Healthy Short-Term Missions

Summer is right around the corner, and that means there will be a rise in the number of  short-term mission trips… Especially for church youth groups.  With this in mind, it’s important for us to consider how short-term mission trips can harm both the ones who are doing the helping and the ones who are being helped.  In light of this, how can we re-approach short-term missions in a more healthy way?

This is the theme of a blog post that I recently did for The Rooted Blog.  Side note: Rooted is a ministry doing significant work in encouraging grace-centered student ministry.  This is a much-needed paradigm shift in student ministry, and Rooted is doing a great job of laboring to that end.  Check out their blog and their upcoming conference.

Here’s my recent post on doing short-term missions well.

I have the opportunity to interact with about 1,600 students from all over the country each summer.  These students are coming to a week of “church camp.”  They’re leaving the luxury of their home, gaming systems, TVs, computers, etc., to spend a week in inner-city Memphis serving economically disadvantaged homeowners.  Unfortunately, the underlying motivation behind many of these students’ decision to come to camp is a set of therapeutic and/or moralistic doctrinal beliefs.  It’s my deep joy to remind them of the truth of the gospel: that they serve not because they have to but because they are set free by the grace of God through Jesus to love and serve others.

Here’s what I mean: when our students’ service fails to flow from a heart that realizes its depravity and takes great joy in the truth of the gospel, their service is moralistic.  At that moment, they’re placing themselves and their good works in the place of the Savior.  They’re attempting to save themselves from spiritual poverty.  They become their own functional savior.

Additionally, when a student places himself and his good works in place of the Savior, whatever “good deed” he is doing is for the honor of his own name.  It’s therapeutic.  His reason for serving is to make himself feel good… To remind himself that he’s okay because of his good works…  To feed the functional savior of self.

However, it’s important that those in youth ministry leadership give their students opportunities to serve others.  Here are a few tips about how to lead service projects with a grace-centered, gospel-saturated mindset (these suggestions are applicable to all areas of youth ministry, not just service-oriented projects):

  • Remind students that they’re not the ones in a high position serving those in a low position.  They’re not the more wealthy people serving the more needy people.  Rather, give them gospel lenses.  Help them see that every human being is impoverished and in need of redemptive grace.  Some people’s poverty is manifested materially.  However, those in material poverty may be much more spiritually full than those who are not materially impoverished!
  • Train students to maintain a humble and eager-to-learn posture.  Students with this attitude will quickly learn that they’re often more blessed as they’re seeking to bless others!
  • Remember the gospel!  Take every opportunity to remind students of their radical depravity and their deep need for Jesus!
  • We as ministry leaders must remember the gospel!  Though we know it, we need to be reminded every day: we are not the professionals.  We are not the spiritual elite.  We desperately need Jesus!  May we run to the cross daily, and may our ministry be an overflow of our love for Jesus.
  • Read When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.  This book presents a much-needed paradigm shift and even indirectly deals with much of the moralistic-therapeutic issues so prevalent in the church today.  Another great resource is Bob Lupton’s book on this topic, Toxic Charity.