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Why do we go on youth mission trips?

For me the answer is simple. It works. Teenagers serve others, and, in the process, those young people grow closer to God. I’ve never seen anything like mission trips for helping young people figure out what being a Christian is all about. What could be wrong with that?

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Christian leaders and scholars raise objections about the value of youth mission trips. These thoughtful people have concerns about short term mission trips not accomplishing much for the people served and not changing teenagers’ lives to any degree. They’re concerned about how much money is spent on youth mission trips. And they have lots of examples of bad things that have happened on youth mission trips—like young people saying insensitive things to people in another culture.

It’s good to consider these concerns. Youth mission trips do cost money. But in my experience as a youth pastor it was always money well-spent. I’d challenge the idea that youth aren’t changed by the experience (Many of my kids sure have been.). And I’d challenge the idea that the service done on these trips isn’t that valuable. The fact that critics can point to a few examples where youth mission trips were done poorly doesn’t mean all youth mission trips (or even most of them) are done poorly.

But a big concern for some critics of youth mission trips is their belief that there’s no biblical basis for them. In fact, most critics of youth mission trips I’ve heard use the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) as the basis for all missions—including short-term missions. Since many short-term missions don’t seem to measure up to Jesus’ command in the Great Commission ("Go and make disciples…"), some people believe youth mission trips are unbiblical.

Because of the Great Commission, some people hold that genuine mission trips will have the following elements. If you don’t have them, critics believe you’re not doing missions like Jesus commanded:

  1. The trip will be international or at least cross-cultural.
  2. Evangelism will be at the core of what you do, regardless of what other service you do.
  3. The value of the experience will be measured on the results of your service, not on how it impacts the people who serve.

While I believe the above criteria have value, I would disagree that these criteria are the only way to measure whether or not the trip you’re taking with teenagers is acceptable to God. Sometimes I feel the issue is a question of semantics.

Where I work — Group Workcamps Foundation — we’ve traditionally referred to our service experiences as "Workcamps." (In the last three years we’ve expanded to different types of experiences, so some are now called "Weeks of Hope," and some are called "Service Expeditions.") For thirty years now, we’ve viewed the experiences we provided as ways for teenagers to do meaningful service for people in need. And, in the process, we’ve seen thousands of teenagers grow closer to God through the spiritual content we’ve provided.

But, over the years, more and more churches have taken to calling these experiences "mission trips." That seems fine to me, even if some aren’t cross-cultural experiences, aren’t focused on direct evangelism, and are designed to help the people doing the service grow closer to God as they serve.

So maybe the concerns would disappear if we didn’t use the term "mission trip."

Whatever you call these powerful trips where we take young people to serve others, they have tremendous value to everyone. Jesus explained why.

Jesus mentioned service to others as a way to be his disciple at other times besides the Great Commission. The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is one example (John 13:1-17).

Before his arrest and crucifixion, John says Jesus got up from their meal, took a bowl of water and a towel, and washed the feet of his disciples. This would have been odd for the head of the table to do such a lowly task typically performed by servants. Peter’s response reflects this (John 13:6-10).

Afterward, Jesus spent time reflecting with his disciples on what had just happened, and it was clear Jesus didn’t wash their feet merely for sanitation reasons…he did it as an example. An example of what he expected his disciples to do: "I did this as an example so that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15).

In other words, if you want to follow Jesus, you’ll be a servant. Like he was.

Now, if you’ve ever participated in a foot washing service at church, you know it’s quite humbling. It’s gross to wash someone’s feet—even feet that are already clean. (In my experience, a good way to get people NOT to come to church on the Thursday before Easter was to make it a foot washing service…and announce it ahead of time. In fact, we’ve done foot washing experiences in our programs at our camps, and there was no end to the complaints we got from teenagers.)

It’s one thing to talk about foot washing, but it’s another thing altogether to do it.

It’s clear to me that Jesus was using the opportunity to wash his disciples’ feet to talk about the larger call to service. I don’t believe Jesus literally wants us to go around actually washing people’s feet to show our love for him. No, washing feet is metaphorical for the attitude of service Jesus calls us to.

This is what youth mission trips help teenagers to do. They’re not just talking about service (washing feet or otherwise), they’re actually doing it. And in the process of doing it, they experience what Jesus told his disciples when he washed their feet: "If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them" (John 13:17.) And not only does service bring joy, it brings about a special kind of joy I’ve only known as I’ve served in Christ’s name.

Nothing mentioned there about evangelism, important as it is. Nothing mentioned about cross-cultural or international, important as they are. Just serving others.

I’m grateful to those who point out flaws in how mission trips are conducted. It helps providers and youth ministers do a better job. We all have room to learn and grow.

I concede that short-term youth mission trips don’t accomplish what full time missionaries accomplish—especially in the area of evangelism. But that doesn’t mean these trips fall short of Jesus’ ideal of what his followers—even his teenage followers—should be doing.

I’m still convinced that youth mission trips are the most effective way to help teenagers develop a powerful relationship with Jesus. And I’m confident we’re living as faithful disciples when we take kids on them.

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