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:
- meaningful community
- pain or failure
- victory or success
- 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.
but 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. PPM 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.
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.