why i still believe in short term missions

was thinking about haiti yesterday, which got me thinking about short term missions and youth ministry. i get asked fairly often for recommendations of organizations i trust. and i’ll be honest: while the list of organizations offering trips seems to grow every single year, there are very few i whole-heartedly feel good about recommending.

some time ago, i was asked to respond to this question about short term missions trips and youth ministry:

Why are (or why aren’t) mission trips good for building students’ character? How high of a priority should they be in youth ministry?

A few years back, a handful of thought leaders in youth ministry were in a room that I also happened to be in. We were talking about what spiritual growth actually looks like in teenagers. But we experimented by starting the discussion with stories from our own lives of when we experienced significant spiritual growth.

After we’d all told a bunch of stories, and themes from the stories had been placed with sticky-notes all over a wall, we noticed something interesting. All of the stories fell under one of four umbrellas, or contexts:

  1. meaningful community
  2. pain or failure
  3. victory or success
  4. perspective-altering experiences

Missions trips can offer all four of those contexts. Seriously, what else do we do in youth ministry that offers all four of those contexts in a compact span of time?

There’s some bad short-term missions trips out there, to be sure. Drive-by missions, or missions-vacations, or “lets go see the poor and destitute so I can feel both bad about myself, then better about myself because I felt bad about myself” trips. But a theologically and missionally thoughtful trip can from what I’ve observed have a more lasting impact on the faith formation of a teenager than anything else I even did in youth ministry.

PPM_Logobut if i’m really being responsible, there are additional questions i have to layer on top of the experience it will offer “my teenagers.” and most of those have to do with the host organization having a ruthless, uncompromising commitment to two things:

  • long term partnership with local ministries
  • an unflinching desire to and practice of serving the vision of the leaders in those local ministries

these days, my top recommendations are Praying Pelican Missions and Center for Student Missions. Mark+CSM-Large_BlackPPM is newer to me, but i was truly surprised by how unreservedly i feel like i can recommend them after seeing their work first-hand. CSM is an old favorite of mine (and i took more than a dozen trips with them back in the day), but conversations with my niece who worked in their san francisco site for a year, and now works in their chicago site, has renewed my sense that they still get it right. I’m also a fan of Group’s Big Day of Serving (particularly for junior highers — it’s been fantastic for the junior highers from my church). if i were making short-term decisions for a youth group these days, i’d take middle schoolers to the Big Day of Serving; i’d take a mix of middle schoolers and high schoolers (and maybe parents!) on an urban domestic trip with CSM; and i’d take high schoolers and parents (and probably other adults — mult-gen, baby!) on an international trip with PPM.big day of serving

i’m sure–quite sure, actually–that there are other wonderful options. but when i’m asked for recommendations, those are my go-to responses these days.

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2 thoughts on “why i still believe in short term missions”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. I work with Experience Mission, and I’ve coordinated youth mission trips for the last 8 years primarily in Haiti, Jamaica, and with the US Navajo Tribe. Like you, I don’t doubt the impact of these trips on youth. This seems very evident. My concern is that the focus becomes so much on the experience or spiritual growth of the youth that this takes the place of healthy community relationships. I agree that these trips should be structured such that it is impactful for the youth, but I think this should be secondary to the need to be culturally respectful and guard the dignity of those we’re serving. That’s why healthy long-term relationships with local leaders/churches/ministries are so critical. For me this means many things, but one of the most important supporting their vision rather than trying to create one from the outside. I think your observations regarding vision and long term relationships are critical. I think when the focus becomes serving the local community over having an incredible “spiritual” experience the community is better served and ultimately the youth are more impacted as well.

    We’re actually in the process of putting together a pre-field training resources that emphasizes principles we believe are critical for all short term mission teams to understand. They’re free and they can be downloaded at http://www.experiencemission.org/resourceshome. Right now we have completed the first two sessions. If you find them helpful, we’d be glad for you to use them, and we’d love any feedback you have.

    God Bless!

  2. I have served as an adult leader on youth mission trips (including my own children) with both of these organizations within the past three years. I agree with your recommendation, wholeheartedly!
    Three years ago we took a group to LA with Center for Student Missions. The students that went with us were all freshmen and sophomores, and it was their first non-local mission trip. It was the perfect introduction to missions. It gave them a sense of the different needs and ways of serving. We served on Skid Row for the week, a mix of one-time trips to help different feeding programs, and in the afternoons we ran a mini-camp for a day care that serves the children of sweat shop workers. It was very obvious that CSM had a long-term commitment to the area, and had developed relationships with those they were serving and serving with. CSM provided training for the Youth Pastor and a well-trained guide who helped the students better understand service to others as a part of their own spiritual growth. I agree completely that this would be a great trip for younger students and those newer to missions.
    This past summer we took a mix of adults and older students to Belize with Praying Pelican. Again, a very well run program, but certainly took things much deeper. We served in the same community all week, so we were able to build relationships in that community. We were provided with leaders that were well trained. We worked alongside the local church helping to lay the foundation for an addition to the church. We went along as members of the church visited the homebound. And, we ran an afterschool program in the afternoons. Our group and the community were so well matched that God’s hand was obvious. It never felt like service, it felt like helping out your family. Like you said, this is a trip for older students and adults.

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