Over the last decade there’s been A LOT of smack-talk about short-term mission trips (STMT’s)—in the youth ministry community, it’s intellectually fashionable to question their purpose, long-term impact, and even their moral foundation. The problem with short-term mission trips or service projects, according to critics, is that they function like a vaccine. Give kids a little taste of a cross-cultural service experience that’s not tied to their everyday life and you “inoculate” them against a lifestyle of outreach. Even more, say the loud voices arrayed in opposition to STMT’s, the idea that these service opportunities are framed as “growth experiences” for kids rather than legitimate and valuable service to needy communities is morally suspect.
Now, I think vigorous debate around the “conventional wisdoms” of youth ministry is a good thing. But I also think critics of STMT’s are, to cliché-ify it, “cutting off their nose to spite their face.” I mean, if our standard for generosity and service requires motivational purity, a lot of people who need help are not going to get it. Jesus never made the purity of His disciples’ motivations for following Him a prerequisite—instead, He shrewdly met them each at their “motivational foundation” and leveraged them forward into a Kingdom mentality.
So, is it okay to take kids on short-term mission trips if our primary goal is to fuel their spiritual growth? First, plunging teenagers into real-life experiences where they’re challenged to both live and articulate their faith is basically a youth pastor’s job description—of course STMT’s are a legitimate focus for youth ministry! Second, only those receiving our gift of service should have a vote on whether it had an impact on them. If an elderly widow gets her leaky roof fixed, that’s “worth it” to her.
Of course, I come from a biased viewpoint: Around here, domestic mission trips are more than a great youth ministry strategy—they’re at the core of our DNA. Almost 40 years ago, a sudden thunderstorm fueled a catastrophic flood that barreled down the narrow canyon of the Big Thompson river, just west of our headquarters in Loveland, Colorado. The flood killed 144 people and wiped out dozens of homes in the canyon. Group’s tiny volunteer editorial staff put out a call for help, and more than 300 teenagers and their adult youth leaders showed up to help begin the rebuilding process in the canyon. That emergency gathering turned into a four-decade outreach program called Group Mission Trips.
The Case for STMT’s
We know from years and years of down-and-dirty experience that short-term missions are huge life-changers—for both students and the people they serve. Not long ago we got a letter from James Taylor, who’d taken his youth group kids to one of our Workcamps 40 years ago. He wrote: “In 1983 we took six of our youth on a Group Workcamp to Boone, North Carolina. It transformed their lives. Today, 20 years later, all six are either in full-time ministry, youth ministry, or married to a minister, and one is a missionary. They still talk about how that one camp changed their lives forever.” Taylor’s story meshes well with our experiential reality—nothing in our arsenal of activities generates as much long-term spiritual and relational growth in kids as a short-term missions trip. And these anecdotal “evidences” are bolstered by broad-ranging research. For example:
• “Opportunities for service and missions” is one of the top three reasons why students stay involved in their church or youth group. According to our massive survey of more than 23,000 Christian teenagers, the top reasons why they maintain their connection to church include: 1) The friendships I have at church (57%), 2) Opportunities to grow deeper in my relationship with God (43%), and 3) Opportunities for service and missions (39%).
• Teenagers say they want more, not less, opportunities to serve. When we gave thousands of Christian teenagers all over the country a list of 40 “common” youth ministry activities and asked them to tell us which ones they’d like to do more often, and which ones they’d like to do less often, “Workcamps” was the fourth-highest-scoring “more often” choice (at 87%), just behind “learning more about Jesus” (91%), “games and fun activities (89%), and “relaxed hang-out time” (88%).
• The benefits students say they experience from serving others in short-term settings are astonishing, including:
• Made me feel closer to God. (82%)
• Made me feel better about who I am. (80%)
• Created new and valuable friendships in my life. (74%)
• Increased my compassion for people in need. (70%)
• Made me more likely to serve others in my everyday life. (69%)
• Showed me I can make a significant impact on the world. (68%)
• Deepened my relationships with existing friends. (66%)
• Made me less self-focused and more others-focused. (62%)
• Developed leadership abilities in me. (61%)
• Humbled me. (60%)
• Made me more confident as a person. (60%)
• Permanently changed the way I think about “what I deserve” in life. (55%)
• Taught me to rely on God’s guidance in my life (55%)
• Helped me make deeper relationship connections with other adults. (52%)
• Helped me to actually share my faith in Christ with more people. (50%)
• Made me pray more than I did before. (50%)
• Helped me understand better what “the good news of Jesus” is really all about. (40%)
• Pushed me to my limits as a person. (38%)
• Helped my relationship with my parents to grow and get better. (26%)
The Gold Nugget Buried In the Criticisms
As a trusted catalyst for changing your teenagers’ lives, nothing can out-do a short-term missions trip—that’s a big reason why almost all youth leaders say they’re considering taking their group on a domestic missions trip this year. Researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion found that almost a third (29 percent) of all 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. have gone on a missions or religious service trip—that’s an astonishing 5.5 million teenagers. But, of course, buried inside the critiques of STMT’s is a legitimate challenge—it’s important to work harder to connect the “going” experience to students’ everyday life. We need a much-sharper focus on preparation and debriefing for teenagers heading on a missions trip. For help in this imperative, go to GroupMissionTrips.com and click on “Post-Camp Resources” at the bottom of the page, or visit TheNextMile.org for additional resources. Also see the previous Group Magazine article, “The Not-so Hidden Power of Service“, for additional reference.