the myth of the present day “mission” trip

As many of you know, I was on yet another short term mission trip with my youth group in early July.  I have already shared my thoughts and feelings about the need to shift from mission trips to being missionalFrom Missions to Missional

 In many real and tangible ways our group has been able to do that throughout the year, for which I am very proud and content.  Yet, there I was again partnering with a renowned short term mission trip organization.  I will start off by saying that God always shows up and works in wonderful ways on these trips.  My students had a great time, served others with abandon and joy, and truly connected on deeper levels with God and with each other.  In many ways the trip was a huge success and exceeded my expectations.  I just don’t think it was because of the “expert” organization in charge.  I also don’t think we were doing a great job of “mission” work if the truth be told.

First of all, these trips are getting more and more expensive (even if you don’t have to fly somewhere).  However, I am still unsure as to where all of the money goes. Between the 3 youth groups in our area, we brought down just about 50 individuals at $395 per person (and that was the lowest end of a trip with this organization).  So, roughly $20,000 of our hard earned money to to this “mission trip”.  Factoring food costs, housing expenses, and construction materials, I believe the actual cost per person is much closer to $250 max.  And we are not staying in a luxury hotel or eating zaggat rated food by any stretch of the imagination.  That leaves around $8,000 going somewhere, and I don’t think it went back to the community we were serving.  My guess is that all the extra money goes back to the mother ship to help pay for their costs.  Understandable? Yes.

 A great use of our money?  Not sure.  

Helping the community we went to serve?  Nope.

I know that large organizations have large overhead costs (just like churches). I am sure people don’t really want their tithe money going towards the gas bill or to fix the broken AC unit.  But those people need to trust in the leadership and integrity of the church or they can simply give their money somewhere else.  As youth leaders, we have that same choice.  I suppose if I would rather see the extra $8,000 going into an actual city or work project, I could always plan my own trip.

 Here is an option:  In this tough economy, work with some churches or community centers in a particular area to put together your own mission trip.  Plan it the way you want.  Save money where you can.  You could either do a week-long trip for under $300 or less, or still charge the same, but make sure that the extra thousands of dollars goes directly to the church, organization, project, or families you are serving.  Now, there’s an idea for you!

Just a few more thoughts and reflections.

A good amount of our trip was spent doing some mundane work projects. We painted stairwells, cleaned and repainted an old garage, and stripped and repainted a fence. Now I have no problem with work projects. In fact, in many ways they visibly demonstrate the selflessness of the message of Jesus and allow all types of students to participate.

 One night during our group reflection time, one particular student questioned why we were doing a particular work project.  A local denomination had their headquarters in the same facility that we were staying and they wanted us to clean and repaint their fence that was probably under ten years old.  This was a massive project that took the entire week and ate up many hours of labor.    IMG_0650

This one student made a few keen observations:

1) the denomination probably had the money to hire people to do that job

2) did a newly painted fence really contribute to their ministry?  (basically asking if their ministry would still operated without it)

3) What about all of the poverty we see around the city and down the roads.  Couldn’t we do something to help some families in need?

He brought up some great questions to which the other students promptly responded with something along these lines… “We are to be faithful in the small things and work as unto the Lord.  Picture yourself painting the fence for Jesus and that will help change your perspective.”

They meant really well and were correct in their Biblical and theological interpretation.  I get it.

But I also understood his questions and frustrations.

What exactly were we doing there in Newark, NJ?  

What lasting impact would we have on the poor and lonely; the forgotten?

Was our time, effort, and money being well spent for the blessing of that community?

Were we truly operating out of a “mission” mindset?

One more impression.  

As typical with this particular organization, “evangelism” plays a key role.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I truly believe people need Jesus and we are to play a role in that.  I am just not sure about the approach.  Usually we have gone around door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but this week we did “gospel magic”.  I am not kidding, that was actually the name of it.  Our students would roam the park looking for kids and asking if they liked magic.  Sounds a bit creepy to me.  One guy actually texted me “Dude, I totally feel like a child stalker right now!”

The point was to gather children around to perform a magic show, all of the tricks illustrating a truth about the gospel.  Now, i do not question people motives or intentions so I believe it was done for the right reasons and with sincerity and passion.  But talk about a “rope them in and trick them with preaching” tactic of evangelism.  These kids had no idea what they were sitting down for.  But besides that, the children really did seem to enjoy the show and many of them understood the message, but I was still left wondering about the follow up that would occur. Kids were encouraged to raise their hands to accept Jesus and naturally once one kid raising their hand they all do.  So they say a prayer and then we all go home thoroughly convinced of their eternal salvation.  What happens next?  Is there any discipleship, support, church, fellowship, etc…?

At one meeting it was proudly announced that 8 kids “trusted in Christ today”.  How do you know that?  Because they raised their hands?  Isn’t trusting someone a big and lengthier process?  Doesn’t it implicate and involve the deepening and maturing of the relationship?

