Youth Trips: Helping that Hurts?

Youth Trips: Helping that Hurts? May 25, 2012

We are doing a series on Root and Dean’s new book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, and each post is written by our friend, Syler Thomas, a youth pastor of fourteen years. This post concerns the upside and downside of youth ministry trips for service.

In chapter 13 of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, Andrew Root offers a concise critique of the youth group mission trip. As someone who has been organizing and attending youth mission trips for over 20 years now, and who has seen the incredible benefit of such trips, I was wary of what it was he had to say.

What about you? Have you seen trips do more harm than good? Do you think there’s a better way?

Root accurately depicts the juxtaposition of youth trips well. A morning is spent in an impoverished village, while the afternoon might be spent sipping (virgin) cocktails on the beach.

Furthermore, when the trip is merely about what you are going to do there, then once you have done it, it’s a memory. It becomes just one more experience that has been consumed, like a piece of gum that has been chewed up.

When the trip is about being with the people, there is nothing to check off the list.

I am reminded of some short term mission training I received from a man named Ray Howard. He encouraged us to go on every trip in two roles: as a servant and as a learner. We go of course to serve, looking for ways to be as Christ would be to the people we’re meeting and to our fellow team members. And we go as a learner, not as a teacher. Sure, we are bringing the gospel and will look for ways to teach when given the opportunities. But when we’re guests in a new place, we’re there to learn. We are there to minister with as much as we are there to minister to. In Root’s words, “mission trips are about accompaniment, not activity.”

I don’t know that I would make that an “either/or” rather than a “both/and,” but I see what he’s saying. If our trips are only about how we can accomplish our tasks rather than joining God’s people in the ministry that He has already begun, we’ll have missed the point.

[Side note: Because I’m guessing it will come up in the comments, I have read When Helping Hurts, which echoes this theme, and provides some helpful points to consider, though I believe is overly simplistic when it comes to the benefits of short-term trips.]

What about you? Have you seen trips do more harm than good? Do you think there’s a better way?


"In the Bible the value of Pi is 3, not ~3.14One of the things that ..."

Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity? (RJS)
"Here's a link to that post ..."

Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity? (RJS)
"You're painting with too broad a brush, friend. Many millions of progressive Christians readily embrace ..."

Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity? (RJS)
"Nate... Yes...“ many people can one pastor pastor?”Well, how about Jesus? When He is the ..."

Willow Creek, What’s a Pastor?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • phil_style

    Development theorists have been agonizing over western aid models (the short term aid trip being one such model) for years. There are reams of papers written on the subject.

    At one end of the scale is the bemusement at the arrogance of these “savior” trips, characterised pithily as Rich western kids rolling in and out of impoverished regions like poverty tourists.

    At the other end is the idea that these types of exposures to poverty can have a lasting effect on (particularly the visiting) individuals, resulting in long term changes to their lifestyles and attitudes to others, less fortunate than themselves.

    Aid, development and poverty is a messy milieu, it’s hard to pin down all the “effects” of mission trips and aid trips….

  • Paul

    One idea I’ve heard (and like) is to stop calling them short term “missions trips”. This may open the door a little wider for us to call the trips what they often are: cross cultural experiences/vacations.

  • Tom

    Long term relationships where the mission trip is just another step in getting to know each other is a good start. Picking a location that needs help and then building a long term relationship with people makes them friends, not projects. We need to stop thinking about doing things and start thinking about loving people.

  • I am a huge advocate of short term mission trips, though I have never been on one. Just to give some background I worked in Sub-Saharan Africa for two years with a ‘mission’ agency (though I cringe when I use that word) who was visited probably about 10 times a year by these short trips (usually 2/3 weeks long). I usually showed these teams around. 

    The organisation called these trips ‘Global Exposure’ trips. That is what they were rather than ‘mission’ trips. Teams of about 12 would meet regularly beforehand to discuss culture and context, and the Gospel crossing these cultures and contexts. And it would be stressed that the trip was to look and experience and be exposed as opposed to helping the ‘poor’ locals. These trips had lots of reflection time and a solid debrief once back in Australia. 

    These trips were a huge life changer for the majority of people who went on them. Usually it got them to engage their local culture better. For others these trips were the very beginning of a life in cross cultural ministry. 

    As I said above I did a 2 year stint overseas, and as a result I’m going back long term. However not only that but I met my wife when she came out on a short term trip. So I am a big advocate of short term trips. 

  • I’ve seen short term trips go well – and go very poorly. In my current job I am responsible for leading two trips each summer – one for our Jr. High Youth and one for our Sr. High Youth. In both cases I’ve found that who you partner with is the single biggest factor in the trip. Some organizations to a better job than others and help shape the attitude the students carry into the trip.

    The other is our responsibility as leaders to shape the attitudes of our students provide a theological narrative to what otherwise turns into a vacation and social event. I think more than anything we need to think of “youth mission trips” more in the category of “pilgrimage” as they better fits what they are.

