First Third Conversations

Improve Mission Trips: Less Service, More Learning

By Adam J. Copeland

I recently returned from a mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico with students from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. The trip took place over our spring break, and in Ensenada we worked with Lantern Hill, a small US-based non-profit with whom the college has partnered for several years. When I returned to campus, I met with a professor friend who spent his spring break accompanying students on a border ministry study experience during which they learned from several mission organizations active in San Diego and Tijuana. I asked this professor how his break went. He replied, “My group learned how mission trips like yours are stupid.

My quick response went something like this: yes, I agree that many short-term mission trips are highly problematic; they are made better when the emphasis is put less on service and more on learning.

Problems with Mission Trips

The problems associated with short-term mission trips have been widely chronicled in recent years. This FirstThird series is highlighting many pertinent questions. Mark Wm. Radecke’s fine article, “Misguided mission: ten worst practice” in the May 18, 2010 edition of Christian Century notes the mistakes of many mission trips. When they are for ogling, or “just because we always go,” or when they lack significant local partnerships, or all about feeling good, then mission trips are less help than they could be and are likely a net drain on the community.

With the increasing awareness of our environmental crisis, it’s also wise to ask questions about the carbon footprint of any air travel, especially when it’s for a service trip meant to serve God and neighbor. Finally, I’ve observed that mission trips have the tendency to emphasize social problems a great distance from a congregation’s local community without making connections back to local justice issues.

Better Models

With all this in mind, I’m convinced that the best models for mission trips include significant learning experiences and relatively little hands-on mission. Why? I would much rather have our students learn about the myriad of systemic social issues facing the indigenous people living in poverty on the margins of Ensenada, and then wrestle with questions of economic justice on a local and global scale, than kid ourselves that the impact of 20 work hours is anything but in support of larger learning goals.

Now don’t get me wrong: Lantern Hill is a very fine non-profit. I’m a big fan. Its leaders think carefully about every aspect of their work, and our week was full of fine learning experiences—including, by the way, the naming of helpful distinctions as to why Lantern Hill was building sustainable practices of service as opposed to some mission organizations in town that seem only to bring in US groups to paint buildings another shade of American feel-good green.

I know other mission organizations that do a fantastic job of balancing learning, reflection, and sweat-based service. For example, one cannot complete a week with Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia without deepening one’s understanding of homelessness, food justice, and the complexities of urban life. Yes, there’s hard work, but it’s not to feel nice, it’s to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.

Which brings me to the proposition: the best mission trips are those in which the actual service work is understood as taking a supporting role, not the lead. So maybe, the term “Mission Trip” needs to be re-worded, re-branded to something else entirely. Concordia calls campus ministry service trips, “Justice Journeys” which isn’t bad, but isn’t overly descriptive either. “Service learning trip” sounds painful, though I’m not sure what language might be better.

What I am more certain about, however, is the need for robust travel experiences that emphasize learning, justice, and reflection—sweaty service is fine, but it shouldn’t be confused as the point.

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Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he serves as Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership. A version of this essay appeared on Adam’s blog, A Wee Blether ( He tweets @ajc123.

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