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For two decades as a leader in youth ministry, one of my goals has been to try and get every committed student to go on at least one mission trip before they graduate high school. There is some debate about whether short-term mission trips are effective for discipling students, but I am convinced that mission trips are a powerful way to help students grow in Christlikeness. Here are some questions often raised about the legitimacy and effectiveness of short-term mission trips and my responses to them.
I know people who went on mission trips that are no longer serving Jesus. Isn’t that proof that other methods are more effective?
It is a sad reality that some people who go on short-term trips return home and the fire fades. In fact, that probably happens to everyone who goes on a mission trip. The passion and intensity experienced in a week of concentrated service on a mission are hard to sustain over the course of a year. Some students do indeed even walk away from their faith after amazing God-encounters on a mission trip. I have seen this firsthand, and it saddens me deeply.
However, I have seen kids walk through all different kinds of discipleship methods and end up the same way. It is also true that many students come back from mission trips having had life-changing encounters with God that propel them into a lifetime of passionate service.
One of my greatest joys has been taking kids on mission trips and seeing them come home and change the focus of their lives. For example, rather than going to college to become a lawyer so they can make lots of money, they start to ask how they can use their law degree to help people in need, such as victims of human trafficking. I have also had several students pursue full-time ministry in the church as a result of God’s activity in their lives during mission trips. I can think of at least a dozen kids that I have taken on mission trips who are currently serving God vocationally in youth ministry, leading worship, and more. It is very encouraging to realize that taking them away for a week to serve others provided them space to hear God speak to them about His plans for their lives.
This is a very valid question and one that I personally had to wrestle through quite extensively. However, I began to ask another question: How will we ever fully know the needs around the world and what needs to be done? The truth is, the most powerful learning happens experientially. It happens not when we tell people, but when we show people; when we give them a chance to see for themselves.
The most impactful way to help people get a vision for God’s world is to take them and let them see His world first-hand.As we go and serve those less fortunate, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes and the reality of our abundance and blessing will stand in stark contrast to what we are witnessing. My prayer is that the question will begin to arise in each participant’s heart: How can I use the resources God has given me to help meet these needs and spread the good news to those who have never heard? In the short-term, the money point is absolutely true. However, if we can see the money spent to take teams around the world as an investment, just imagine what will happen in the long run if even half of the people who do decide to give to missional causes regularly. I dare to say that the money spent on short-term trips will be pennies in comparison to what they will give throughout their lifetimes.
I speak to these first two points, not just theoretically, but from personal experience. When I was 15 years old, I spent a summer on a mission trip in Tanzania, Africa. It was during this trip that I developed a burden for people around the world and God confirmed my call to vocational ministry. From that moment on I never considered doing anything else with my life. I knew that God wanted me to spend the rest of my life in vocational service to Him. Moreover, I love giving to support missional work around the world and inviting others to do the same. In fact, at the time of this writing, I am training to run a marathon, and people are partnering with me, giving to help provide clean water for people in Africa.