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The Dirty Little Secret About Mission Trips

A longtime youth leader questions the real impact of short-term service that’s divorced from an everyday commitment to mission in kids’ lives, and offers a four-pronged strategy for hooking them into a servant lifestyle

Just when you’re all geared up for another summer mission trip, I’m about to throw a rock in your pond. I think the evidence shows our typical approach to mission trips is backward, and that’s why we’re often not getting the lasting impact we expect from them. What’s more, they can actually hurt our ministry to teenagers by inoculating them to an everyday life of mission and service.

Do our young people return from a mission trip feeling as though they’ve “done” missions? In other words, do they mentally check off missions from their list of “good works” and move on? Is the trip akin to a pill that fills their recommended daily mission allowance?

If so, it’s likely we’re treating mission trips as just another stand-alone program we throw into our summer youth ministry mix. That’s why our kids stand up in church and talk about lasting change after the trip, then return to their pre-trip life patterns soon after the afterglow fades. I think two culprits are to blame:

Problem #1—We compartmentalize mission. Postmodern young people are notorious for their ability to adapt their values to various settings. And they’re adept at adopting parts of systems without integrating the whole of it into their lives. That means they can easily compartmentalize mission in their lives. If we don’t teach it to them as an everyday lifestyle, they’ll never catch it.

Problem #2—We frame mission as doing rather than being. Most youth workers treat mission as something we do, and it’s not. Mission is something we become. Everything else is just fabrication. We can’t tack on a mission trip to our program because it’s the right thing to do and expect teenagers to walk away changed. If we believe that mission is a lifestyle, then it should be the focus of our community year-round—not just for two weeks in the summer.

And maybe that’s the problem. Many of us don’t functionally believe that Christ’s mission to seek and save “lost sheep” is central to the Christian life. We’ve met the enemy, and it’s us.

Christ calls us to be like him. As we become more like him, we become people who are all about mission because he is all about mission. Everything else is fluff—the stuff we’ve tried to pass off as the real thing is more like halfhearted legalistic piety.

So how do you move your kids from fluff to the real stuff?

Your kids’ first mission trip is often the first time they experience life the way Christ meant for them to live. They escape the invisible cultural chains that keep them from true Christlikeness and launch themselves into risk and adventure on his behalf. Yet we often use mission trips as a “youth group fixer”—we hope our teenagers’ exposure to service will salt them with a little character, morality, and depth. We use them as ballast for our fun-laden programs.

Contrast this approach to one that treats mission as the natural expression of our worship—the urgent outcome of our everyday commitment to Christ. Instead of teaching kids Christlikeness, we’ve taught them that service is a good thing to do whether or not they’re spiritually prepared for it. The result has been shallow service and mission-trip tourism. If I hear one more teenager stand up in church after a mission trip and say, “These people had so little, and now I’m so thankful for all that I have” I think I’m going to puke. But what else would they say? They’ve experienced mission and service in isolation, separate from real life, and separate from worship. It’s past time for us to rethink our goals concerning missions—these are starting points.

Involve yourself and your teenagers in Group’s upcoming camp experiences. Click here for more information, or you can call us at 800-385-4545. We’d love to talk!

1. Rethinking our integrity: It must start with me.

The transforming change we’re hoping to see in our teenagers must first be modeled in our lives. If we catch it, our kids will catch it. And our job will actually get easier—we won’t have to teach them about mission because our
mission-minded lives will model it for them.

This involves a dead-serious integrity check. Are we people who engage the world as it really is, then invite the Holy Spirit to use that experience to change us? If we don’t, our missions involvement is a charade.

When teenagers see their youth leader return from a Costa Rican mission trip and decide to stop buying bananas because he’s looked in the eyes of exploited banana plantation workers, they learn that mission is a lifestyle, not a trip. The converse is also true. If they see no lasting changes in us, we’re unlikely to see lasting changes in them.

Youth workers who want to see their groups really capture the heart of mission would begin by learning about the world and its needs. They’d pull out an atlas and start praying for the nations. They’d find information on global mission strategy from the U.S. Center for World Mission’s Mission Frontiers magazine or Web site ( They’d spur their own growth by reading books such as Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Word Books) before they tried to teach kids about mission. They’d volunteer at a local community center, thrift store, or shelter by themselves before they ever took their group on a mission experience.

