Rethinking the mission trip

Feb 25, 2015 by

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During the recent 40th anniversary special of Saturday Night Live, they did some looking back. Some of my favorite sketches featured Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. The sketch was so good that eventually a movie was made. It was a tale of redemption for Jake and his brother Elwood, who go on “a mission from God” to the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up.

I might be stretching history a bit, but I do find it interesting that the movie came out in 1980, about the same time that short-term mission trips started to become popular. DOOR, the ministry I work for, began in 1986 as an effort to organize the growing number of groups that were coming to Denver’s Westside to do service.

The groups that arrived came with the purist of motives. They wanted to help the poor people of west Denver. These motives were where often chock full of stereotypes and assumptions. The poor were brown, uneducated, unable to do for themselves, and didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Mission trip was about giving something to the Westside that the Westside couldn’t get on its own.

Over the years we, and other similar programs, began to see the fallacy with this way of thinking and doing. By the late 1990’s DOOR adopted the tagline to “see the face of God in the city.” This was our effort to recognize that God was already present in the city. It was our way of challenging participants who talked about bringing Jesus to the city.

Recognizing that God is in the city also exposed prejudices. Just because people look different does not imply that their faith is any less vibrant or real. A person’s physical location, in our case the city, says nothing about someone’s ability to achieve educationally or think theologically.

In the last few years there has been another shift in our thinking about the Mission (or Service) trip. Why invite outsiders to the city? If all they want to do is have us reaffirm their stereotypes of urban folks, then all we are is tour operators giving the client what they want.

Where does this leave us? Well, I am a huge believer in the mission trip. I do wish I had a different word than “mission,” but that is for another discussion. We, particularly young people, need to take these trips because there are very few places left where people are afforded the opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of their faith.

For the most part, people of faith only gather together with those who share their stereotypes, worship preferences, theology and understanding of God. A mission trip, when done with thoughtful intentionality, provides a place to reflect and think about your faith with those who are different. Sadly, when it comes to faith beliefs and differences we are still an intolerant people.

If you are a leader looking for a mission/service trip, make sure you find a program that isn’t going to reinforce all your preconceived ideas of what mission is and what the needs of the people are. Find a program that is less concerned with service and more concerned with who you will interact with.

Finding ways for your group to sit in a circle of “differences” and be challenged will produce good fruit back at home.

Glenn Balzer lives in Denver and attends His Love Fellowship. He blogs at where this post first appeared.

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  • Charlie Kraybill

    The reason short-term “mission trips” feel so hollow is because they are a form of tokenism. They’re largely symbolic efforts, the primary achievement being that it makes the “missionary” feel good about themselves and about their willingness to “sacrifice” bits of their privileged time. Rarely do these trips result in long-term positive change for those at the receiving end. How do you think folks who are being “missionized” feel when they see a steady stream of affluent (and often clueless) outsiders, from the well-to-do suburbs, trek into their neighborhoods for a few days/weeks of mission “adventurism”? What amazes me is that poor folks don’t tell missionaries to take a hike and never come back. If mission-minded christians really want to be be authentic, in my opinion, they need to go all in or don’t go at all. By which I mean: Move into the poor neighborhoods, and — *gasp* — be willing to become poor oneself. Not as a short-term adventure or “experience” but as a permanent committed lifestyle. Then your orientation towards those around you will change completely, and your “missionary work” will just be your daily life. Read anything by Dorothy Day if you want to know how this is done. Reading the Sermon on the Mount is good too.

    • Stephen Johnson

      I have also had mixed feelings about the long term benefit of short term mission trips. How helpful to those on the receiving end are they? However what I started seeing over the years was a impact on those participating. Most of those participating in these trips come from backgrounds where they have had little exposure to poverty or diversity. These trips at the very least increase the world view of those participating and in some cases can be truly life changing. I would love to see every young adult participate. Obviously there is only so much exposure that can occur in a week. It would be great to see the church strongly encourage a year of service. This would not need to be evangelical in nature. MCCs SALT is a great example.

  • Conrad Hertzler

    Good post. I know that there are a lot of pros and cons discussed regarding mission trips. And I know that they are used by people for various wrong reasons: doing it because mom and dad told me I had to. Or (maybe more secretly) doing it to try to get God off my back because He is asking me to commit my life fully into His service. Or doing it to help myself feel good. You hear people talking about their experience on a short term mission trip as a way to say, “yeah, I’ve gone overseas and done missions”. But if we were to discount the mission trip because it is used for these reasons, then we also discount God’s ability to use such experiences to shape and mold a young person’s (or older person’s) life and to open their eyes to a hurting world. For myself, I know that God used short term mission trips to confirm a calling that he had already placed on my life and I am now a full-time overseas missionary. For me, these experiences were valuable.

  • Troy Landis

    Great article Glenn. I hope that we can continue to have constructive conversations on what makes Short-term mission helpful. At EMM we are organizing a gathering this spring (April 18) to bring together youth leaders and others to discuss how we can continue to work at short-term missions in ways that are empowering and connect into lasting work, like you’ve been a part of for so long. These are some great thoughts to jump off of for that gathering. Blessings as you continue to serve!