Playing with orphan children, building homes, and teaching summer Bible camps are all things that many teenagers and young adults hope to accomplish. Whether it’s because of a love of traveling, due to a profound need to make a difference, or an interest in experiencing a different culture, there is something special about churches and organizations which send out teams to various geographical locations every year. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of criticism and cynicism surrounding these experiences. Career missionaries question the impact these experiences have in the long term. After all, a week working at a soup kitchen is not long enough to form a real and deep relationship. A month translating Bible texts costs the organization more in training and hosting alone than what is produced. And two months playing with orphaned children in India or Africa might make a self-absorbed teenager feel good about themselves but in two months the kids are going to be heartbroken again. I have heard again and again from friends who have committed to missionary life several of whom have been on short-term trips themselves that they simply don’t feel the resources and budgeting put into planning and executing these trips is worth it. Instead it is leaving career missionaries in the field with more work, less time to devote to actually building relationships with the town or village because they are “babysitting the Westerners” and simply “make-work projects” to fuel our ego.
I have given a lot of thought myself to this phenomenon. Having been on a few trips myself starting first in North America and from there branching out to other countries, I have often found myself wondering as I’ve gotten older and started studying missional living in school if this is the right way to go about things. However, despite an initial distrust in short-term missions, I’d like to share three reasons why I believe we shouldn’t get rid of short-term missions teams and how despite the fact that short term trips may require extra money and time to plan they are actually well worth it in the end – if only the career missionaries on the field work to partner with the teams instead of frown upon them.
For the purposes of this article I will be focusing primarily on trips lasting a minimum of one week but no more than one year and which are geared towards students (high school or university range – that is to say under 30 years old).
#1: Short-Term trips give teens a chance to look outside of themselves.
Let’s face it. North American teens in generally are interested in their own lives, their own problems, and their own interests. In general they remain this way until about their early to mid-twenties at which time they hopefully gain some maturity and begin to look outside themselves. That’s not to say that teenagers don’t care. Many of them do have space somewhere inside themselves for caring about the needs of others and try to accomplish this through worthwhile pursuits such as volunteering in the community and in the church nursery. However, many teens simply haven’t been given the opportunity where they had no other choice but to get outside their comfort zone, experience something new, and be challenged in ways they never thought they would be challenged before.
During my first out of continent trip to South America (Paraguay and Brazil) I quickly learned how much I take for granted in my own country. I was 18 at the time and it was my first experience of having to take cold showers for a month, not being able to eat the types of food I typically would enjoy, and struggling to learn a new language – after only one semester of Spanish and another semester of German. It was a great experience in showing me what it must feel like (albeit on a much smaller scale) to be an immigrant. Since both my parents come from immigrant families I began to appreciate a whole lot more the unique challenges my grandparents, aunts, and uncles must have faced when they first came to Canada.
How much did I really accomplish working at a leprosy hospital? Probably not a whole lot. I did some cleaning. The building would become dirty again. I shared my testimony – the inexperienced wisdom and inexperienced delivery of someone barely out of high school. I even spent a few days interacting with some of the patients. Beyond that, nothing. From a materialistic point of view, the amount of money I spent flying out there versus the amount of work I did was miniscule. However, something deep inside me changed. I began to view cross-cultural experiences differently. I began to question some of the prejudices I had always carried in my heart but simply was not aware of. I began to be interested in traveling again and exploring other cultures and other situations.
I may have only been 18. I probably continued to be somewhat self-absorbed for a few years following that experience. It was not some profound event that radically altered my life in the way that Jesus altered Paul of Tarsus’s life, yet it was an experience that starting the ball rolling. An experience that unraveled a bit of string that is still unraveling in my heart and soul today.
#2: Short-Term Missions Trips have a profound impact on the participant’s faith walk.
To be honest, it has always intrigued me (and perhaps in a sense bothered me) that youth who otherwise want nothing to do with the church, who deny their parent’s religion, who rebel against the formal structure, and who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Friday night youth group are always the first to put up their hands when it comes to an out of country trip. Perhaps it is out of a sense of camaraderie – my friends are going so why not? Or a realization that they will be doing a project (likely with their hands) so the amount of Bible teaching will be small, but they somehow all seem to make their way to the front at events like Urbana and TeenMania.
Nevertheless, I cannot deny the profound impact some of these trips have had on the youth. I have seen kids who cared only about themselves become more energized to serve and help the marginalized after as little as a week working with the homeless population. I have seen freshmen come to L’Arche thinking they were going to give us all of their love and service only to walk away from the experience realizing that they had received far more from the residents who have developmental disabilities. I have seen shy kids take up leadership on projects that they are truly passionate about.
Often during mission’s trips, kids accomplish far more than they ever imagined they could. For some it might be their first experience away from home for an extended amount of time. They learn independence but also dependence on the team. For strong personalities (like myself) they learn how to balance leadership with listening, solitude with service. Often I am the most humbled by individuals who have a disability themselves who still go on trips and who are able to minister powerfully by their openness and vulnerability.
During one of my first trips with Mennonite Disaster Service to New Orleans helping to restore and build homes after Hurricane Katrina I was deeply inspired by the commitment and love of the community after the devastating natural disaster. I was stirred to become a better person and to not take things for granted. I’ve had my spiritual eyes opened when in different contexts which have high poverty rates or where women may be ill-treated. I’ve left these experience and came back to Canada where I have since learned how to integrate my short-term trips with my career work as a pastor and friend.
#3: Short-Term trips provide an opportunity for kids to feel supported by the church
I have been blessed to always have been part of really loving and encouraging churches. Nevertheless, one of the most blessed things I have experienced is when the church sends out a team of young missionaries and really surrounds them by their love and support. Whether it’s helping to set up opportunities to raise funds, actually attending the fundraisers, or sitting down with a teen for coffee afterwards to discuss their experience, it is one of the few times when the church really gets to be intergenerational. Often after a trip, the church also provides an opportunity for the youth to share and this gives them the experience of being at the front and proclaiming the Gospel – something few teenagers get the opportunity to do in many cases.
One of the best things about going to Tyndale was the support the community had towards short-term trips. From men shaving their legs in support of mission’s, to the school banding together to put on Shakespearean comedies, to individual groups of students huddled in the lounge praying over the teams, I was really reminded of how when someone is sent out they are sent out individually but moreso as a body.
I know that many missionaries who come back to the field lament that they felt their church didn’t care or didn’t give enough time to them when it came to processing their experience. Some of them felt quite lonely after coming back. I don’t mean to negate that. However, I think it’s also clear that especially for kids who might never have had the opportunity otherwise, it is a great blessing when a 17 year old receives the financial support to go or when a 21 year old receives the encouragement to do something different for a summer or for a year.
Conclusion: Call me crazy, but I think short-term trips are totally worth it. They may not be the most cost-effective or productive experiences, but the intrinsic value it can have on the participants is well worth it and if we are truly seeking to become missional churches then I think for many kids the catalyst will come not by hearing their pastor talk about it from the pulpit but by living it out and experiencing it themselves.