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?


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