If we send them, they will grow...maybe

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Mar 7, 2007

This article was also co-authored with Terry Linhart of Bethel College, IN, and appeared in the March/April 2007 Journal of Student Ministries.

You're making announcements at your youth group meeting and you want to encourage students to sign up for your next short-term missions trip. Do you highlight

A. The great relationships students will build with each other.
B. Gods intention for His people to serve the broken and brokenhearted.
C. That those who go will grow closer to the Lord.
D. All of the above.

If you're like most youth workers, you choose D: All of the above. After all, short-term mission (or STM) experiences deepen kids relationships with each other and with the Lord, and they are a logical way to obey Scriptures commands to serve the least of these.

Here's where it gets complicated: Recent research suggests STM trips and experiences might not produce the spiritual and relational bang we expect.

At least not in the long term.

Consider these relatively new research findings [[Robert J. Priest, Terry Dischinger, Steve Rasmussen, C.M. Brown, Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement, Missiology, Volume 34, number 4, October 2006, 431-450.]]

The explosive growth in the number of STM trips among both kids and adults has not been accompanied by similar explosive growth in the number of career missionaries.

It's not clear whether or not participation in STM trips causes participants to give more money to alleviate poverty once life returns to normal.

Participating in a STM trip does not seem to reduce participants tendencies toward materialism.

To paraphrase the Field of Dreams mantra: If we send them, they will grow. Maybe.

Making a difference after the suitcases are unpacked

How do we increase the odds that STM will make a long-term difference in the lives of our kids long after the suitcases are unpacked and the photo albums are buried in bedroom closets? In order to answer that and other questions, we convened a two-day Short-Term Missions Effectiveness Think Tank with 20 exemplary youth pastors and STM agency leaders in November 2006. In the midst of heated discussions about cultural intelligence, team building, and whether or not STM is even missions, one theme repeatedly emerged: we need to do a better job helping students interpret and apply their STM experiences to life back home.

Before, during, and after

Let's be honest. Normally we're too rushed to thoughtfully help students engage in interpretation and application before, during, and after their STM trips. Our preparation before the STM experience usually consists of fundraising and medical releases. Our process during the trip boils down to a few minutes of prayer requests before our team tumbles into bed, exhausted. And our debrief after we get home is little more than organizing the slide show and the testimonies to share in big church.

If we want greater transformation, we need a completely different view of how to go about the before, during, and after aspects of the trip. This may mean developing a radically different timeframe for our STM trips.

Perhaps instead of viewing an inner-city trip as just three days, we need to view it as a 3-month process. Instead of looking at a week in the Dominican Republic as seven days, we need to think of it as seven-month journey. And the entire STM aspect of our ministries must become a year-round reality if we hope for long-term, sustainable change in the lives of our kids and those we go to serve.

What do we do with all that time?

What do we do with all those extra weeks before and after our STM excursion? And how do we make the most of our time with students during our trip?

Since much of students transformation and learning is dependent on their experiences, we recommend an experiential education framework originally proposed by Laura Joplin [[Joplin, L. (1995). On defining experiential education. In K. Warren & M. Sakofs & J. S. Hunt Jr. (Eds.), The theory of experiential education (pp. 15-22). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.]] , and later modified and used by Terry Linhart [[Linhart, T. D. (2005). Planting seeds: The curricular hope of short term mission experiences in youth ministry. Christian Education Journal, Series 3, 256-272.]] on youth STM trips, as a framework for our time with students.

Component one: FOCUS

A key start to a successful short-term learning experience is to help students FOCUS on the experience and the challenging actions they will experience. More than just helping them raise money, learn a drama, or know how to pack, leaders can facilitate a series of gatherings and events that help students prepare emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and relationally for what lies ahead.

Some key topics that could be included in this FOCUS time are:

  • Identifying our motivation for going on this trip (both the shared motivation we have as a ministry and the honest reasons we have as individuals for going).
  • Leaning honestly into some of our fears about our upcoming experiences (including fears about safety, food, language, and getting along).
  • If we're going into another ethnic culture, learning about cross-cultural issues (including understanding how our own culture shapes us, learning about the culture we're going to visit, and learning some basics about how cultures as a whole differ).
  • Having an understanding of what God is already doing in our destination through the local Christians who live there. This is true whether we're heading to a neighboring city or to a village multiple time zones away.
  • Identify ways to ensure that while being intentional about our own growth, we don't objectify or exploit those we are serving.

