Building houses for families in Mexico. Leading an English camp for eastern European teens. Partnering with a tiny Baptist church in Argentina. Handing out lunches to the homeless of San Diego.
I’ve experienced all of these (and more!) in my youth ministry experience. Every one of these missions adventures was transformative for both myself and the students who participated. Short-term missions have become an integral part of the discipleship process in my ministry.
There are valid criticisms of short-term missions. Why not just send long-term missionaries who can incarnate themselves in a local community? Why not serve the immediate communities we live in? Why not take all the money we spent on airline tickets and programs and just donate it to local churches or poor people? Could we do more damage than good for the kingdom of God and the reputation of Christ?
My best friend Brian is serving in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He gets quite frustrated with the Christian short-term missions groups that come into the DR because they typically waltz in with a superiority complex and leave a wake of poor perceptions and offenses.
So, why bother? Because short-term missions are worth it.
Here are five reasons I think short-term missions are an integral part of youth ministry:
Focused: It’s a concentrated season of serving, removing distraction and allowing the Lord to truly work in and through students. For a week or two, students are dumped into the deep end of kingdom living. They live together, work together, eat together, pray together, play together, read Scripture together, and serve together. While a critic can point out that this experience isn’t “real life,” there are plenty of examples of concentrated seasons of ministry all throughout Scripture and history. Was Abram’s venture from Ur considered “real life?” Or Moses in the Exodus account? What about Jesus’s time with his disciples? Why can’t kingdom life start to become “real life?”
Proven: A significant percentage of students that participate in missions continue on in their faith. While I struggled to find legitimate statistical data for this phenomenon (Is there any? If so, send me the link or info!), it’s been true for my own experience—in general, students who do missions stick with their faith. Camps and retreats are fantastic, and nothing replaces long-term discipleship relationships. But there is something unique about missions and serving that allow the Spirit of God to transform hearts.
Partnerships between churches and communities: Are short-term missions about the sent ones (the students) or the local culture? For me, both must benefit relationally and sociologically for the venture to be a success. It can be incredibly detrimental to both the students and the local community if there is no sense of partnership. If the students are doing all the work of ministry or just putting a band-aid on a sociological problem that requires surgery, they could do more harm than good. (See When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert.) When a true partnership is formed, both churches and communities work together for the sake of the Gospel. There can be an ongoing bond, a sense of a kingdom family that transcends the physical distance. Our church has a special love for the countries of Latvia and Uganda because our kingdom family lives and serves there. We learn from one another and grow closer to Jesus together.
Catalyst for missional living: If done well, short-term missions are a fantastic spiritual impetus for long-term missional living for the students who participate. I’ve seen so many students come back from missions experiences and immediately sign up to serve in our church, begin sharing their faith with their friends or family, or just start actually reading the Bible. They’ve been given a taste of the kingdom of God, and a sincere taste of Jesus-y life is often enough to motivate students to continue seeking the kingdom. One of the best books on moving from mission trips to missional living is Deep Justice Journeys by Kara Powell and Brad Griffin. I’d highly recommend every youth ministry to have a copy of this fantastic resource.
Jesus did it: Christ gathered a group of disciples and poured into them for three years. As part of this discipleship process, he sent his disciples out into the world to share the good news of the kingdom. He sends out the 12 disciples (Matthew 10, Mark 6), then sends out 72 of them (Luke 10). After he rose from the dead, each Gospel account shares a commissioning that Jesus gave his disciples: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Go and make disciples of all nations.
Confession: I don’t like the term “mission trip,” but I don’t know what else to call them. Missions should be an identity, a way of life, not just a trip. And “trip” has the connotation of a tour, a jaunt, or a vacation (or stumbling).
Maybe “good news ventures?”