My time as a professor of youth ministries has allowed me a significant amount of space for reflection that was not often available during the busyness of full-time church ministry. During a conversation over the weekend, I was reminded of one of the topics I’ve been considering over the past few years: missions.
The high school foreign missions trip has tended to be a staple of the youth group experience over the past few decades. So many of our students have been able to expand the vision of their world, travel to a new place, serve the needs of missionaries and nationals, and leave transformed by the encounters and spiritual experiences they have had. It is no wonder such trips persist.
I myself am no stranger to missions. My grandparents served as missionaries for over a decade. I was 14 during my missions trip, and have been on five since. As a leader in the Assemblies of God in New Jersey, I helped coordinate and lead missions efforts for our district youth department. My denomination has historically embraced the call to share the gospel around the world, and I am “on board” with their continuing efforts. My wife and I support a missionary couple who are serving in Latin America.
And yet: as I have been thinking about the way we do missions with youth, I’m worried. Some of it has to do with post-colonial questions. Some of it has to do with finances. Still more has to do with what Andy Root has referred to as “the mission trip as global tourism.” And then, of course, I’m worried that in some sense the missions trip may be perpetuating a lie or–even worse–a somewhat concerning truth.
I’ll ask some questions today, and invite responses. Some of these queries are born from reflection and others from experience. They are not representative of every missions trip, but they do point to some structural issues that I think we ought to address as they appear. No doubt there will be disagreement, and that’s OK. I welcome discussion on the topic. Tomorrow I’ll share some of my thoughts about what we might do moving forward. I still believe in missions, in other words. I just want to make sure the way it all works at the youth ministry level represents our best and most faithful efforts. Most of my concerns, then, are not with missions itself, but rather the way we might think about and enact it.
Problem #1: The White Man’s Burden and the World Church. There was a time, in ages past, when nearly the entirety of the non-Western world was non-Christian. There was little Christian presence in certain areas and the name of Jesus was a foreign one. In many ways, these days are gone. While there are places on our globe that are significantly un-Christian (think, for instance, parts of the Middle East), there are fewer and fewer places around the world that have no Christian presence. Christians impelled by God’s Spirit the world over have helped make this a reality.
But here’s the thing: as Christianity becomes more and more indigenized, it makes less sense to keep relying solely on the (often white) missionary for evangelistic work. Instead, their efforts of the Church should be to empower the (mostly non-white) indigenous believers to minister in their own context. This is an axiom in most missionary circles. Yet the way missions is presented at the youth ministry level can perpetuate the old and somewhat discredited idea that “we” are going to help “those people” (whether spiritually or with regard to infrastructure, education, etc.). Our efforts at missions can therefore oversell what we do at the expense of what God is already doing. I believe in a Church that exists all over the world and a Spirit who works in all believers. Surely, then, the mission of God is not a one-way street?
Problem #2: The Inequities of Money and Missions. While there are missions trips of all shapes and sizes, the “sexiest” among them tend to be the international ones. This often means airplanes and accommodations, and this translates into money. Depending on the locale of the trip, this can mean a lot of money. When we’re asking for potentially multiple thousands of dollars from students, churches, and families in order to take part in projects like this, are we comfortable with the price tag? In other words: is our money best spent this way? These are good questions.
To be sure, the presence of American teens ready and willing to help missionaries and nationals on the ground can be a big “shot in the arm” for their efforts there and provide an effective albeit temporary means of assistance. I wonder, though, whether the cost(s) associated with such help aren’t sometimes just too high. Further, if getting together the money for such trips might exclude certain students or families for socio-economic reasons, are we not creating some kind of missions/spiritual hierarchy by doing so?
Problem #3: Missions and Tourism. In many ways this problem flows from the previous one. In my time as state missions trip leader, I would be asked “where are we going next year, Pastor Josh?” An innocent and excited question, surely, but one which speaks to the larger implications of missions as tourist adventure. After all, every missions trip tended to involve a fun shopping/tourist/relaxation day for our students.
Students who can afford to go on missions trips year after year can and do. They’re engaging in service, surely, but they can also be buying into a kind of mentality that values experience and excitement above all else (not to mention the fact that the “repeat customer” phenomena favors those with more money). This is dangerous.
Problem #4: The Mission Trip as Either Fib or Fancy I wonder whether the way we sometimes sell missions to adolescents isn’t a bit deceptive. And even when we’re being honest, I not sure the reasons we provide should justify all we do. First, the fib. In some circles, missions is promoted to students as them “making a real difference” in the world by means of evangelism and relief. They’re going over there to rescue/save/etc. And to be sure, a work project they’re involved in can help others. A soul that accepts the gospel as presented by a team of students makes a difference. These are realities. But: students are only there a week or two. In the grand scheme of things they’re not making a monumental difference. The resources and time they are spending to go overseas might be just as well utilized making a difference in their backyards. The real work of missions is done by those–nationals and outsiders alike–who are continually on the ground.
The fib, of course is recognized by many youth pastors, who instead own up to the main reason we take students on these trips: for the transformative experience it has on their lives. Broadening their horizons, having them encounter other cultures, engaging them in spiritual work and reflection; all of these are part and parcel of the missions trip experience. Students’ lives are changed on these trips, callings are discerned, and God’s voice is truly heard. I rejoice in this. But only a few get to experience it. And it costs a lot of money to do so. Further, using such trips for the effect they have on students’ lives–the ends, in other words–deeply devalues the people, lives, and situations around the world that constitute the means by which we achieve these goals. Stated bluntly, if missions trips are about changing our students’ lives we are just using those to whom we ostensibly are going to serve. And this seems problematic.
So there you have it. Some thoughts and questions. I’ve admittedly taken a rather dim view of a certain approach to missions here, and I realize that there are good responses to each of the concerns I’ve raised. Even so, I think that if we’re not willing to consider the dangers inherent the way(s) that we can think about the student missions trip, we could be causing some real problems.
I believe in students. I believe in missionaries. I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God all around the world. It is because of these things that I ask questions, and ask how we might improve.
I look forward to your comments and thoughts.