For a few decades now, there have been important discussions about the value of short-term mission trips. Many (most?) American churches are convinced short-term missions often foster dramatic growth in adolescents. However, in 2008, Kurt Ver Beek, a professor at Calvin College and co-founder of The Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, released a paper disagreeing with this idea. Ver Beek attempted to measure that transformation in youth who visited Honduras on STM trips. He used common and robust statistical measurements to investigate the medium-term and long-term impact of STMs on adolescents. Ver Beek concluded that youth did not change in any measurable way. While he left open the possibility youth changed in ways that are difficult to measure, he also asked how much it matters to have change that does not reveal itself in concrete ways. Or as James asked, “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it (2:16, NIV)?” Obviously, Ver Beek’s paper was super popular in church circles!
Others have asked additional good questions. While assuming that STM trips are good for the youth in my church, is that what missions is? Do missions exist to benefit the missionary? That is, isn’t the measure of STMs the impact they have on the community we purport to serve? This is a powerful criticism since most STM sending organizations exist for the benefit of church youth groups. Some advocate simply not going on short-term mission trips, while others, such as Craig Greenfield, advocate we stop calling them service trips. Instead, they encourage calling them something like learning trips.
I work two jobs. One of those is as a Youth Director in a local church. The other is as Director of International Programs for an international development organization called Inalienable. That is, by day I get coffee with teenagers, and by night (and some weekends) I check in with my international staff about birth certificates. Inalienable exists to defend the rights and dignity of migrants globally. However, we also run a long-standing STM trip to the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, 4 hours south of Tijuana. Because I work in these two jobs, I see these questions from two different perspectives.
Even though I spent years reading When Helping Hurts with my youth group, it seemed they weren’t absorbing the book’s ideas. Both as a Youth Director, and a part of the team that plans these trips for Inalienable, I was deeply frustrated by our inability to help participants (and my youth!) progress. The past few years, my youth group and Inalienable’s STM team learned a lot of lessons, and I wanted to summarize our experiences.
Lessons Learned from Short-term missions
- In pre-trip prep, our church emphasized stories of people who have an emotional love but walk out that love poorly. I told a story of yelling at my wife, for example. One of the things we said in pre-trip prep and all week during the trip was “Love Better.” This helped people see that some kinds of love are more effective than other kinds. Some kinds of love are even harmful.
- Perhaps Inalienable’s most controversial decision was to continue emphasizing the importance of doing good service work. While many advocate abandoning this idea, it seemed to us that these criticisms did not apply in our context. That’s because we connect our work deeply to local organizations. Every single project we do comes from a request from a local organization in Baja. We tell trip participants, “you will not change the life of a migrant on this trip. However, you will do important work that supports the people who will.” People who run projects are given Logic Models, like any other project Inalienable runs. They know what their goals are, what the local organization asked for, and how success will be measured. They know what the long-term impact of their week-long project will be. More on this below!
- We started interviewing local partners each morning of the trip for two reasons. The first reason is that it is difficult to do good work for local partners if our participants don’t understand what those local partners are doing. We simply must sit and listen if we intend to do good service work. The second reason these interviews were needed is that these interviews help participants see how problematic STM trips can be. Most partners know stories of other American mission teams doing problematic work. These conversations help our participants see how problematic love can be, and why it is necessary to Love Better.
- Finally, these interviews paid off in another way. While I am personally inclined to emphasize service on mission trips, we also hope to expand the understanding of trip participants. I want my youth to develop their understandings of justice and injustice in the world. Locals, embedded in a particular situation, are able to speak with more authority, and this impacts anyone who stops to listen.
- Mostly? Mostly our participants go back every year to work in the same area with the same people. These are the same people Inalienable staff work with year-round in our development projects (Inalienable is, after all, essentially a human rights organization, not a short-term mission organization). This pays off because it means trip participants know people. They have relationships with people. They may not be the deepest relationships, but they certainly move beyond seeing local people as facilitators to our own event. We are able to see these as important people with thoughts and opinions.
