Recently I was asked to address a class of undergraduate students who are studying to be youth ministers. The professor invited me to choose the topic. I am going to speak on Multiethnic Youth Ministry. I'll provide those notes later. He also asked me for ideas for how I'd teach a lesson on short-term mission trips. This is what I sent him.
Imagine that a group of people who have different skin color as you, who dress differently than you, and who do not speak your language came to you with a truckload of unicycles. The unicycles are this awful brownish color. Let's be honest; The color looks like throw-up. The people seem friendly because they don't stop smiling. They break into tears when they see how few children actually play outside in your neighborhood. You see them pointing at your Xbox and shaking their heads in disgust.
The group stays in a gym in your neighborhood. They pass out food that smells funny and doesn't taste very good. They try to get you to ride a throw-up colored unicycle. They end up passing out these unicycles to all of the families. After five days of meeting with you and talking broken English with you, they come back in tears. They take a bunch of pictures and hug you. Then they don't show up the next day.
Later you realize they gave unicycles because they "knew" unicycles were the best way for kids to get exercise. They chose the throw-up color because it is popular among kids in their homeland. Even if throw-up colored unicycles are the best way to get kids in shape, you love your Xbox and you think unicycles are dorky. You leave the unicycle in your garage and never touch it.
While there are certainly churches that do mission trips in a healthy manner, the situation I described is the best case scenario for many short-term mission trips.This is particularly true for short-term trips to developing countries. A group of random strangers shows up in a neighborhood, sleeps at a house or a gym, passes out food that doesn't really belong in that community, diagnose a problem in the community, and try to remedy the problem. The worst case scenario is that this group of strangers actually does the gospel disservice by demeaning the community and passing out "gifts" that damage the culture.
Short-term mission trips can be a powerful experience for your group. I'd much rather take 20 kids on a mission trip than to a week at camp on the beach. However, there are some things you need to do to ensure that you eliminate the likelihood that you will hurt the people you are trying to help.
- Partner with healthy ministries that are already doing good work in the geographical area. This ensures that there is a long-term strategy in place. Spiritual growth thrives in the context of long-term relationships. Coming in for a week and leaving can be very harmful. Rather than just pick a random neighborhood in Mexico and go there and build houses, partner with a Mexican church in the community. Ask the people at the church to teach you cultural norms so that you do not offend the people you are serving. Partner with them in ministry. Exchange ideas. Exchange gifts.
- Go as servants. Too often we go on these trips, teach these "poor people" about Jesus, build a house, and leave feeling really good about ourselves. The reality is, God doesn't need us. God is already at work in the community. He allows us the privilege to serve in these communities so that we may be transformed by what he is doing in and through the population. Which leads to the next point.
- Go as learners. Sure, God can use you to teach, but you have much more to learn from the people you are serving than you have to teach. If you are going to serve on an Indian reservation, partner with a Native American church on the reservation. Let them do the Bible teaching to the community (there is a long and painful history of Euro-American missionaries doing very harmful things to the community). Ask them how you can be a better minister. Ask them what God has been doing in the community. Pray together. Study scripture together. Play together. I guarantee you would leave transformed and you would minimize the risk of being more harmful than helpful.
- Articulate the purpose of the trip to the students. Teach them about the culture they are going to encounter. Help them understand that they are going as learners and servers.
- Consider not calling it a mission trip. God does the saving, not you. Call it a Service - Learning Trip or a Work Camp. Call it Funky Monkey Week. Call it whatever you want. But consider not calling it a mission trip. Mission trip implies that you are going to save these rotten heathens. This can be very offensive, especially if Christians have had a negative impact on the community in the past.
In my 11 years of youth ministry, the best organization I have found that does short-term trips for students is S.L.A.M. Trips. They are on the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Check them out! Also, to read more about doing missions in a way that isn't harmful check out the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.