I also wondered what we were teaching our students about evangelism?  Perhaps in certain cultural contexts it may “work” to go to a park and perform. And by “work”, the assumed goal is to get a high number of hand raisers.  But how will my students related that approach and method to back home.  I don’t want them doing that in our local parks.  I would rather teach them a lifestyle approach to sharing their faith and the importance of developing meaningful friendships.  Sometimes these mission trips reinforce just the opposite. 

Ok, perhaps I am sounding cynical and I don’t mean to, it’s just that I have seen this all before.  It seems to me that many “mission trips” are more about us feeling good about ourselves than about actually helping others long term.   These trips more resemble discipleship trips than missions trips.  More often that not, we are blessed probably more than we were a blessing.  Now, that is not a bad thing, but let’s call a spade and spade and call these trips what they really are.

My students learned valuable lessons; they grew closer to God; they connected deeper with one another; they experienced service at a high level even with little recognition.  I saw my students at their very best during the week and for that I am truly thankful.

But i will continue to flash back to that question: “What exactly are we doing here for these people in the city”.  “Where is our money actually going?”

I wonder if a new kind of youth mission may involve skipping the middle man (organization) and working directly with churches or other organizations embedded in a particular community; using that connection to build and develop relationships with individuals and families in need.  That way, true authentic relationships could be built and the love of Christ demonstrated in more ways than a magic show.  And wouldn’t it be great to know that every dollar raised was well spent to allow us to make a difference and invest in a community!   I think that if you spend $2,000 to fly to some distant land and visit orphanages and churches, I would only hope that you leave those places far better off financially then before you arrived.   If we have the money to spend on ourselves traveling around the world to see new sites, we certainly can and should use at least a portion of it to bless those in need and not just ourselves.  Let’s not build up our travel resumes at the expense of building up a community in need. 

But I also realize that once you are on a train (especially if its powerful and fast) it is hard to get off.  Jumping off the mission organization train may be difficult, but it may also be the most exciting and rewarding jump of your life.

Granted, there are some mission organization that specialize in certain aspects (such as medial, construction, home repair, teaching) but many attempt to offer students a wide variety of “mission” activities in order to broaden their perspective and perhaps see if some are called or equipped to those various aspects. These may include construction, children’s  ministry, teaching, evangelism, prayer, etc..

But perhaps by trying to offer to many views or pieces of missions, the whole pie is tainted.  think about a car company that specializes in sports car. they do it well but feel that other people may want an SUV or minivan. so the company expands their operations and then starts making all sorts of cars.  after a while, they have lost their primary identity, and quite possibly none of their cars are as good as they could or should be

if you can’t do everything well, should you still try?

Let me end by saying this.  

If your program is young or you are inexperienced in “missions”, these organizations can be a great starting place to get your feet wet.  They offer an easy way to bring a group of students and experience the whole gamut of “missions”.  However, if you have prior experiences, you may already have  3 important things (confidence, competence, and connections) that may open the door for you to branch out and do your own thing.  These mission trips groups have their place, don’t get me wrong and are valuable and necessary, but I also think they may not be for everyone. I believe that these kind of mission trips should not be the end goal we have in mind.

Like the parable of the talents  Matthew 25:14-30

At the end of the day, we want to be able to say that we used what God gave us in the best possible way to bless all the nations and increase his kingdom here on earth; to bring healing, renewal, restoration, and salvation, and hope to those in need.

At least do me a favor.

Think critically before, during, and after your next “mission” trip and take the time to evaluate.  God may be leading you to bring change and transformation.   I am still learning, reflecting, thinking, and changing. It has taken me over 7 years and 15 “mission” trips to reach many of these conclusions, and I am still unsure as to the end result.

But I sincerely hope that whatever we decide and wherever we choose to go, we will do our best to fulfill God’s mission to the world and be a blessing to those we are sent and not only to ourselves.

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10 thoughts on “the myth of the present day “mission” trip

  1. I found this to be a very interesting and insightful post. However, the sheer depth of the difference of mission trip opportunities, and the wide range of purposes behind different church mission trips makes it difficult to generalize. I have experienced most of the concerns you expressed at one time or another, but usually not all on the same missions trip.
    We served this summer with Center for Student Missions Los Angeles (our third time to do this in 10 years). There were no mundane, does-this-matter work projects (but I’ve had those before). I do wonder where the money went. CSM is on the high side of mission trip organizations. And I think nutrition could have been MUCH better.
    However, CSM did offer me something I could not do myself by giving me a city host who facilitated everything. I was free to be with my youth instead of sweating details. That is priceless.
    And yes, it is true that mission trips are more for our youth than for the people they serve. That has probably always been true, but people don’t want to admit it. But it is part of my discipleship process with my youth. I know it is more about what they experience and learn than what they leave behind. And I think that’s OK as long as you don’t kid yourself about it.

  2. I really appreciate these thoughts. I leave with my group in a week for a week long trip that we’re doing. We’ll choose a random direction and distance and go. Once there, we’ll spend a good deal of time praying and just “looking around” to see what doors God might open to serve that particular community.

