There have been many critiques about short term mission trips with teenagers. There are stories of young people who travel far away, excited to do daily construction projects, only to have locals secretly redoing their work each night. There have been calculations of how terribly cost ineffective it is to send big youth groups across the country or the world and be hosted for a week, when that money could have been used to fund local projects or pay for scholarships there. Then there are those nagging questions, “What are the youth getting out of these trips?” “Do the local folks there even want us to come and do this work?” “Isn’t there so much still left to do right here in our own community?”
I believe these critiques indicate a shift happening in many mainline denominations— from a “Christendom” understanding of Church to a “post-Christendom” or “post-colonial” one. Part of how this translates to our youth engaging in mission is revealed by answering, “What exactly is the ‘mission’ of these mission trips?
I grew up in church during the 1970s and 80s. I was blessed to witness the work of missionaries sent out by my congregation. From Zaire, Nepal, China, Brazil, and Mexico, they came back home to tell us stories about their ministries— sharing the Gospel, feeding the hungry, healing the sick. I remember studying passages from the Bible that were our clarion calls for Christian mission.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” (Matthew 25:35)
Certainly these texts still call us out into the world to teach and serve others in the name of Jesus. But I suggest there is another way to think about youth mission trips—as an opportunity to be changed and find one’s prophetic voice.
Gavin wouldn’t stop talking about bathrooms. This twelve year old had returned from a week at Asheville Youth Mission in Asheville, NC. That week the group was immersed in the difficult issues facing our community— homelessness, poverty, public transportation, and food insecurity. Through getting to know and working alongside our Asheville neighbors, they explored the dual reality here: if you are wealthy, or a tourist, you’ll enjoy being here. If you are homeless, or have a low wage job, living in Asheville can be difficult…and hard to change your situation.
Gavin was particularly struck by the lack of free public restrooms downtown. It’s a problem that leads to many bad consequences if you’re homeless, are downtown, and really need to go. When Gavin went back to his home church, located in downtown Durham, he realized that there was a similar problem. So he started talking to people about it…. and talking, and talking. He wouldn’t stop bringing up this issue at church. A lay leader heard Gavin and said, “Well, I’m a contractor and I have access to some portable toilets. Could we maybe use those?” Today that congregation has portable restrooms on site so anyone can have access to a private restroom 24/7. Because of his experience that summer Gavin had his eyes opened to a need, and he found his prophetic voice to do something about it.
The assumption is that youth take such trips so they can “help others” somewhere and then go home. We’ve found that often the “mission” of the trip is one to and for that youth. We immerse young people in another context. They explore the problems there, and the ways people are working to address them. They meet those who have answered God’s call to love their neighbor. The youth reflect on their experiences and connect the social justice issues they see to the commands of Scripture.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
By the end of their trip they are equipped to take their experiences home so they can live their Christian calling in their own context— next week, next year, and beyond.
So, at YMCo, we’ve stopped doing mission trips. Instead, we focus on mission immersion experiences, a pilgrimage where youth risk being uncomfortable, bear witness to God at work, and then come home different. Do the youth work hard while they are with us? Absolutely! That’s often the best way for young people to engage. But just as important as the work they are doing for others is the work God is doing with them. It’s work that changes the way they see the world, and moves us a step closer to the kingdom of God.
Bill Buchanan is a teaching elder of the PCUSA and the Executive Director of the validated ministry Youth Mission Co, which includes Asheville Youth Mission, Raleigh Youth Mission, and Memphis Youth Mission. He lives in Asheville, NC.
Read the reflection of Union Presbyterian Seminary student, Marcy Wright, on her experience attending the 2017 Annual Event in Denver, Colorado. In Troubling Times, Seeing Chaos as Opportunity, posted originally on the UPSem blog.