What if we stopped organizing youth mission trips? How long have youth mission trips been a must-have ingredient to successful youth programs? Certainly as long as I've been in youth ministry. In fact, one of my most memorable experiences of youth group as a teen was a mission trip my senior year of high school. Every summer, youth groups spread out across the country to travel to places they have never been to sample an experience of hands-on mission. For many groups, these trips are seen as great ways to draw members closer together, build lasting memories, and provide youth with a chance to see what it is like to help those in need. But...are these trips actually helpful in launching youth into lifelong mission? Consider the downside of youth mission trips:
- Since these trips are generally attended by youth, with a few adult leaders, they encourage age segregation within the Church, and further distance young people from the wider church family. Such trips may also create an understanding in the minds of youth and adults that these types of mission efforts are only for the young.
- Summer mission trips, usually a week or two in length, actually may encourage an understanding of mission as a once-a-year effort, something that happens far from home, rather than a constant attitude and awareness of the mission we are called to be part of everyday, wherever we may be.
- Many churches entice youth on mission trips with promises of detours to amusement parks, tourist sites, shopping malls, and a fancy dinner out at the end of the week (an attempt to leave behind "the least of these" and reintegrate ourselves back into middle class culture?). Such enticements distract youth from the true purpose of mission and feed into the consumerist mentality of feeling we must get something in return for our efforts to help others.
- Finally, there is a stewardship issue inherent in youth mission trips. Depending on the acutal amount of work that youth will really do over the course of the trip, the costs of such trips can be quite expensive. In some cases, it would be a better act of stewardship to forgo spending funds on travel, food, and lodging and instead donate it all to the mission organization or effort you wish to support.
What if we put a moratorium on this staple of youth ministry? What if we moved from "youth mission trips" to mission experiences that are cross-generational (inviting all age groups within the congregation to participate)? What if for every trip across the country or to Mexico, youth groups organized local mission efforts, right in their "backyard?" What if instead of these short bursts of mission work in the summer, youth ministries adopted long-term mission projects, such as working regularly in local homeless shelters or volunteering weekly time in nursing homes or organizing on-going peace and justice efforts?
What if...? (Oh, and for those of you wondering: Yes, I am taking my youth on a mission trip this summer!)