Tough questions to ask before your next missions trip

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Feb 15, 2006

Where will we go for our next spring break or summer mission trip?

Who will sign up?

How can we raise the money to get there?

Most of us, upon answering these and other administrative short-term mission (STM) questions, pat ourselves on the back. Once we have the logistics planned and once we’ve reassured parents that their kids are safe in our hands, we settle in to STM cruise control, assuming we’ve answered the most important questions.

In reality, we’re just scratching the surface.

A June 2005 “Christianity Today” article entitled “Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Makes a Difference” has sparked nationwide discussions about the difference between the perceived and actual transformation created by STM. [[https://www.christianitytoday.c....]] In particular, the article’s summary of initial research by Kurt Ver Beek, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Third-World Development at Calvin College, raises new and tough questions that challenge the common assumption that life-change is inevitably generated by STM.

Ver Beek’s provocative research, as well as additional research conducted by Robert Priest, Associate Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was presented and discussed by 80 U.S. and international STM leaders and academicians at a January 2006 forum hosted by the National Network of Youth Ministries. Their findings, as well as the responses of the leaders gathered, raise tough questions that youth leaders would be wise to wrestle with before packing their suitcase for their next short-term trip.

Tough Question #1: What value are we really adding to those who host us?

When we paint an orphanage, build a house, or distribute food to the homeless, their “thank you”s fill us – and our students – with the reassurance that our work is valuable and appreciated. But if they had the chance to choose between us and our money, what would they choose?

According to Ver Beek, they might choose our financial resources. Ver Beek, a resident of Honduras due to his role at Calvin as host of their Overseas Study Program, studied both the short-termers and the Honduran communities they visited following Hurricane Mitch in 1998. In his interviews with 40 locals who received homes from STM groups, Ver Beek and his team asked the new homeowners if they would rather have the North American STMers come and build the home or have the $20,000 that the STM group raised to come. Instead of just enabling one home, this $20,000 could actually build ten homes. While the Hondurans appreciated the chance to build relationships with North American STMers, the common answer was that they would rather have the financial resources so they could help more families and employ more Hondurans. [[Kurt Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling: Review of Research on Short-Term Missions, Study Abroad, and Service Learning,” presentation given on January 10, 2006, Orlando, FL.]]

One STM Honduran beneficiary, while very appreciative of the help that she had received, reported through tears, “It is better for them to send the money in order to help more people who are in need.” [[Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras After Hurricane Mitch,” November 2005.]]

As one local Honduran leader answered, “They gather money to come here to do work, work that we are capable of doing.” [[Kurt Ver Beek, Ibid.]]

Tough Question #2: What type of transformation does STM develop in our students?

Some youth workers, if they are really honest, care more about the transformation that occurs in their own students than those who host them in other countries or cultures. Surely STM trips accomplish life change in the thirteen and seventeen-year-olds who we load onto buses and airplanes for a week of service and evangelism.

Maybe, maybe not. Ver Beek’s survey of 162 North American STMers, in which 127 responded, examined eleven factors, including their levels of giving, time spent volunteering, reading about missions, and praying for missions. In the case of financial giving to the missions organization that sponsored their trip, 16% reported after the trip that their giving had significantly increased; 45% reported a slight increase in giving; 40% reported no increase.

Ver Beek then compared the STMers’ impressions of their own giving with the actual giving records of that missions organization. According to the records, only 25% gave at all to the missions organization. Financial giving to the STMers’ own churches increased an average of 1%, with six churches experiencing an increase in giving and eleven churches actually receiving less money.

Ver Beek’s findings run counter to several previous studies that cite the life-transformation created by STM. Yet critiques of previous studies point out that they often rely on small sample sizes and are generally done right after the STM trip while participants are still on a “missions high.” In addition, previous studies typically have asked participants to rate how their own lives have changed without checking their perceptions against other empirical measures of change. Such self-report data may be biased, as was possibly the case with the 127 STMers who described their increased giving to Ver Beek. [[Kurt Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling”.]]

Tough Question #3: How might our short-term work actually hinder the work of career missionaries?

Priest’s study of STMers and long-term missionaries has caused him to wonder if STM trips hinder the financial viability of those who serve on the field long-term. In many ways, STM trips are attractive “competition” for donors who find the smaller amounts of money and “one-time gifts” needed for STM more appealing. Of course, the counter-perspective argues that exposing youth to missions through short-term trips may help generate a sense of calling to long-term cross-cultural work or a calling to support such long-term work through prayer and finances. While that is difficult to dispute, it’s possible that as kids and young adults try to obey that calling to vocational missions, other STM fundraising efforts might make their own support-raising more challenging. [[Robert J. Priest, “Reflections on Combining Zeal and Knowledge in Short-Term Missions,” presentation given on January 10, 2006, Orlando, FL.]]

