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.
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.