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On Short Term Mission Trips….

July 28, 2011 4 comments

So it’s been forever since I’ve blogged about anything of substance – primarily because my kids are more interesting than my blog.  But lately I’ve found myself thinking more and more “I should blog about this….”  So here goes….

I’ve been leading youth mission trips now for five years – I’ve done 6 Sr. High trips and 5 Jr. High trips since I started my time at Hampton so I’ve got some experience when talking about this subject.  I’ve been in some circles where it is popular to talk down about short-term mission trips and some of this critique is fair.  Namely, youth mission trips cost a ton of money, a week is inadequate amount of time to develop cross cultural connections, etc.  I’ve even been around people who have gone so far as to say “We shouldn’t do short-term mission trips with youth.”  Well, I agree that short term mission trips are fraught with challenges but as a counter argument I present the following:

  • “This was one of the best weeks of my life”
  • “Now that I’ve gone on one mission trip I’m going to go every summer”
  • “Thank you so much for bringing me on this trip – there’s been a lot of points where I’ve doubted whether God really existed but after this trip I feel so much more faithful”
  • “After this trip I really understand how fortunate I am”
  • “I used to have an idea of what homeless people were like but this trip showed me that I was wrong”
These are just a sampling of the comments that I got at the end of this year’s mission trips and aren’t by themselves evidence of transformation – after all, it’s just a week and after an long week kids are a little hyper-emotional and will say anything.  But… I think part of why youth mission trips get a bad rap is that they are planned and done poorly.  Here are some of my thoughts on successful youth mission trips
  • Choose non-profit organizations to go with.  I’ve learned that there are two types of organizations that sponsor youth mission trips.  Some are part of for profit companies where at the end of the day they’re trying to make money off of you.  Others, are non-profit organizations that are focused first on their mission.  In our case, we’ve found two organizations that we’ve developed a good work relationship with.  The Pittsburgh Project is a local non-profit organization that has been sponsoring youth mission trips for years and is – bar none – the best at it.  They’re a permanent organization that develops relationships with homeowners throughout the year as well as during the summer.  Their camps are well staffed by experience professionals and young college students.  I really can’t say enough good things about them.  The other organization we stumbled upon a few years ago when we were looking for someone to go to New Orleans with: TEAMeffort.  TEAMeffort is a non-profit national organization that sponsors trips throughout the country.  For our group (and for my preference) they are a great fit.  I think what I appreciate the most about TEAMeffort is that they keep their camps small.  I’ve never been at a team effort site where there were more than 50 or so people and they always have four staff people.  What this means is that they can prioritize your group and provide support.  Most notably, I’ve never been left on a job site without a TEAMeffort staff person there working beside us or at least in the very close area.  This is a great help in making your time on the job site effective.
  • Work with organizations that partner with other organizations in the community – The first mission trip I went on we did a VBS by ourself – no connection to any community church, and that bothered me.  We didn’t help build up any lasting connection so largely our work was in vain.    TEAMeffort is great at this.  This summer when we were in DC we did homeless ministry but it wasn’t random.  We met up with an representatives from an organization that works with Washington’s homeless population year around.  We were supporting on-going ministries rather than starting from scratch and I think for short-term mission trips this is essential.  In the same way we worked at a VBS program sponsored by a local church and the goal was to build connections between members of the community and this church.  The Pittsburgh Project is an community organization in and of itself.
  • Theologically narrate the experience – one of the things I am steadfast about is every evening on both my Jr. and Sr. High trips we meet as a group and talk about what we are experiencing and learning.  The main reason for this is to keep focused on Christ and what he has called us to do.
  • Keep the focus on Christ – One of the things that happens on mission trip is they become about personal stuff rather than Christian service.  Whether it be pranks, flirting, fun and games, etc.  Now I can’t say my kids are perfect in this department – but I try my best not to encourage that type of behavior and to deal with it quickly when it occurs.  As an example, last year I had a few individuals make some poor choices on a mission trip.  Those individuals were not allowed to come this year and most likely will never go on another mission trip again.  While that statement may sound harsh (and it is) when participants make choices that demonstrate that they are going on a trip for the wrong reasons they must be removed and not allowed to participate again until they demonstrate that they understand their mistakes and have earned another chance.
    • One clarifier – I am not saying that mission trips shouldn’t be fun or that kids shouldn’t be allowed to have fun.  In the Bahamas, we spent two days on the beach once our work was done.  In New Orleans we visited the French Quarter and went dancing.  In DC we visited the monuments and museums.  And yes – I let me kids play four square, cards, go swimming, etc. on all my trips.  My point is that these things aren’t the point.
  • These trips are more a communal pilgrimage than a “mission trip”.  Part of the problem here is that definition of a mission trip is a moving target in and of itself, but these type of youth mission trips in many ways are more about the individuals who go.  That might sound selfish but let’s be honest – if we took the money we raise and spend to go on these trips and (1) gave it to trained contractors (2) send it directly to the organizations more “work” would get done.  But there’s a value in these trips for the individuals and the group.
    • For the individuals, mission trips offer a different perspective and different opportunities than they normally have.  For a week, they live life differently than they do the rest of the time and this gives them a chance to learn and in my experience – be attentive to the Spirit in ways they aren’t normally.  I think this is really important, especially for suburban kids who develop stereotypes about everyone who doesn’t look and live just like them.
    • For the group, these trips allow them to do “life together” which is so crucial for adolescents in gaining a sense of belonging within the Christian community.  As an example – there is a girl in my group whose parents make church a priority.  She and her brother are there every Sunday and faithfully attend Sunday school.  But, she definitely did not feel a sense of belonging.  Then she went on last year’s mission trip.  This year – a totally different story as she attended youth group every week, went on retreats and special events, etc.  That trip enabled her to develop the connections to other individuals in the group that she needed in order to feel like she belongs.
  • Mission trips allow students and adults to establish relationships.  Non-parental adult relationships are crucial in adolescent faith development, in particular for establishing the sense of belonging that is so critical.  Mission trips allow students and adults to spend time together and establish the trust between them that allow these relationships to build over time.
So, the long and short of it is this – while short-term mission trips do have huge potential downsides, they also present huge opportunities for the Kingdom if done well.
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Categories: Main, Mission, Youth Ministry