Implications for Youth Ministry

In the midst of the forum presentations by Priest, Ver Beek, and others, several important implications were suggested.

1. When we do STM, we need to serve the work of the career missionaries and local leaders.

In most cases, STM trips are hosted by local leaders who live indigenously year-round. One often unrecognized way our STM work can add value is to place our service of them as a top priority. Instead of us informing them about what we’d like to do when we serve, we need to spend adequate time with them in advance so that we can make sure our service truly adds value to them and their communities.

2. When we go, we need to develop true collaboration with those we serve.

Often in youth missions, we think of ourselves as the “goers” and the locals as the “receivers.” And guess what “gift” we give the “receivers?” Ourselves! We need a new paradigm of collaboration that involves more dialogue and mutuality so that both sides “give” and “receive” from each other. Sure, we might have more resources and particular areas of expertise, but they have other areas of expertise and culture that will enrich our lives in return.

3. When we fundraise, we need to cover not just our own costs but also raise funds for the locals.

One Midwest church has found great success in challenging students not just to raise the $1000 it takes for their own trip, but also to raise an additional $1000 each to invest in the host community. That way, the youth ministry still gets to build relationships with the locals but it also invests significantly in longer-term projects that benefit the community.

4. When we do STM, we need to make sure we develop effective preparation programs for before the trip, and extensive follow-up programs for when we return.

Ver Beek is currently pursuing a second research study that examines the quantity and quality of significant change created by students involved in the academic discipline of service-learning. Service-learning pairs academic learning with actual service, so that an accounting class will serve a local ministry by providing a year-end audit, or a Spanish class will tutor ESL students. Interestingly, these types of service opportunities might lead to greater levels of life-change than STM trips. [[Kurt Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling”.]]

Perhaps one factor that leads to this change is the preparation and follow-up that are inherent in most service-learning programs. Teachers and faculty assign papers and journal writing to help students anticipate what they will be doing, and then apply their service experiences to the rest of their lives. While I am not planning to assign any papers on our next STM trip, it’s probably time for youth ministries to take both our training and debriefing discussions more seriously. Perhaps instead of just making sure we have collected every students’ medical release as our “preparation,” we should meet consistently for several months in advance to discuss expectations, cultural dynamics, and even a theology of service and missions. That might involve watching videos or reading articles or book chapters together, and then reflecting through art, written journals, and group discussions. Similarly, on the last night of the trip, maybe it’s time we go beyond simply asking, “So what did you guys like about the trip?”, and instead develop a more intentional plan to encourage integration during the weeks and months after the trip ends.

5. Part of our preparation and debrief should address WHY those in other contexts face particular struggles.

A helpful distinction between “service” and “social justice” is that while “service” offers someone a cup of cold water, “social justice” asks why that person needs water in the first place. Most youth ministries rarely discuss the complicated causes and consequences of poverty, unclean water, disease, oppression, greed, apathy, and political corruption. Students today who want to dive into these issues will go deeper if we adults jump into the discussion first.

6. We need to view STM as part of a year-round focus on developing world Christians who serve.

Instead of focusing on “planning a good missions trip,” many youth workers are shifting to a year-round goal of developing world Christians, with a 3-10 day trip as one of may steps toward that goal. In fact, some youth workers are even challenging the use of the word “short-term missions” for they feel that it implies that the “missions” emphasis is only for a few days, or weeks. Instead, they call their trips “journeys” or “sojourns” that are more organically imbedded in the themes of their ministry year round.

As one youth worker gathered in Orlando remarked, “I think defining the question correctly gets us half way to the answer.” While perhaps that’s an exaggeration, it does reinforce the importance of raising the tough questions about STM so that our ministries, and those who host us, benefit as much as possible from our own missions work.

Such real growth – both in our kids and the communities we visit – takes time. As Ver Beek summarizes in the conclusions of his report, “Rather than seeing communities and North Americans as easily changed entities, I am wondering if they do not more closely resemble young saplings, which can be bent and even held in place for a week or more, but once let loose quickly go back to growing vertically. Those saplings need to be held in place for a much longer time for the change to be permanent.” [[Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions”.]]

Action Points:

  1. Thinking about your own STM experiences, in what ways do you think your students have been transformed? How about those you partnered with?
  2. What do you find interesting about these research findings? What, if anything, do you find troubling?
  3. Do you agree with Ver Beek’s quote at the end of this article that implies that real change likely takes more time than a week or two? Why or why not?
  4. If you had to give yourself a grade for the collaboration that you develop with local partners, what would it be? How do you feel about that grade? If it’s not an “A,” what could you do to improve your approach?
  5. As you think about future STM trips, what ideas do you have for improving your ministry’s preparation ahead of time and follow-up afterwards?

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Photo by Debby Lebet

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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