    I blogged about this topic about a year ago:

  • Joe Canner

    As someone who has spent 40% of his adult life in two different African countries, I would say that the value of short-term missions depends on what the expectations and objectives are. Most countries these days do not need teams to come in, share the (verbal) gospel and leave. There are usually plenty of long-term missionaries and/or local believers who can do that. Short-term missions can be useful for discrete projects that require large numbers of people with specialized skills (e.g., certain building projects, education, health) or for covering certain specialized needs so that long-term folks can take a break.

    Of course, the participants need to have realistic expectations as to what they are going to accomplish and not return with overblown claims as to how many people they rescued from hell. At the same time, if they participate in a well-designed project, it will impact their lives forever, help them motivate others for service, and have a meaningful and lasting effect on the lives of the community where they served.

    I would also agree with those above who have discussed the educational value of short-term missions. When I was in college I did a summer missions project to Voice of Calvary in Mississippi and I’m sure the educational value for me (which was an intentional part of the project) was much more significant than whatever I accomplished for the folks there.

  • Phillip

    I would like to see intergenerational short term mission trips rather than youth mission trips, which become one more way we segregate our churches by age.

    I also would like to make sure that “mission” or “service” is emphasized over “trip”. If the touristy parts don’t pan out, will the kids still be glad for having gone? Would they give up the side trips for the sake of service? And if not, are we not reenforcing the idea that we serve mainly to get something out of it for ourselves?

    “When Helping Hurts” and others still have me on the fence about STMs.

  • I’d be interested in reading the book this post is about, because I have so little knowledge and experience in this area. In fact, I had never been on a mission trip until I had to plan one for spring break in 2011 at the college where I worked. It was a very small group that went, but we were impacted by what we saw and experienced in the inner city of Kansas City. To see the poverty and disparity up close and personal was a very different experience than hearing about it. I think the potential danger lies in people not ever really taking in anything they are supposed to learn on the trip and treating it just as a vacation. What I liked about ours was that we had discussion/reflection time each night to process what we’d seen and learned each day, even comparing and contrasting the inner city with the wealthy area where we ate dinner and went shopping.

    I hope that for those that go on trips it will impact them to continue thinking and helping others in need and have it not just be a memory, but perhaps it could even be years later when that memory spurs someone on to action.

  • Ghtogo

    “He encouraged us to go on every trip in two roles: as a servant and as a learner.” I like this!

  • In twenty years of youth ministry, I have participated in, organized and abstained from missions trips. They can be great to rally a group together and get them thinking about something besides themselves. They can be very mediocre one-offs to give parents the satisfaction of knowing their children are doing something for others. Also, they can be a copout for people who truly don’t want to serve.

    In my current situation, I haven’t gone on a “missions trip” in over six years. I tried but got no participation. Frustrated, especially because parents complained about not doing them, I started examining the goals of these outings. Instead of the trips, we now reinforce serving in daily life. We do local service projects. Students serve each other and teens in their school.

    I’m not against mission trips, but I have come to think of them in a different. Instead of a single event, I try to focus on memory makers. I want to spend my programming time giving an experience that will live in memory as a turning point for young people. It might be splitting hairs, but it keeps me on track for more effective events.

  • Craig Querfeld

    I would have to agree with Joe (#6), the success of the trips depends on the expectations and objectives. For the most part it is hard to name the short term trips that teens take “missions trips.” Missions is a lot more complicated and involved than a group of teens can carry out in a 10 day period overseas. Having lived and worked in Peru for the last 17 years I would say that once you are here for at least 10 years do you start to see, understand, and are able to do missions in your host culture. So it is a misnomer to call short-term trips as missions trips. Philip (#7) may be on to something calling them service opportunities. Once this is understood reachable goals and objectives can be established so that the trip can have a great educational and motivational value for those involved.
    However, for the trip to be a educational and motivational success the learning/serving attitude must be adopted from the outset. We have had teams that wanted to do their thing and ended up being a tug of war between us (the missionaries) and them because they could not relax enough to take advantage of the cultural and spiritual learning opportunities that they were presented with. While we had church teams with whom we spent a morning talking about what God was doing in their lives through what they experienced by working shoulder to shoulder with Peruvians, getting kissed by children from a poor neighborhood and by being frustrated in their lack of communication skills.
    If church teams take the cue from the missionary and are able to establish reasonable objectives for their time together, those goals could possibly be met and their experience may go beyond their expectations.
    This brings up another issue: The expectation of the missionary. After a number of so-so experiences we realized that we needed to take on a discipler role along side of that of the organizer. We needed to ask the questions that would open their mind to the reality of living and working overseas and to the spiritual reality of ministering to people with a different value set.
    I found “When Helping Hurts” to be a more powerful guide in sustained missionary projects than with STMs.

  • Amos Paul

    I have a really hard time justifying missions trips, myself. I’ve never been a foreign trip–and I don’t know if I ever will. The cost alone just makes me feel like a belligerant American. I think of how much good do I think I’d really do spending all the money to travel overseas for a week or two versus actually just donating that money in the first place to relevant organizations.