    One of the motivating factors has been the efficiency with resources. We’ll be camping and eating cheaply, so most of the money we use will go directly to help the people we’re serving. Beyond that, I’m excited to see our kids discover themselves serving in settings that are not entirely different from their own day to day… then coming home with the same open eyes, looking for ways to serve.

  3. What you’ve said makes a lot of sense. There does seem to be a lot of extra cost that does not directly influence the community that we go to serve while participating on a missions trip. So where does it go? I understand that these organizations need finances to support what they do and their staff, but at least state that up front rather than hiding that behind the alleged “cost of the trip”. Or, find other sponsors who can financially support the organization outside of the groups that get involved so that it can help youth groups defray the cost of their “missions trip”.

    One idea that I have heard about recently from a few different sources is to “adopt one community”. The youth group will adopt one foreign village or area and then travel back to that region every year. Now I understand some do not like this idea, myself included, because you do not get the neat experience of traveling to a new exotic location each year, but is traveling really the point? Just think of the relationships you could form by returning to visit the same people each year. At the end of each trip, we always promise that we will pray for those we have met, but how long does that honestly last? A week at best. Maybe. Instead, think about adopting a village and committing to praying for them with the intent of returning to help and disciple them the following year. Much more of a missional mindset.

    One more thought. Should missions be a once a year thing. Yeah, probably not. We should be more involved throughout the year in doing missions work. Find local ministries and partner with them. Maybe take a week in the summer and instead of traveling to a different country, work with that area for a week. The people you meet would be in your back yard and you could maintain relationships with them throughout the entire year! Talk about having an impact!

    With both ideas, you get to see first hand where your money and time are going. A concern we all should share as we are responsible with how we invest our time and finances our ministries provide for us.

    Great thoughts and insights Dave. I like the idea of adopting a community. I agree that traveling can be the exciting aspect of missions, but is that the point? Hopefully a healthy balance can be found between pursuing our passions and staying true to God’s calling and being missional.

  4. Hey Dan…

    Funny, I bet you didn’t get a trip evaluation either? I think the “big” mission group models are effective… Just not in the GOOD ‘OL USofA… Especially not the northeast… What i think we pay for with the “big” guns is name and reputation which puts parents at ease and makes our lives much easier. GREAT point and will require a second in not thrid read to really get them all! Your the man!

    Grace and Peace.

  5. Great questions, good insights. I’m glad you are starting this conversation.

    In the mid-80’s I started a STM organization that annually sent 1000 people to 27 countries. Some of the questions you’ve raised are ones that we’ve struggled with for decades. There is always this uncomfortable balance that has to be found on a mission trip, especially with youth groups. We make mistakes in finding that balance, but we learn and grow. I can say that the programs we offer today are infinitely better than the ones we offered 25-years ago.

    The bottom line is that you need to find an organization that fits the culture and style of your leadership. There needs to be clear communication about the goals of the trip, and who is being served by the activities you are involved with (is it the people in the country you are visiting, or your youth group?). A good STM organization should help you walk through that issue and develop an excellent program that fits.

    Ultimately, we’ve found it is more intrusive to send youth groups off to do menial labor and “outreach” than it is helpful. A better approach is to use these trips to build relationships between the hosts and the North American visitors. Our method is to see the trip as a learning experience for the North Americans (not a “paint a wall” service trip), which in turn leads to spiritual transformation. But in turn, the hosts build relationships with North Americans, and both benefit from that.

    Just my two cents.

    Roy

  6. Great thoughts. I think you have faithfully articulated the challenges with youth “mission” trips and expert organizations as well the benefits for working with a partner organization.

    Your really struck a cord with me when you wrote, “Let’s not build up our travel resumes at the expense of building up a community in need” I struggle with offering meaningful Kingdom advancing missional opportunities with youth while still using the ‘local’ as an attractional piece to engage youth who would not otherwise consider serving.

    Thanks for this engaging post, Iook forward to re-reading it again.

  7. I found this great in the pages of Deep Justice in A Broken World by Chap Clark.
    “Following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Kurt Ver Beek and his team conducted interviews with members of short-term mission teams and those in the Honduran communities they visited. They asked the 40 Hondurans who received homes from the short-termers if they would prefer to have North Americans come and build the home or be given the $20,000 the short-term groups raised to cover the expense of their trip- an amount that would have enabled the Hondurans to build not just one home but ten.
    While the Hondurans appreciated the chance to build relationships with North Americans, they often said they would rather have the financial resources so they could help more families and employ more Hondurans. One Honduran leader answered, “they gather money to come here to do work that we are capable of doing.”

  8. There is always the creeping danger that even our servanthood is a subtle form of manipulation. Are we really servants when we can become masters again once we think we have done our part or made our contribution?
    Are we really servants when we can say when, where, and how long we will give of our time and energy?
    Is service in a far country really an expression of servanthood when we keep enough money in the bank to fly home at any moment?
    -Donald P. McNeill and Henri Nouwen, Compassion

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