During this FOCUS time we might want to encourage our students to keep written journals of their thoughts and feelings as they think about what lies ahead. Or we might want our group to study certain chunks of Scripture or even memorize passages that seem especially relevant to our mission.

The exemplar leaders gathered at the Think Tank thought part of the FOCUS time should also include some rigorous team building. Many of the exemplars have become more selective in who they allow to participate in trips than in their earlier STM days. Some included a team covenant that all members sign at the beginning of the pre-trip training process so that the entire group can hold each other accountable from then on. And since helping students interpret and apply their STM experiences to life back home was a driving theme at our think tank, some exemplars felt the most important part of the selection process is choosing which adults to bring along.


The main component in students learning during STM is the ACTION-REFLECTION process. In this ongoing cycle, students are placed in a situation or activity during the trip in which they are purposefully stretched by using a new set of skills in a cross-cultural setting or relying on a small amount of knowledge in an unfamiliar environment.

While most STM trips inevitably include these sorts of activities, many lack the reflection needed to help students maximize their growth. After all, students are constantly making meaning out of their actions. Though usually unconscious of it, they are continually engaged in a highly personal, ongoing conversation in their own minds about who they are in relation to others, in relation to God, and in relation to their futures. Since this is generally internal, students may draw conclusions from their experiences that do not reflect reality.

The constant barrage of experiences on a typical STM come so fast at students that they resemble the experience of walking through a museum and experiencing entire civilizations in a single hallway. As a result, students have difficulty finding time to make sense of their experiences. As the adult youth workers walking alongside students in the midst of these provocative encounters, we need to ask questions that help them decipher the meaning behind what they just experienced.

One way to help students more accurately interpret their experiences is to ask three simple questions:

  1. What?
  2. So what?
  3. Now what? [[This three-question reflection exercise has been popularized by the Campus Outreach Opportunity League.]]

By asking What?, students have a chance to talk about what they actually saw, heard, smelled, and felt. In asking So what?, students have the opportunity to think about the difference this experience can make in their lives. By reflecting upon Now what?, students can think about how they want to live, act, or be different when they return to their more comfortable normal lives.

If you are serving with students who struggle to process their feelings or experiences (can anyone say middle school boys?), then at first you may get just a few bites of conversation. Answers may range from I don't know to What she said. That's OK. Sometimes it takes months or years to get to the point where students are able to truly join in the reflection. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to model patiently listening and simply being there with them.

Component three: SUPPORT-FEEDBACK

To facilitate the ACTION-REFLECTION cycle, Joplin recommends surrounding the discussions and experiences with walls of SUPPORT and FEEDBACK. The support usually comes from other members in the experience, such as other students, adult leaders, and locals from within the communities we're visiting.

However, support can also include the encouragement that comes from supportive relational networks at home. Research shows a strong correlation between individuals success in a cross-cultural experience and the emotional and tangible support they have from their friends and family. Support can also include the financial and logistical assistance provided by a church, organization, and family members. It's important not to overlook this element as we think about leading STM trips.

According to our exemplars, most youth workers overlook the importance of high quality, ongoing feedback. As the action and reflection cycle continues throughout the learning process, the adult leaders must jump in with the students and help them talk about their reflections the meanings students are creating from their experiences. Many groups share each night in a small debriefing time, but the size of the group and the limited time often limit feedback to simply re-hashing the day rather than effectively directing reflection that leads to transformation.

Its a delicate but necessary skill to assist students in their learning as it is taking place. Because everything is new and happening so fast, both students and adult leaders often feel pressure to label or make sense of each moment too quickly. In doing so, they limit their vision and can often miss some of the broader realities. Good feedback done in conversation with adults who come alongside students helps students see as broadly as possible and more often than not, encourages them to suspend judgment.

For example, students may serve in an under-resourced community where poverty abounds. While there, they may notice a lot of people smiling at them. The fast conclusion can be, Even without much money or stuff, these people are happy. Are they? Maybe not. Maybe they are simply being polite or maybe we are assuming that the nonverbal behavior we're observing here means the same thing it means at home. The point is not to become experts on reading all these cues. Rather, it is to serve without quickly jumping to judgment in our attempts to make meaning.