2. Rethinking our investment: What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

You can plunge your kids into missions the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to find an organization, put the date on the calendar, and start raising money. In advance of the trip, you do little or no mission-as-life preparation with your kids. And you have no plans to do any local mission work after the trip is over. You bounce your teenagers from trip to trip and hope something sticks.

The hard way involves investment. Like planting a seed, you know the more you invest in your kids’ mission development, the more chance you have for growth, fruit, and harvest. What does that investment require?

It means redesigning your focus on Bible-learning to make it more outward focused. It means rethinking your fund-raising projects so they become more than just a way to get money. You’d turn them into opportunities to involve the whole church community in worshiping Christ through mission. It means trading the time you spend on some fun activities to create space for smaller local outreach projects. When you plan your ministry calendar, it means you make sure every activity is somehow connected to Christ’s mission in the world. It means evaluating your choices based on what they teach about a mission lifestyle—that may mean dropping the ski trip to make room for a weekend at a soup kitchen.

I know one youth group that combined the two. On their “ski and serve” trip they enjoyed the slopes in the Colorado Rockies then spent two days serving the homeless in Denver. The group learned that fun and service are not mutually exclusive. Some even said their service experience was far more fun than the skiing.

3. Rethinking the duration: Tourist missions get old after a while.

The longer we expose our young people to real-life service that demands real-life relationship-building, the more likely they are to catch God’s heart for people. What’s the difference between a snapshot and a movie? Time. Our kids need a full-length-movie mission experience, but we continue to give them the equivalent of mission snapshots that are destined for their scrapbooks. They think they know about people with real needs—but they only know them as tourists know them.

Some postmodern young people are awake to the difference between a snapshot and a movie and are joining groups that offer longer experiences. They’re getting involved in urban relationship-building through groups such as Mission Year1, or spending six months experiencing international missions in a Youth With A Mission six-month Discipleship Training School, or committing themselves to a year of discipleship training and service with Teen Mania.

The longer duration appeals to them because they realize real life and real relationships take time. They’re not looking for a quick fix. And we can scratch that same itch right here at home, in our own communities, all year round. Consider creating a local “ministries of service” focus for your group. An ongoing local ministry will help your kids move from a fabricated experience (where we feel good about ourselves and serving), to real-life relationships with the people we serve.

Dave Curtiss, a veteran youth worker who’s now a senior pastor, saw this approach transform his youth group. He took his teenagers to a local homeless shelter and told the director: “We’re here to do anything you want us to do. If you want us to stock the shelves in the food pantry we’ll stock shelves. If you want us to clean toilets, then we’ll clean toilets.” The shelter director replied: “Well, we could have you sweep some….But can I be honest? We really don’t need you to do any of those things. What we really need is some people who would be willing to come here regularly and help some of the homeless men fill out forms for employment. For some of them, their reading and language skills are so poor that they can’t get a job because they can’t fill out the forms or applications for employment.”

At that point something wonderfully worshipful happened. The youth group took over. Kids started talking about what they could do long term. They decided to serve by teaching English grammar and reading to homeless men every Tuesday for the next year. They had meetings. Parents got involved (they had to because they now were required to drop off and pick up their teenagers every week at the shelter). After much planning, they set up a weekly Job Skill Tutorial program. Curtiss just sat back and watched as their one-day service project turned into an ongoing ministry.

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.

4. Rethinking our approach: Move kids from activity to worship.

This one should be obvious by now. We need to stop looking for shortcuts to real-life service and transformation. Our approach should teach kids that mission is a part of worship, not something we do on a break.

One simple way to begin this journey is by integrating a mission-minded focus into your worship times. Add worship songs that get kids singing about reaching the nations for Christ.5 When the group prays, toss out a prayer request like: “Tonight I’d like us to pray for Somali refugees who have gone into Ethiopia, for their safety and that God would send someone to share the hope of Christ with them.” Ask yourself how each activity can be a building block to creating a missions lifestyle in your young people. Real life is about mission, and mission is the best way to express our real-life worship.

Bo Cassell is a veteran youth minister who’s the director of Youth in Mission for NYI Ministries in Missouri.

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The Dirty Little Secret About Mission...

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