First Third Conversations

Mission Trips: Life Transformation or Careless Travel?

The Center for FirstThird Ministry has been proud to host three Webinars this month on "The Servant's Heart."  Last Friday, Mark Jackson led us in a great look at the difference that the process of service learning makes for the heart of those who serve.  Here he shares his reflection on how to transform what keeps many churches from the richness of the gifts of some of our short-term missions. 


By Mark J. Jackson

In a quiet rural Mexican village, 40 teenagers spill out of shiny vans with horns blaring.  They’re wearing matching lime green shirts, “Bringing the Hope of Jesus” emblazoned across the chest.  Greeted by two dozen cameras, neighborhood children gather around a puppet show delivered in broken Spanish, get handed coloring books in a foreign language, and given wrapped candy they’ve never seen before.  At noon, the visitors wipe their brow, get back in the air-conditioned vans, and drive away.  The group returns four more days, then disappears.  A similar scene unfolds each week, but with new vans and new visitors.  All summer long. 

The Problem with Short-Term Missions

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow reports that as many as 1.6 million American church goers participate in an international short-term mission trip each year.  Many are teenagers traveling with church youth groups, a seemingly growing trend, who return home with stories of “life-changing experiences” and fresh anecdotes for college essays and scholarship applications.

While leaders intend young people will experience a life transforming event, the actual result might be a failure if a community isn’t properly understood, negative stereotypes are reinforced, or there isn’t adequate follow-up to process the experience.  As with the illustration above, a number of practices Christians undertake to serve and evangelize the world should be challenged in order to weigh the intention over the outcome.  Otherwise, all that youth might leave behind on mission trips are half-completed projects, unfulfilled promises, and communities grateful they’ve left.

Rethink Everything

Youth leaders may need to rethink their approach to short-term mission trips and adjust the practices that lend themselves to unintended consequences.  Here are a few suggestions to start:

Don’t call it a trip.  Mission “trip” suggests a one-time event, as opposed to a process of learning, serving, and reflecting.  The language of encounter, journey, experience, or pilgrimage emphasizes a deeper, richer faith-forming experience. Check out how to Make Mission More than a Trip!

Ditch the lime green shirts.  Matching shirts can foster group unity and make for great photos, but they don’t communicate a desire to blend into the local culture or emphasize how to be humble guests in a new community.  Even then, slogans such as “Bringing the Hope of Jesus” (written in English) arrogantly suggest hope was previously absent and a group of semi-vacationing teens were the only ones to ever bring it.

Put away the camera.  There’s glamour in travel and teens’ social media addiction demands constantly sharing their present activity with others back home.  Hyperactive photo taking, however, can diminish opportunities to fully engage with others and mistakenly reinforce that those you’re serving among are simply a spectacle.    

Listen deeply.  One of the greatest critiques of short-term missions is a lack of understanding a local community, often resulting in traveling groups deciding what “we” will do “for them.”  The group’s service involvement should ultimately be determined by the local community after an intentional dialogue to explore needs and challenges, as well as identify available assets and opportunities.

Form a lasting partnership.  Leaders might feel pressure from a youth committee, senior pastor, or a youth group to select an attractive destination – and usually one that’s sunny and exotic.  However, picking a new spot on the globe each year suggests the mission trip is really about a vacation.  Check out Andy Root’s article “Tourists or Missionaries?” A more effective approach to short-term missions might be to develop an ongoing partnership with one organization or community, in an effort to provide for a shared learning process, the exchange of people and stories, and longer-term engagement.

Join is with Mark Jackson as we explore Service Learning and the Servant’s Heart in the First Third Webinar!

Mark J. Jackson is Professor and Chair of Children, Youth & Family Studies at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, Wash.  He’s also a trainer with the Service And Learning Leadership Team (SALLT) Project, an initiative to support youth ministry leaders in creating meaningful service and mission experiences.  Visit for more information.

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