Yesterday I shared some of my concerns about student missions. Over the last 24 hours I’ve received some thoughtful feedback and considered more deeply how we might rethink the way youth ministers work with students in this area.
As a clarification, let me say this: my critiques yesterday were neither a rejection of missions as a concept nor the work and efforts of missionaries on the ground. Instead, my words were offered as a potential corrective to certain practices or thoughts about missions here in the United States. A caution to youth pastors, if you will. After all, missionaries by and large are aware of the dangers and realities of cross-cultural ministry. They understand the principle of indigeneity and the empowerment of national believers. Telling them about some of the risks of youth missions is like preaching to the choir.
We youth pastors, though, can have all sorts of heroic, idealistic, and impractical ideas of what missions is about. Or, at the very least, we might let erroneous ideas persist in the minds of our students. Such things can lead to the problems I shared yesterday. My questions, therefore, are meant to lead American youth ministries to reconsider the way they do mission trips.
Here, then, are four thoughts to point things forward:
Proposition 1: Providing a Frame. In order to avoid the problem(s) of cultural insensitivity or unhelpful ideas about the purpose and aims of a missions trip, it makes sense for youth pastors to prepare their teams effectively. This means more than just learning skits, developing your testimony, or learning how to do basic construction. It rather involves focused discussion of what the intercultural missions experience is about, what the aims are, and what one hopes to do/learn.
Particular emphasis should be given to learning about the culture to which the team is traveling and discussing how such encounters with the global church are so powerful. The emphasis needs to move from, in other words, “we are going to help those poor helpless people” to “we are going to join together with the Church in this place for the Kingdom of God.”
Two resources that might be helpful in this preparation process are Deep Justice Journeys and Serving With Eyes Wide Open. By utilizing such a training process, students will hopefully have a better sense of the mission in which they are engaging, why they are really doing it, and what God might do in them and others through it.
Proposition 2: Fencing the Table. While I know that a number of students sacrifice in order to go on a student missions trip, I also know that the problem of “repeat customers” can run the risk of making it more about the trip than the mission. Christian tourism is something I want to avoid. As such, I’d encourage youth pastors to think about limiting the number of times a student can go on a missions trip during their high school years (maybe even letting them go only once).
At the same time, I’d like to make it easier for every student to be able to go at least once. I believe strongly in the place of intercultural experiences and the opportunity for students to see God at work beyond their normal existence. As a missionary friend of mine said, it is on these kinds of missions journeys that God can powerfully impact students’ lives and outlook.
Perhaps the answer, then, is providing a way for trips to be cheaper for first-timers and/or making the application process a bit more difficult for those who’d like to go a second or third time. I realize there are exceptions to every rule, but in order to keep the focus where it needs to be this might be helpful.
Proposition 3: The Consistent Locale: In some circles, the missions trip “flavor of the year” only increases the risk of the tourism idea taking effect. Though God can and does use the one-and-done weeklong efforts of groups that change locations every year, I’m increasingly interested in the church partnership model of missions. This is where an American church–the whole congregation, not just the youth–partners with a local church community and/or missionary team in another culture for the long term. Missions efforts and trips are therefore about joining together in numerous ways.
By not scattering missions efforts across the globe, real connections are formed and growing community and mutual dialogue can take place. Both sides in the equation can learn more about what God is doing and understand more of the mission of God. I know that some churches are already living this type of model, and I applaud them for it. It both provides opportunity for more sustained work and change, and also helps us think of missions in terms of partnership for the Kingdom rather than a top-down type of aid effort.
Proposition 4: The Reverse Missions Trip. This is my most “outside the box” idea, but I think it has potential. As I’ve said, so often missions trips paint us (often white) Americans as the heroes and those (often non-white) to whom we travel as those who need to be recipients of our help. The mission, in other words, only flows in one way. While this is the situation in a number of cases, I know as well that there is much that Christians around the globe have to offer us. More, I think, than we might realize.
Why not try this, then: instead of raising money so that we can go there, what if we gathered resources that allowed people from another culture to travel to our hometowns? Especially if their background intersected with immigrant groups in our communities, they could help our churches with evangelism, outreach, and service to demographics that we might have great difficulty connecting with otherwise. So too our visitors could teach us more about their lives of faith even as they learn about the way our churches serve God in our daily lives. They could partner with us in efforts in our communities, and we together would embrace the idea that we’re on mission with God no matter where we are. Such a trip would be especially powerful if done in conjunction with the idea of a consistent locale.
Obviously, these four brief ideas aren’t complete, and they don’t answer all of my concerns or others you might have. They are, however, a start. As with yesterday’s post, I welcome your responses and thoughts as I continue to reflect on how American churches and youth ministries might best engage in missions.