3 Ways to Rethink Your “Same Old” Summer Mission Trip

Phil Steiner
February 11th, 2020

Mission trips can be one of the most transformational opportunities we do with our youth groups. We have witnessed lives changed and our students gain a bigger understanding of God in the world, as well as a different perspective on life outside of our comfort zone. But sometimes we can get into a rut and the mission trip can become stale. Even worse, our trips with those we serve can do more harm than good. What are four ways we can re-do the summer mission trip?

1. Build Long-Term Reciprocal Relationships On Your Short-Term Mission Trip

Living in Mexico, just south of the San Diego/Tijuana border I see a lot of short-term mission groups come and go. I talk to many of the ministry leaders who host these teams. To quote a friend of mine, “All groups bring joy, some when they come and some when they leave.” The groups that ministries are “joyful” to see go are the ones who do not care about the people they are serving. The youth group wants their spiritual and emotional high by building a house, “leading someone to the Lord.” or handing out food to the “least of these.” But many of these groups are void of any meaningful relationships. It looks more like a shopping mall where shoppers (trip goers) purchase their experience and the store owner (trip hosts) gets a new house or a VBS for the week. This is not a healthy ministry.

We would all agree that relationships are the foundation of any effective ministry, this should include the people we meet on our short-term mission trip. The ministries in other communities we serve desire relationships above projects. They want to be known and heard and they want to know and hear from you. How do we do this? Develop prayer partnerships with your youth group, follow up with the ministry regularly for any prayer, resource or financial needs. If possible, invite the ministry leaders to your church to share. Lastly, go back to the same community next year on your trip! Think, Short-term mission trips, long term relationships.

2. Yield to the Holy Spirit and Share the Mic

A youth pastor worked hours planning out his teaching time for his mission trip. He developed a whole reading plan, pre-written talks for the evening, and discussion questions. But he missed the experience his team was having on the trip. The lessons were disconnected from what God was doing on the trip. There is so much that happens on a trip, that if we are willing to listen to what God is doing and join Him in His work, imagine the deeper impact we can have. I am not saying to go without a lesson or devotional, but be humble enough to toss your lesson and move to where the Holy Spirit is moving. Our goal should be transformation, not information. 

One of the adjustments we made was to invite the ministry leaders we are serving to share their stories or give a devotional. We all know the power of stories and when they are coming from the people we are serving, they provide a different perspective and understanding of God, Scripture, faith, and life. Plan into your evening times space for local ministry leaders to grab the “mic” and share. Then watch what God does.

3. Dig Below the Surface

Many times when we go on our mission trips we come with certain assumptions about the people and community we are going to serve. Even while on the trip we may see or experience things that will make us uncomfortable and we will quickly make an assumption of the situation. One that I have often heard is, “They are happy with so little.” That moment we had with the child playing in the dirt might have been a happy moment, but it does not define the child’s life as being happy. How do we combat our assumptions on the trip? 

Ask hard questions and do not settle for the simple easy answer. “Do we know what that child’s life is like after we leave?” “Where will her family get food or clean water tomorrow?” A great question to ask is “why?” Why is there poverty in this community? Why are their orphans? Why do they not have clean water? Why are these people living in the projects in the inner city? Ask these questions of your youth group and to the ministry leaders or community people, you are partnering with on your trip. When we dig below the surface we will understand better how to serve the community and we will teach our students how to critically think about missions, ministry, and life. Digging deeper is hard, but it is worth it! 

Our short-term mission trips can change people’s lives, it can also do a lot of damage. One of the best ways to avoid doing damage is to develop long-term reciprocal relationships with the people we serve. I constantly encourage youth groups to go back to the same community you went to the previous year and develop those relationships. As you look forward to your summer mission trips, consider how you can develop long-term relationships, yield to the Holy Spirit, and dig below the surface in order to bring Good News to everyone and allow them to be Good News to you.

Phil Steiner

Phil Steiner is the co-founder and President of Be2Live a service and justice organization with a mission to inspire world changers. He is also the author of “Reciprocal Missions: Short-Term Missions that Serve Everyone.” Phil has worked with high school students for the last twenty years and is passionate about helping people understand and discover who they are, who God is and how they can use their gifts to join Him in His heart for justice and the restoration of all things. Phil Steiner is a graduate of Taylor University and a graduate of Kilns College with a Masters of Arts in Social Justice. Phil is crazy about his family, surfing the perfect wave, running, coaching basketball and cheering on the Ohio State Buckeyes.

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