The hidden danger of mission trips for students:

This article was published at youthworkerjournal.com

It is once again time to start gearing up our annual mission trips.  There are so many great options out there.  Some are as close as an urban setting, some are in rural and isolated contexts, and some are international ranging in proximity to Mexico all the way to Thailand or Africa.  One of the key considerations when planning a mission trip with students has to be assessing the potential dangers of the context we will be traveling to.

Our church has changed our context for short term missions several times depending on concerns for danger.  We have taken into consideration the violence in an urban setting or an outbreak of hepatitis within the street community.  We have wrestled with the potential danger of crossing a drug warfare zone in the boarder towns of Mexico.  Add to the danger of the location transportation and housing, and we start to realize that a mission trip for students is a costly and dangerous endeavor.

As someone who thinks that short term mission trips is the bread and butter of student ministry, I have come to the conclusion that these potential dangers are part of the process of helping students (and parents) to live outside their comfort zone.  And taking our students and putting them in a totally foreign and partially dangerous context softens their hearts and opens their eyes to see the working of God in new and fresh ways.

But after leading dozens of trips over the years, I am starting to realize that while the surface dangers are real and must be taken seriously, there is actually a bigger danger that is hidden lurking just below the surface.  This danger is cementing in our students a false view of missions and of themselves.

Every year we ask students to fill out an application.  One of the questions has something to do with why they want to participate in this trip.  And with almost 100% unanimity the answer is “we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”  Don’t get me wrong, this is an awesome value, it is a value that is at the heart of the Christian faith.  Those of us with power and resources are to care for the orphan and the widow, for the poor and oppressed.

However, when we unintentionally frame missions as us, wealthy suburbanites, helping those poor people, we continue to instill in our students that they have their acts together and are “above” others.  I am not saying that the suburban church is the problem, or that we need to beat down our own context or culture and make students feel awful for the blessings and resources they have.  The suburban culture is just that, a culture.  But when we engage in missions we must consider and celebrate the culture in which we are going to.  We have to help students see that we are guests in another culture, not superior to those we visiting.

Our students are naturally self-absorbed and limited in their worldview.  And when we set up our trips as us coming to save the day, their foundational worldview doesn’t have the chance to be challenged.  And this is the true danger of student ministry short term missions.  We take one of the most significant spiritual experiences of their high school carriers and actually solidify some of the worst of suburban thinking.  Missions is not suburban kids with their wealth and privilege helping the poor.  This is the danger in compassion ministries.

One of the best books I have read on mission for those of us leading trips from a suburban context is When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Brian Fikkert.  This book is a must read for anyone leading a trip.  My biggest take a way from my read of the book is that we must change our view of wealth and poverty.  All of us are wealthy in some ways and poor in others.  The challenge is to identify the ways in which we are wealthy and the ways in which we are poor.  Once we have done this, then we can come into any context, specifically impoverished ones, and easily become partners who share resources.  We then have a real chance for cultural exchange, instead of seeing ourselves as superiors above the poor people we help.

As the fundraising, logistics and training for our annual short term trips are gearing up.  There are many practical dangers we must take into account.  But it takes intentional work and training to breakthrough and breakdown the traditional mindset of many suburban students, and leaders.  Here are four values to consider as you plan your short term missions trip this year:

1)   Short term missions is about recognizing that God is already at work wherever it is we are going. The God we serve, so loves the entire world.  And the place that we will be heading off to for our short term missions trip is already loved by God and God already has people in place doing great ministry there.  This immediately takes the focus off of us and what we bring, and opens our eyes to the spiritual reality that God is alive and at work long before we showed up.

2)  Short term missions is about partnering not helping. We now have the privilege of coming alongside the people who God has called to love that community for the long haul.  And when we see our role as partners there becomes an exchange of blessings that occurs, we become givers and receivers, rather then saviors.  For this to be successful we must find organizations that are not only established and committed to that particular community, but organizations that we can trust.  The more you trust an organization, the more you can truly partner and celebrate all that God has done before you got there, is doing while you are there, and will continue to do when you leave.

3)  Short term missions is about student development. There is little long term benefit our students can bring to mission field.  We are only there for a week and often have little knowledge of the culture and language.  At best we are a blessing to the organization / missionaries we partner with.  Because that is the case, we get to use this experience to shape and transform the students we are called to be missionaries to.  And that means that we must help shape this trip in a way that broadens their view of ministry, not affirm their privileged world view.  Their spiritual health and development is our chief concern.

If we are taking students on short term mission trip we must clarify what we are doing.  It is true that many of us come from churches with significant resources and we want to partner with the heart of God in doing ministries of compassion.  But we cannot solidify the thinking that financial resources are the definition of God’s blessings.  Wealth does not put us a superiors.  We can not let our students live into this false and dangerous reality.

Our task in short term missions is to help our students understand how big God’s heart is for the world, to partner with those who are already there, and to be a blessing for the short time our paths cross.  We all have wealth and we all have poverty.  By helping our students identify and articulate where they are wealthy and where they are poor allows them to truly be partners in ministry and cultural exchange.