That is, I think the Inalienable trip emphasizes both service and cultural engagement. This is a tidy package. The two ideas become mutually-reinforcing. I have seen the impact these changes have in my youth group, and in other trip participants. Now, my youth talk about loving better. They talk about how locals in the San Quintin Valley want to improve their lives. They see all the lessons I hoped to impart with When Helping Hurts. Maybe they just weren’t ready for that book before.
Last year, Corey Grieves came to NYWC and talked about “Drive By Missions.” One of his central concerns was STM teams assuming they knew what was needed in the Yakima Nation. They show up, come up with some idea for a service project, without doing the research to find out if that work is even needed. If we are honest, that often happens because our focus is on helping the trip participants first. It was a powerful talk, and let many of us at NYWC experience what Inalienable’s trip participants experience each year. We hear from a local community about their needs, what they want our help with, and what they would ask us to stop doing.
I want to advocate you look for four things when planning a service trip for your youth group.
- Look at the vision statement of the organizations you are considering. Is their emphasis heavily on the development of your adolescents or the community? Or both? If their emphasis is strongly on the development of missionary teens, then this is an Adolescent Development Trip. You can find better. If you focus on adolescent development, you can get that. However, that’s low-hanging fruit. However, pretending youth are serving others well (when they’re really not) undermines your attempts at genuinely developing teens who live for others. On the other hand, if you aim at serving a community, you might get both. Inalienable says this imparts “mutual blessing.”
- Look for organizations that are embedded in one location. It is hard to do good work if you shift locations every year or three. It is hard to have enough relationships to find good work for trip participants if you just don’t know that many people. You’re more likely to dodge this problem if you work with an organization embedded in one community.That is, I know many organizations who run out of planning time, and need to provide work for a team that is scheduled to arrive in 6 days. This is something of an understandable problem (though I would hope for better planning), and you should know it happens to many organizations. However, if they are deeply embedded in a particular community, they know who in town probably needs the kind of help 40 teenagers might helpfully provide. They know who might genuinely benefit, but that knowledge only comes with time.
- Look for an organization that will help your church understand a local community. Are you going to build ramps for a family that they will never meet? That has value, of course, and is (potentially) good service. However, if your youth are going to serve others, they will benefit tremendously from asking, “Why does this person need a ramp?” Someone once said, “service is giving someone a glass of water, but justice is asking why they don’t have access to water.” In addition to helping your youth become more concerned with God’s justice, reflecting on this question digs deep inside of youth. That is, it creates discipleship.
- As a Youth Director, there is a fair bit of pressure on me to provide different experiences for my youth every year. I understand that and value that perspective. In fact, next year we’ll go back on Baja Mission 2018, but also offer a second trip to Los Angeles with an organization I trust (many Middle Schoolers aren’t ready for a trip to Mexico)! However, if you want to develop teenagers who love others, there is tremendous value in visiting the same community year after year. It took about three years for my church to really understand that, but it is paying off deeply in discipleship.
Obviously, I’m writing here as an individual, not as an official statement from Inalienable, or my local church. The opinions here are my own!
To learn more about Inalienable’s Baja Mission trip, you’re better off checking out Inalienable’s Facebook page.
There were a few important resources mentioned in the blog post, but Kurt Ver Beek had a helpful article in Christianity Today, which is probably easier to read than his academic paper. It’s a conversation with Robert Priest, who also did helpful research on Short-Term Missions.
Seriously, Craig Greenfield’s blog is the best. Check it out here!
For an interesting paradigm shift, check out this provocative article at Sojourners by Cindy Brandt. She says we should stop doing STMs altogether. See what she advocates instead!
- What is missions? Why do we go on service/learning trips? Who should benefit from these encounters? What is your theology of service?
- It’s an uncomfortable question to ask, but are there flaws in the surveys done by Ver Beek and others? Do his conclusions apply to your church? If not, why are you an exception?
- Are there more effective ways to teach our youth to serve others, while also contributing to natural relationships and actual service?
 This seems controversial, but pick a few organizations and check their vision statements.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.