Mid-way through your STM experience, you might want to have students write down their responses to things like:

  • The dominant sound here is
  • It smells like
  • The most obvious objects I see are
  • The things I don't see here include
  • The primary purpose of this place is
  • The categories of diversity I see here are
  • Young people here are

At the end of the week, have them write down their responses again and see how, if at all, they've changed. And be sure to discuss these with some local friends to test your observations and interpretations.

Component four: DEBRIEF

When the action component is completed, the students begin the process of leaving and enter into a time to DEBRIEF. Different from the reflection process a time many of us call debriefing debrief as used in the Joplin model is an organized process of identifying whatever learning has happened, discussing it with others, and evaluating it. This process can be done individually but is most effectively done in community. The most helpful debriefs often include a rereading of pre- and during-trip journals where each day's reflections have been recorded.

A very basic way to facilitate this process is to gather the group together before returning home, either on-site or in a neutral place away from the home community. Many STM agencies have curricular materials that can facilitate this process, but helpful questions could include:

  • As you read over your journals, what 5-7 themes or subjects do you see most often?
  • What 3-5 encounters or experiences were the most significant for you during this trip and why?
  • What did you feel like God was trying to say to you during this experience?
  • What thoughts about back home did you have during the trip?
  • What did you observe about what God was already doing before you arrived there?
  • If you were to spend a whole year there, what 3-5 new things might you learn that you weren't able to fully understand during this trip?

Several of our exemplars suggested developing a debrief framework that includes strategies for daily debriefing (what were calling reflection and support-feedback above), end-of-trip debriefing, re-entry debriefing (i.e., on the airport layover half-way home), and post-trip debriefing to maximize the potential for transformation and encourage the ongoing interpretation of the STM experience in kids expanding worldviews.


If most trips don't have an effective pre-trip time to focus on the trip, even more have difficulty with facilitating proper LEARNING TRANSFER. Two realities fight against effective learning transfer. First, most of the significant learning on a short-term trip takes place in an environment very different from the home communities of students. Second, the students themselves don't know how to transfer the learning to their own lives. Most student ministries don't have programmatic structures that assist in this transfer process either.

One of the exemplars who shared their insights at the Think Tank recommends that students identify a mentor to help them with the LEARNING TRANSFER before the trip even starts. That caring adult can help that student make sure the STM experience is not just a distant memory, but a present reality. The exemplar group overall emphasized the importance of weaving STM into the year-round life of the church and youth ministry in a way that helps facilitate this transfer as well. One way this might play out is requiring students who participate in the far away trip to also take part in the next couple of in our neighborhood service opportunities as a post-trip learning transfer catalyst.

How long do these components take?

By now, you might be wondering if this Joplin paradigm is something you progress through once during the many months involved in your STM experience, or if its something that you progress through many times? The answer is BOTH. The benefit of this model, versus others that have a series of stages, is that it can help leaders facilitate each STM task (i.e., running a program for children or a building project), each overall day during the trip, and a year-long emphasis on service or mission. By thinking through these components for your micro experiences and macro emphases, you can work toward maximizing the long-term effect in students lives.

If we thoughtfully send them, they will grow more likely

One of the most common words associated with STM is that it is an adventure. Most leaders understand that these experiences stretch and push students beyond their comfort zones. The research suggests, and the Think Tank leaders concurred, that we can facilitate these enlightening experiences better than we are currently doing.

There is no simple STM formula guaranteeing that integrating these five components will produce long-term transformation for students. But intentional planning for how to make the most of our STM experiences provides great promise for using these trips to empower students to change the world around them every day, and for the rest of their lives, not just when they're on a short-term mission high.

Action Points

  • Does your ministry tend to view short-term missions more as a three-day, three-week, three-month, or whole year process? Think about three others in your ministry with whom you could dialog about the process and its impact both on your students and on the communities you attempt to serve. What changes might you want to make in your approach as a result of your conversation?
  • Evaluate your incorporation of the support-feedback and debrief processes in the Linhart/Joplin model described above. How can your team further develop these aspects as part of your next STM trip?
  • Given that learning transfer can be one of the most frequently-missed aspects of the experiential learning process, what strategies can you incorporate before and after your next STM experience to increase students’ levels of learning transfer into local, everyday life?
Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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