things to keep us busy and distracted, try to soak in as much as you can where you are visiting. Who knows if you will have another chance to come back?
So don’t spend the time looking at a screen, reading a book, or doing whatever else that you can just as easily do at home. Instead, be minimal with the entertainment you provide for yourself and try to enjoy what you can while you have the chance! Ephesians 5:15-16 reminds us to use our time wisely.
#9 – Be intentional.
When Christians travel for a mission trip, they are often more intentional in taking advantage of teachable moments. They might strike up more conversations with strangers, be more public with their prayers, offer to do more volunteer work, etc. Even if you are not traveling specifically for a mission trip, these are still good practices.
You may feel uncomfortable with blatant teaching or evangelizing (and depending on where you go, this may be illegal anyway), but making your day-to-day life abroad intentional can just as well plant seeds in others. In Ephesians 4, Paul instructs us to let the Spirit renew our thoughts and attitudes and to speak in such a way that everything we say encourages others.
The same is true in our actions: be intentional to do things that build others up.
#10 – Make connections and stay in touch with them.
Often times, the best part of a new place is not the place itself but the people there. Sure, the scenery and food are great, but it’s a special trip if you can make some new friends for life.
One of the greatest souvenirs you can have is a friendship, and continuing to stay in touch can help to strengthen both of you and even expand this into a discipling relationship.
Try to do more than just like or comment on social media, because many people do this. Instead, take more time to engage in one-on-one conversation. Even when you’re apart, you can still study Scripture together, pray for and with each other, discuss life’s challenges and joys, and grow together in the love of the Lord. This is a direct answer to Jesus’s final command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28, Mark 16).
Advances in technology like video calls, document sharing, etc. make this easier than ever.
God made the world for all of us, and He is in all of it. David wrote in Psalm 139 that no matter where we go on the earth, God will be there. It’s easier and easier to travel all around the world, and to ignore the opportunities to visit another culture would be a large disservice.
The early disciples traveled all over the known world in order to spread the Gospel. Whether your trip is for this purpose, for leisure, for business, for visiting family, or for another reason, you can be an ambassador for Christ no matter where you go, as we are told in 2 Corinthians 5.