For two decades as a leader in youth ministry, one of my goals has been to try and get every committed student to go on at least one mission trip before they graduate high school. There is some debate about whether short-term mission trips are effective for discipling students, but I am convinced that mission trips are a powerful way to help students grow in Christlikeness.
Here are some questions often raised about the legitimacy and effectiveness of short-term mission trips and my responses to them.
I know people who went on mission trips that are no longer serving Jesus. Isn’t that proof that other methods are more effective?
It is a sad reality that some people who go on short-term trips return home and the fire fades. In fact, that probably happens to everyone who goes on a mission trip. The passion and intensity experienced in the midst of a week of concentrated service on a mission are hard to sustain over the course of a year. Some students do indeed even walk away from their faith after amazing God-encounters on a mission trip. I have seen this firsthand, and it saddens me deeply.
However, I have seen kids walk through all different kinds of discipleship methods and end up the same way. It is also true that many students come back from mission trips having had life-changing encounters with God that propel them into a lifetime of passionate service. One of my greatest joys has been taking kids on mission trips and seeing them come home and change the focus of their lives. For example, rather than going to college to become a lawyer so they can make lots of money, they start to ask how they can use their law degree to help people in need, such as victims of human trafficking. I have also had several students pursue full-time ministry in the church as a result of God’s activity in their lives during mission trips. I can think of at least a dozen kids that I have taken on mission trips who are currently serving God vocationally in youth ministry, leading worship, and more. It is very encouraging to realize that taking them away for a week to serve others provided them space to hear God speak to them about His plans for their lives.
Isn’t it a waste to spend all of that money for a bunch of kids to go somewhere for two weeks when that same amount of money could simply be sent to communities and local/national workers who could do so much more with it?
This is a very valid question and one that I personally had to wrestle through quite extensively. However, I began to ask another question: How will we ever fully know the needs around the world and what needs to be done? The truth is, the most powerful learning happens experientially. It happens not when we tell people, but when we show people; when we give them a chance to see for themselves.
The most impactful way to help people get a vision for God’s world is to take them and let them see His world first-hand.
As we go and serve those less fortunate, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes and the reality of our abundance and blessing will stand in stark contrast to what we are witnessing. My prayer is that the question will begin to arise in each participant’s heart: How can I use the resources God has given me to help meet these needs and spread the good news to those who have never heard? In the short-term, the money point is absolutely true. However, if we can see the money spent to take teams around the world as an investment, just imagine what will happen in the long run if even half of the people who do decide to give to missional causes regularly. I dare to say that the money spent on short-term trips will be pennies in comparison to what they will give throughout their lifetimes.
I speak to these first two points, not just theoretically, but from personal experience. When I was 15 years old, I spent a summer on a mission trip in Tanzania, Africa. It was during this trip that I developed a burden for people around the world and God confirmed my call to vocational ministry. From that moment on I never considered doing anything else with my life. I knew that God wanted me to spend the rest of my life in vocational service to Him. Moreover, I love giving to support missional work around the world and inviting others to do the same. In fact, at the time of this writing, I am training to run a marathon, and people are partnering with me, giving to help provide clean water for people in Africa. (Say a prayer for me. 26.2 miles is a long way to run!)
Where do you find the phrase “short-term mission trips” in the Bible?
While you won’t find the phrase specifically, you will find countless short-term trips referred to in the gospels and all throughout the New Testament. One incident is recorded in Luke 10 when Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the good news. I once heard Ron Luce point out three things about this sending. 1) Jesus told them to go. 2) He told them to go even though they were young. (A study of the culture and the lives of the disciples will suggest that many of them were quite young when Jesus called them to be His disciples.) 3) He told them to go on a short trip. Since we are also disciples of Jesus commissioned to spread the good news of God’s love, we can see from this passage that short-term trips are one way to accomplish that mission.
When we are filled with the compassion of Christ for the lost, the poor, the suffering, it will compel us to get involved. Feeling sorry for people will not bring the Gospel to them. Compassion leads to action.
Through short-term mission trips, eyes are opened to the reality of how the rest of the world lives, people are motivated to life-long action aimed at spreading the Gospel, callings, and destinies are revealed and confirmed, and hearts begin to beat God-rhythms for God’s world. While short-term mission trips must be balanced by other discipleship initiatives, I would suggest that they are nevertheless a biblical and powerful tool in God’s toolbox that He draws from to shape us into the image of His Son.
Kevin Mahaffy Jr. is husband to Adriana, and father of two daughters — Claudia who is a college student, and Natalia who is in high school. He has served in youth ministry for over 20 years as a teaching pastor and a popular camp and retreat speaker. Kevin has written two books and co-authored several others. He is a big Yankees fan, bookaholic, Starbucks junkie, Krispy Kreme addict, and blogger. He exercises a lot, but he also eats a lot, so you can’t tell he exercises a lot.