Many of us who grew up attending short term mission trips with our High School youth group look back on those memories with a mixture of horror and endearment. It is perhaps common for adults to chuckle at our youthful arrogance, of the time when we thought we had life all figured out, but it is quite another level of audacity us evangelical teens possessed because not only were we armed with answers for all of life’s big questions, we had answers for everyone else.
In all of the world.
But especially those in the 10/40 window.
And we will bake the heck out of all the cookies and wash as many cars to raise funds so we can go and ensure people all over the world knew our answers to their life’s problems. And the stories we crafted while on our trip, embellished with details such as how gross the bathroom conditions were in the Third World Country to how exotic the foods we consumed, were meant to best last year’s short term missions trip’s “sharing.” It was all at once a ridiculous display of privilege and a treasure trove of memories with our peers.
In recent years, short term missions (STMs) has come under some scrutiny. Popular blogger, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, opened what she calls a can of worms on some problematic aspects of STMs, such as the tendency to center the rich kids who go on these trips instead of the locals. The bestselling book, When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, critiques the financial stewardship of the western church’s resources, highlighting astounding statistics like this one: in 2006, Americans spent $1,600,000,000 on STMs! Other problems inherent in STMs include a lack of quality cross cultural training and an abuse of power dynamics westerners are often unaware of when stepping across foreign boundaries. Thoughtful engagement of STMs consider what it means to do good development and how that intersects with evangelism goals.
Criticism of STMs and a long, hard look at the colonial roots of long term missions is overdue. There is much the church, particularly of the West, has to repent of the harm and damage that has been done in the name of glorifying the Lord in all of the nations. As a new generation of youth rise up in the church, we must lead them to do better. And yet, I fear that in our stripping away the baggage of STMs, we rob our youth of the life-giving spirit of service, compassion, and community. Because once we get past the embarrassment of the errors of our past, there remains the powerful narrative of strength in teamwork, and the participation of something greater than ourselves. I believe this is a crucial element of adolescent development as they embark on the road to outgrowing their childhood egotism.
Missions has a much broader definition outside of the evangelical context. The concept of banding with a team of people, embarking on an adventure to achieve a worthy cause, is in fact the driving story behind all of the world’s epic tales. Mythologist Joseph Campbell famously created an archetype for this narrative called the Hero’s Journey, which is a universal human quest that threads itself throughout all of history. A deep sense of mission is an essential driving force that carry us from moving through each stage of living a meaningful life.
In a historical lawsuit, 21 young plaintiffs, nicknamed the climate-kids, are suing President Obama and the United States government for not doing enough to stop the rapidly changing climate. Children as young as 8 and a half, like the boy named Levi Draheim, are speaking up for their own generation as the actions of the adults are causing consequences for the earth they have to inherit.
As the Dakota Access Pipeline which would snake through the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and threaten their water supply, young Native Americans are standing up for their own community. “It’s a time of unification. It’s to be with my brothers and sisters and my youth to stand as one and fight or this land.” This is the impassioned plea from the youth, Naelyn Pike from the Chiricahua Apache Tribe.
In these youths’ brave protests, I see echoes of the same sentiment that fueled my own evangelical dream—to be in community with my people and together make a change in the world. Kenneth Braswell, author of the illustrated children’s book, Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside, says historically, children have been involved in protests. Our children and our youth have a right to learn and understand the issues facing our community, both local and global, and they deserve to insert their voice into the spaces they occupy. This is as sacred and spiritual of a mission as STMs to an exotic land.
We need to continue the pressure on churches to re-imagine better ways of mission—one that does not imbue spiritual arrogance on our youth to spread harm to local communities or foreign lands.
But our children and youth are heroes ready to embark on their journey. We had better be sure the story we are dreaming for them is a worthy one.
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