    And I’m not dissing on the trips here per se. I just have a really hard time thinking of them in ways that don’t seem wasteful.

  • Alan K

    When done right, a mission trip can be a landmark for the faith of the participants. How mission trips are done, how they are narrated, and how they are understood in light of the mission of God are all critical. A Trinitarian understanding of worship, liturgy, mission, and agency make all the difference in the world in interpreting what is going on in one of these trips. If the offering of mission belongs to Jesus Christ to begin with, then participants are freed up to step into what God is already doing instead of bearing the burden of justifying the trip by some quantitative measure.

  • Craig Querfeld

    Well said Alan K. They are not a waste of time if they are given the right focus, parameters and follow up, Amos Paul. Give it a try!!

  • I’m with Tom #3 and the need for long-term relationships. In my experience the short-term trips were always one trip here, one trip there, hopping from one place to another. While it’s maximum exposure for the participants, it’s hard to get past all the negatives that can crop up. Instead, I think more churches need to find ways to work with the same community over the course of many years, where the “short-term missions trip” is a return trip to a community in which they are working. We’re returning to Wounded Knee, SD this summer on what is hopefully one of many return trips working with a specific church in a specific area for all of these reasons and more. Our goal isn’t to swoop in and save a bunch of “heathens” but instead to find new ways every year to equip the church that is already there to minister to the people of the reservation with the resources we can afford to provide. Hopefully it turns into a healthy, kingdom focused relationship between two very different churches over the course of years.

  • RJS

    Joe Watkins,

    I think you are right here. Our church has had an ongoing relationship (something like seven years now) with one mission. Men’s trips, women’s trips, yearly college trips and high school trips – all to the same location to build a relationship, provide assistance, while also building a heart for mission within our church. This has been powerful.

    My brother-in-law’s church does the same thing to another mission location in partnership with a different organization – long term over many years.

    I don’t think this hurts more than it helps.

  • Damien

    I agree with what most people have said here. The key is to have the right focus which, in the case of trips abroad, is often lacking. I find it bizarre for instance that some (comparatively) wealthy but unskilled Westerners will spend two weeks trying to erect a building, which local people could do just as well while acquiring valuable skills or being able to utilize the skills that they already have to earn money. I’m also wary of “hug-an-orphan” trips (and, by the way, why do so many Churches LOVE orphanages when the mainstream aid industry has been moving away from this model?).

    In my opinion, short-term trips can work if
    a) You have specialized skills that can be immediately useful and are in short-supply. For instance, you’re a theology professor and you spend a few weeks teaching at a local understaffed bible school. Some would include medical missions in that category, but there’s also debate about standards-of-care, etc.
    b) You go there to learn from the people that you will be living with and develop a sense of fellowship with those who are not as materially blessed as you are. Youth trips would fit into that category since, in most cases, young people don’t (yet) have any specialized skills. If you can do useful things while there, very good, but it’s often hard to know if what you’re doing is really useful. Don’t assume that because it makes you feel good, it has a positive impact. The goal should not be to “make an impact”. If you want to “make an impact”, you’re probably better off staying at home and channeling the money through an established charity.

    In my church, we currently financially support missionaries (with a preference for local people or missionaries who have already invested the time and effort learning the language, the culture, etc.) and projects, but, to get the youth involved, we encourage them to serve the homeless, refugees, the elderly in the local community with a local Christian organization. You don’t have to travel overseas to find people who have needs, including spiritual needs. In fact, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to find non-Christians in developed countries than in the developing world.

  • It may be possible to do them in a way thats mutually beneficial, but there are multiple ways that they can do harm. I organized them for high schoolers for over 10 years and I’m glad not to have to do them anymore.

  • are there any real stats on the effectiveness of STM’s in their ability to encourage service when participants return to their communities and/or an increase in giving to missionaries or mission agencies?

    i ask because this is my biggest question about STM’s. they don’t seem to produce or encourage ways to continue serving or giving beyond the trip. a lot of the trips end up resulting in an attitude that sort of says, “Man I’m glad I don’t have it as bad as these people.” i know this is overly simplistic, but this has been my experience. we continue to say, “it’s important for people to go on STM’s and experience different cultures,” but we fail to do the hard work on the back end of the trip.

  • Having led several house-building STM’s to Tijuana through Lutheran Border Concerns, mischievous thoughts arise, like:

    What if we sold our post-MX Disneyland tickets, sent the money to the LBC iglesia we were serving, and spent our “fun day” in prayer and consideration?

    You go first.

  • I like the distinction between mission trips and global encounter trips, though that’s probably just a semantic issue. I just heard one more story yesterday of a young man who gave his life to the Lord on a mission trip (in addition to the many others I’ve personally observed). There is something about leaving your little world to see how God is moving elsewhere that can’t be replicated in another way. Thanks for everyone’s thoughtful comments!