I’ll admit. Life has gotten away from me in the last two weeks and all my great intentions for the new series have been put on the back burner. One of the main reasons why life has gotten away from me is the final preparations for a group of 48 campers leaving from Okoboji bright and early tomorrow morning for our annual Travel Camp program.
Travel Camp is a program which sees its participants going to a different location each year (this year they are headed to Vermont). They travel on a coach bus, experience a mix of historic and cultural highlights, and generally form a unique community while they travel. Each day they will start out with morning devotionals and are encouraged to take advantage of the hours on the bus and evenings at the hotel to get to know each other and share their stories. Each year they come back having had a great time and for several of our travel campers, it is much less about the destination as they have come to value the journey so such a great degree.
This has gotten me thinking about significant and memorable trips I have taken in my life. There are a couple of summer vacations where my mom and her sister packed up the kids and headed out on an adventure. Those trips are packed with memories of making the best of less than ideal situations (such as carsickness or hotels that were not what the advertised), inside jokes (such as the time mom tried to sneak some fudge in while driving and ended up trying to eat a souvenir instead), and underappreciating the cultural experiences our parents were trying to expose us to (like being bored with Yellowstone and all the trees we had to drive through).
During my teen years, I went on lots of youth retreats with my youth group. The pretty much always required a road trip where my fellow travelers and I would finally let our guards down a bit and start to be real with other. I don’t remember much of anything about the main speakers or the sessions or the themes. I do remember the group games which made me feel like I had something to contribute and the late nights in our cabins just having the chance to hang out with the kids in my youth group. We always took a group photo on those retreats and then our youth leaders would have it blown up into poster size and used to decorate the walls of our youth room. When I was having one of the all-too-common days where I didn’t feel like I belonged with the kids in my youth group, I would look at those pictures, know that I was part of that weekend, and feel a little less out of place.
Perhaps some of the most significant trips I have been part of are short term mission trips. My first one was when I was in college when I spent my spring break serving in inner-city Chicago with 7 other students. While it did not inspire me to consider full-time missions, or inspire me to dedicate my life to inner-city outreach, it did bring a certain life to my faith which has stayed with me for more than half of my life at this point. Interestingly, the majority of the short term mission trips I have been have been as a leader. Working in youth ministry, I have taken teenagers on mission trips to places such as Juarez, the Dominican Republic, Wyoming, Tennessee, Vancouver, and more.
It was the year we decided to take a small group of teens to Juarez, Mexico when I realized that thought and care needed to be taken to do mission trips well. Volun-tourism wasn’t a widely used term in the early 2000’s but when I did first hear the term I knew EXACTLY what they were talking about. You see, the church I was working with at the time had a long history of mission trips for their senior high students and for years there had been talk about doing an international destination. I agreed to either Mexico or Canada as an international destination knowing I had never been outside of the United States myself and not wanting to get myself in over my head. I also stipulated that I would only take students who had previously been on a mission trip. It did not have to be with our church but it did have to be within the last 5 years.
I was amazed at the amount of pushback I got from both youth and parents. Youth which had not been actively involved in the church since their first communion were upset I would not allow them to sign up for the trip. They argued that they could afford it. They argued that they had always wanted to go to Mexico. They argued that sports and other extracurricular activities prevented them being at youth group on Wednesday and church at any point during the weekend. They commented on the drinking age being 18 and how they would be 18 by the time of the mission trip. They told me about how well-traveled they were so they could handle being gone for a week to Mexico. None of them argued that they had a heart to share to Jesus with the people of Juarez. None of these particular students talked about wanting to work in the hot, desert sun to build a house. They weren’t looking for an opportunity to serve, they were looking for an adventure in Mexico.
In the end, my stipulation of having previously participated on a mission trip was honored and we had a great trip. Before going, we took the time to get to know each other as a team. We met regularly to talk about the history and culture of Mexico and the challenges which were unique to Juarez and its border town status. We talked about things which we found funny but they would find offensive. We talked about what it meant to be a servant leader and studied the example Jesus set in the Scripture. We spent a Sunday with a Hispanic congregation in our area which challenged the youth who believed they were fluent in Spanish after a year or two of classes at school.
