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Do Short-Term Mission Trips Do More Damage Than Good?

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.

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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.

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 on a mission trip years ago. He wrote: “In 1983 we took six of our youth on a trip 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 trip 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, mission trips 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%)

Looking to partner with Group to bring a youth mission experience? We’re looking for volunteers, churches, and co-sponsors to join us all across North America for 2018, 2019, and beyond.

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.

5 thoughts on “Do Short-Term Mission Trips Do More Damage Than Good?

  1. I take my 9-12 grade students every year on a stmt to Mexico… However the trips are not just a humanitarian effort.. We go and spread the gosple every time we go… I love them!

    • Rick Lawrence

      Rodney, thanks for weighing in—sometimes the impact you observe simply overwhelms theoretical critiques…

  2. Ray Carter - Rice and Beans Ministries

    Thank you for this article. We host short term mission teams all year long in Costa Rica. Many of them youth groups. We see the changes being on mission make in the lives of those that serve and those being served. I wish all of our youth would have a chance and serving in a missions setting before they graduate so they can see how the rest of the world lives with hands on experience.

  3. Thank you for this – I receive and host many groups to a large orphanage in Baja – 280 groups last year alone. We see them a hugely beneficial for all involved. I’ve never met anyone in long-term missions who didn’t start out in short-term missions.

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Do Short-Term Mission Trips Do More D...

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