Monday, July 11, 2011

Love / Hate Relationship With Student Mission Trips

I’m struggling with something. It’s a good struggle I would like to explore and discuss with others smarter than me. We are called to serve those who are hurting which I desperately want to do. It’s also a great thing to take students with us to serve. But what if in our attempt to serve we simply serve ourselves without helping those who are hurting?

As I write I'm in Camoyagua, Honduras on the last day of a short-term mission trip. I'm with a team of 14 students and 5 adults serving in an orphanage as well as other places. Our goal is simple, be the hands and feet of Jesus by “visiting the orphans in their affliction”.

There's no doubt the love of Jesus has been shown to a group of children who need it desperately. They are hungry for love and affection but also food. Yes, they’re literally hungry. There’s no doubt our being here has encouraged and helped others with basic needs. I’m so proud of our team. They have made a profound impact on these people, but even coming off this great experience I’m still processing short-term trips and their effectiveness.

First of all let me say this; I wholeheartedly reject the philosophy that says trips should be planned primarily for the students who are traveling and not really for the people they are serving. If that is the case it seems we're being very foolish with a lot of time, energy and money. If our primary goal and strategy is set on the hearts of our students we cease to have an authentic mission. There are less expensive ways to challenge the hearts of our kids.

Being purposeful is essential if ministry effectiveness somewhat matches the time, energy and money spent. I know the issues are complex and you can’t simply quantify results but we can work hard to make the experience as beneficial as possible. Beneficial for those we are serving which will result in growth for our students.

As I’m living in the tension allow me to share some thoughts…

1. The experience must be utterly authentic

Students want to make a lasting impact. If they’re on a trip that is primarily designed to serve them instead of giving them authentic opportunities to serve, they will know the difference and be frustrated. Also, if all our thinking and planning is about serving the needs of our students we will miss great opportunity to impact the world.

The last thing I want to do is take students on an expensive sight seeing trip and call it missions. There is enough need in our neighborhoods and world that can be met with passionate students. Let’s be careful to find those needs.

2. We should think long and hard before doing construction

The orphanage we are serving needs some buildings finished so more children can be housed and enjoy better facilities. We could get a team here to “knock it out” in a week or two. That would be awesome, or would it?

To bring a team here might cost $20,000 plus materials. For locals to do the work it would cost less than $10,000 and they would do a better job. There is 35% unemployment in Honduras. If we came and did the work it would be stealing needed work for those who are here. Is that really serving the people of Honduras well?

Of course there are exceptions, but if the purpose of mission is to glorify God by serving the needs of people we have to make sure what we’re doing serves them…not just us. So, if the only way to get something done is for us to do it, let’s go. If we can serve better in different ways, let’s stay out of the way.

3. Our students will naturally be impacted as they serve

Of course there is a great possibility our students will get receive far more than they give, but that shouldn’t dominate our planning and purpose.

This afternoon I'm meeting with Holly and her husband Alex. Holly first visited Honduras in 1996 on a youth mission trip. God used that trip to draw her heart to Central America. I’m thankful for that trip 15 years ago.

As I sat around the circle with my students last night I couldn't help but wonder how God might use this trip to create greater compassion in their hearts. Compassion and calling that may be used to impact the world with the gospel. It's not the number one goal but it inevitably happens when we obey Jesus' command to serve the "least of these".

It’s exciting to hear our students share what God has done in their heart on this trip. I’m thankful for his work in their lives and look forward to how that carries over into their everyday life.

It’s ok to expect our students to get more than they receive, in my opinion however that should not be the main goal.

4. Consider using a mission organization

Wonder Voyage is supporting my team, which is a ministry that creates custom opportunities for student groups. They do an incredible job working with the youth pastor to create an experience, which meets the unique needs and desires of a particular group. They also provide a person on the ground to help with logistical and spiritual needs. They’ll help as much or as little as you want.

For years I planned and carried out trips by myself but after going on my first trip led by Wonder Voyage not only did I save a tremendous amount of time, it freed me to be relational with the students on the trip. So whether it’s YWAM, Youthworks or Wonder Voyage, consider using someone to help you with your mission experience.

After thinking about the way our students served Honduras I’m more convinced than ever that we must unleash students to serve the world. It’s part of my responsibility as a pastor to help them leverage their gifts and passions to reach the world with the gospel knowing it will change them as well.

Each of us is leaving Honduras changed, that’s great. My greater hope is that children and others have experienced the hands and feet of Jesus in a way leads to his fame and worship.

I’m all ears, what do you think?



  1. yea, this is a decades old conversation now, but well worth considering. i think there are a few good rules to making it "worth it" for those we are serving. the top of which is a partnership with people is in order, especially a local church. that way, it is a year long endeavor, not just a one shot deal. students will like it more too, since they can build relationships with correspondence.

    Hope you have an awesome trip and a safe trip home!

  2. Thanks for the input Rob. I agree, finding a place where we can serve and develop long term relationship.

    I like it!

  3. Great points, David. I know your kids were both blessed and a blessing!

  4. I struggle with this too after years of seeing teams come and go (in general to this country). I think it IS possible to do it right to where it is a win/win situation. I agree with Rob in that a local church needs to be involved somehow. For spiritual followup in the case of new believers due to a VBS for example as well as continuity in relationships with team members. As far as construction goes, I think fewer numbers of stateside people coming is best and hiring locals come alongside to start before they get there and to finish afterwards. With construction I think it is a matter of resources. :) Just some thoughts :)

  5. Thanks for chiming in Janet and Holly. It seems the idea of relationship keeps coming up...imagine!

  6. I love missions, but your right you have to live in the tension of helping, learning and cultivating all at the same time. We work with an organization called CSM, here in D.C. with our middle school kids. CSM has relationships with all sorts of mercy and justice organizations in the city of D.C...part of what we are doing with CSM is helping our students understand their role as being ambassadors of mercy and justice. We also are able to build some relationships with the places we serve (some of my volunteers have taken kids back unprovoked from me). This doesn't happen without some intentionality.

  7. Your second point is one that I always sturggle with on construction mission trips. I belong to the United Methodist Church, and we are really good at construction trips. I ask myself those same questions each time we travel to a country with very high unemployment. Here I am with a group of students working while locals sit on the sidelines and watch. There has to be a better way.