So why am I going on about a mission trip to Mexico? Because, for many, it is on a short term mission trip where they discover deep truths about who they are, who God has created to be, and what God is calling them to do with their lives. For some, that has meant realizing the power of being able to offer comfort and healing so they go into the medical field. Others discover a gift for working with and teaching kids. I’ve seen youth decide to dedicate themselves to learning a foreign language so they could work as interpreters, or learn construction skills to be build and repair homes, or go into social work to connect those in need with the resources available.
I’ve also seen a handful of people inspired to consider full time ministry after experiencing a mission trip. Some go into youth ministry, others become worship leaders, and still others choose to be pastors. And then there are the few who feel the call of God to go into full time missions work themselves. To listen to these stories are to hear stories of short term mission trips done well. These are short term mission trips where leaders took the time to challenge each participant to really immerse themselves humbly into the culture they were going into. These are the leaders who understand that we do not represent Christ well when we breeze into town, use a building project as a training ground to teach a 13 year old how to swing a hammer, congratulate ourselves on a job well-done, and ride away into the sunset.
This begs the question, how do we do short-term missions well? How do we offer a short-term mission trip that is both impactful for those on the trip, especially when they are teens and young adults, and which honors, respects, and truly serves those on the receiving end? How can you evaluate if a particular short-term mission trip opportunity is a good one, or one which amounts to little more than volun-tourism? Here are some of the top tips and questions to ask I have come across and used both as a participant and a leader of short-term trips over the years:
- Think strategically. How does any sort of short-term mission trip fit into the mission of your ministry? How does what you want to do fit with the work the long-term missionary who lives there is doing?
- Learn the issues. Don’t assume you know the issues a particular location faces, do your research. Talk to local contacts ahead of time whenever possible.
- Ongoing presence. Pair up with an organization which is committed to having an ongoing presence in the community, not an organization which shows up for a week and leaves regardless of it the work is complete or not.
- Consider partnering with the same people repeatedly. I’m not saying you need to go to the same place every year. But when you connect with someone who is doing effective ministry in a location, maybe consider returning on a regular basis. Additionally, those who go on multiple trips to the same location can begin to build relationships with the local people and see how things have changed over time!
- Follow the money. Look at how much of your fees are being spent on things like accommodations, free-time or evening group activities, and going towards your actual project.
- Be humble about qualifications. The reality is that there are very few teenagers who are qualified or mature enough to take on major building projects. If you know your group can’t do a project well, don’t commit to it. It is better to give the money towards hiring a professional than to do poor quality work which others have to repair.
- Train your team. I know personally those who have hosted many mission trip teams over the years. They can ALWAYS tell which teams have spent time together getting to know each other before the trip and which teams have not. Talk about topics like expectations, conflict resolution, a willingness to be flexible, and motivations before you depart!
- Think about the story you are telling. Every photo and video you take on the trip tells a story, what is that story saying? Before you share to social media, be sure you have permission not just from your teammates but from those you are serving as well. And remember that some moments just cannot be captured on film. In those moments, put the camera down and embrace the moment.
- Be willing to stay home. If you find the money you are being asked to spend isn’t benefiting the local people but going towards administrative fees, luxury housing, or other frivolous amenities, consider staying home and sending money to a trusted ministry in that location instead, allowing them to maximize it within that community. Additionally, if you aren’t willing to serve the people in your hometown, consider why you are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to serve those far away.
I’ll admit. I was incredibly fortunate to find myself as a naïve, young youth pastor working in a church which had long considered these sorts of questions. They partnered with an organization which sponsored at least one full time, year round person in each region with a goal to have one at each location. They spent 6 full months before the trip requiring participants to attend various meetings focused on learning about servant leadership. I’ve since seen many of those youth go on to do either professional or volunteer ministry, to be active in their faith, and continue to remember the people they met while on the trip.
As our Travel Campers depart for Vermont in the morning, I pray they have a great trip. And while they are going on the trip primarily as tourists, I do pray the community they travel with helps them grow deeper in their faith and is a light to those they meet along the way.
- Two great articles which talk about doing short term mission trips well are “Six Ways For Your Church to do Short-Term Missions Well,” and “How to do Short-Term Mission the Right Way.” They will give you a great place to start thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to short-term mission trips.
- Have you been on a short-term mission trip? What was done well? What wasn’t done so well? What was your motivation for going?
- How can you start serving in your local community? How can you be part of helping your church reach out and serve your local community?