Okay, I know this is a powderkeg subject. There are two very divergent views when it comes to this question.
On one side there is an almost endless line of mission trip organizations that would chant, "No! No! No!" to the question of whether or not short-term trips are a waste of time. But, of course, their very existence is at stake if youth group leaders answer this question in the affirmative.
On the other side of the equation are some cash-strapped pastors, burnt-out youth leaders, as well as a handful of cynical seminary professors, who would say that short-term mission trips are a complete waste of time and money.
While I'm not going to attempt to fully answer this question in a short(ish) blog post, I think a few tough questions may be warranted to help you wrestle through this hard but important subject.
1) Is your mission trip doing good or doing the most good?
I love The Salvation Army. Their theme is "Doing the most good." William Booth, who started this holy humanitarian organization in 1865 in London, had a heart to bring "Soup, Soap and Salvation" to the hungry, dirty and lost. He gave up the comforts of the pulpit to take the hope of Christ to the poverty-filled streets of London. For over 150 years this now global ministry has been the hands and feet of Jesus to countless underprivileged people.
A few years ago I had the privilege of preaching to a regional group of Salvation Army officers (what the Salvation Army calls their ministers.) During our time together I asked a tough question, "Are you just 'doing good' or are you truly 'doing the most good'?" You could feel the tension in the audience as I used their slogan as a spiritual cattle prod. I went on to say, "If you are just taking care of the needy you are doing good. But if you are taking care of the needy and sharing the Gospel you are truly doing the most good."
What's true of The Salvation Army is true of short-term mission trips.
2) Is your short-term trip going to make a long-term difference?
Dont' get me wrong. It is good to do good! As Galatians 6:10 reminds us, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." But, in addition to the good we are doing in the short-term we should make sure we are doing as much good (or even more) in the long-term.
There's a certain R.O.I. that we should consider before agreeing to another mission trip. If $1,500 per teenager has to be raised so that a youth group can go on a short-term mission trip we need to make sure that it was worth the investment! A sure way of doing this is to make sure that, in addition to whatever humanitarian projects are being done, the lost are being reached and the believers are being energized, encouraged and, maybe even equipped, to share the Gospel!
At Dare 2 Share we do an urban mission trip of sorts called Lead THE Cause. During this powerful week teenagers are equipped to reach out to the cities they are serving (Denver, Chicago, Washington D.C. or Austin, Texas.) They learn how to engage people with the Gospel in these cities and God does amazing things as a result! But the particpating teens also leave equipped to train their Christian friends how to share the good news of Jesus. Many of these teenagers go on to do other mission trips in other countries and inevitably bring with them that Gospel-sharing-training DNA. These teens are no longer content just to paint a wall or lay some bricks. Instead they want to help launch a Gospel Advancing movement among the people they are serving.
If you truly want to make a long-term difference both in your teenagers and the people you are serving then be sure to gospelize your mission trip. Build the people of that country a house on earth and one in heaven too. Put in a well so they can have clean water and give them the Living Water as well. Give them a piece of bread and then hand them The Bread of Life.
Service projects are a great way to open the door to Gospel conversations! Let's not just let our teenagers be the hands and feet of Jesus. Let's let them be the mouth of Jesus too! Because it was the very mouth of Jesus that spoke these words to the people he was serving, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" Matthew 11:30. Jesus knew that the best way he could serve these people was not just taking care of their hunger needs (like feeding the 5,000) or their health needs (like healing the lepers) but their spiritual needs (like reaching the woman at the well with the Gospel!)
Let's, like Jesus, unleash our mission trips to take care of physical and spiritual
3) Will your teenagers come back better equipped to engage in the mission trip of their daily lives?
As my friend Brian Aaby often says, "That one week of a mission trip should impact the 51 weeks that follow it more than anything else." Teenagers should come back from a short-term mission trip more grateful (after having seen the poverty of the people they served), more selfless (having poured themselves out in service to them), more equipped (to share the Gospel with their peers) and more inspired (to serve Jesus with all their hearts!)
Are your mission trips accomplishing this? If so, then well done! If not, then gospelize them! A fully gospelized mission trip is hard to beat when it comes to both short-term and long-term impact. And if you need to train your teenagers and adult leaders how to do then then check out Lead THE Cause this summer.
Let's reach them all!