Missions and outreach are key to most church youth group programs. Personally, I can’t believe how many opportunities I’ve wasted taking students on mission trips. I know I’m not the only one. Yes, mission trips are an amazing idea in theory. But what we tend to do with them (or not do with them) is the real issue.
How many of us have seen all the positives on a trip eventually fizzle out in teenagers who were once on fire from their experience? That’s why I got together with a friend who’s been a career missionary to start “Flipping Missions” upside down. We came up with a “before-during-after” strategy we really believe in, with a book that does three things:
- Fundamentally flip students’ perspectives on missions so short-term trips don’t end up hurting more than helping. For a trip to most benefit those being served (and those serving), students must learn to see the trip from the perspectives of their leaders, their hosts, and especially the people they’re serving.
- Intentionally address all three major stages of a mission trip: before, during, and after. We believe everyone needs a foundation, spiritually and culturally, weeks before the trip. They also need an anchor of guidance while on the trip. Then they need an “off-ramp” afterward to make what they learned and experienced part of their everyday lives. This all-in-one concept reclaims all the missed opportunities I had leading others on trips. I wish someone would have afforded me that perspective.
- Offer two different perspectives. Between what my missionary buddy has seen when short-term trips came to him, as well as what I’ve seen taking students and adults on trips, we discerned plenty of personal stories and advice.
Here’s a slice of Flipping Missions:
Week 1, Day 1: Helping or Knowing?
Imagine moving to a new town and attending a new school. As you walk into your first class, you’re not sure where to sit until a few students invite you to an empty desk. You take your seat and begin talking with them before class. Without learning anything about them, you start spouting off your opinions about what they should do to fix their lives. Do you think they’ll appreciate your help?
After class, you notice another student carrying a stack of books and papers. The student slips on a newly waxed floor. School supplies fly everywhere. You’ve never met this student, and you worry he’ll feel awkward that a stranger is helping him. You hurry past without helping. Do you think the student cared whether or not you knew him?
Which should come first, getting to know people or helping them out? Which is more important? We choose option three: all of the above.
Imagine going on a mission trip where you aren’t allowed to do anything. You can’t dig wells, repair fences, or paint buildings. No one lets you distribute supplies to kids. Your only job is to get to know the people you’re visiting.
The ad for this trip might read: Join us on this cross-cultural experience to fix nothing! Your job is to come, be still, and encounter others right where they are. You won’t be expected or allowed to do anything about their hardships. You’ll merely observe and listen.
Now imagine another ad describing a very different trip: Join us on this cross-cultural experience to swoop in, do some work, and zip out, all without meeting the people you’re helping. You’ll build a school, paint a building, and construct a jungle gym. Do they want these things? Do they need them? Who knows? But you’ll feel like the answer to their prayers one way or another!
Both trips are obviously off track, but they could become something amazing if they were merged together. They might even resemble how Jesus spent his time on earth, first living among humanity relationally for 30 years, then filling his last three years with intentional acts of service, teaching, and investment. More than 20 centuries later, we’re still feeling the impact of his “mission trip.”