let’s revolutionize youth group mission trips! please!

I have always been skeptical of short term mission trips, and I’ve been even skeptical-er of ones done by youth groups.

There’s plenty of work to do right where we live, my mother would rant whenever the subject came up. Why must kids go gallivanting off to the far corners of the earth just to help people?

She had a point. It did seem rather odd to raise thousands of dollars for a group of kids to pound nails for a couple days.

I understand the desire for adventure. I do. Wasn’t that what we were after, signing up for this MCC term? But my husband and I came with skills and years of experience. We’ve already worked with MCC for three years. There was a job opening—they were asking for someone to do a particular task (and they just so happened to luck out and get two people instead of one, ha!). There was an application process complete with essay questions, reference checks, and interviews. We had to qualify.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if a group of high school students showed up at my house in Virginia wanting to work, I would not be happy. I do not want a bunch of inexperienced highschoolers trooping all over my property, waving paint brushes and nail guns. If I’m going to do a home improvement project, I want it done by an experienced person, and if not an expertly experienced person, than at the minimum a capable and hard working one.

The majority of teenagers do not fit this bill. Through no fault of their own, they have yet to develop consumable skills. (That’s putting it nicely. Work teams are lucky if they get two kid who know how to swing a hammer.) Just because they are going to a poor country that doesn’t have nail guns does not mean that the host culture wants them to be doing their projects either. It’s a tad bit presumptuous to think that other people might appreciate our unskilled, unhandy children.

Of course, the host culture won’t say a word about it. They’re far too polite. They’ll graciously welcome the kids with their weird body piercings and tattoos and sullen attitudes, give them a few simple tasks to help them feel useful, feed them, and then go on about their life. Because the truth is (the best I can tell), the host culture doesn’t care a fig whether or not these kids come.

Once I asked a coworker what she thought about these groups that kept coming down from the States.

“They’re fine,” she said.

“No really,” I said. “What do you think? I’d love to be a fly on the wall and hear what you all say when there aren’t any gringos around.”

my super-polite and gracious coworker
(NOT in the process of being grilled by me)

She laughed and then confessed, “Well, this group seemed a little elitist. But they were all family, right?”

She was defending them, bless her heart, but underneath her cautious response, I got the clear impression that she really didn’t care one way or another. Maybe nobody even bothers to talk about these foreigners that raise thousands of dollars to come help them? Maybe it’s not even a topic that warrants conversation? Wouldn’t that be funny.

Teens are neat. I like them. They have interesting thoughts and refreshing observations, but left to their own devices, they can be apathetic, self-centered, and dull. Sadly, I’ve seen mission group teens fly their ill-mannered teen flags really, really high. I’ve seen kids complain and fuss, refuse hospitality, roll their eyes and make fun of the host culture. I’ve seen them skip out on work because, as one frustrated leader said, “I’m sorry, they don’t want to work right now. They’re being teens.” I’ve seen them sit around with their friends and practice The Refined Art of Studied Disinterestedness. Let me tell you, there is nothing more disgusting than watching a bunch of rich kids bitch about the unique experience they are having on the church’s dollar.

I get it that cross cultural experiences are difficult, that teens feel insecure and self-conscious, that their awkwardness can come across as snobbishness when that’s not what they are intending at all. What I don’t get is bad manners, an entitled attitude, and a dragging work ethic.

What do these groups tell their churches post trip? Among tales of bad bathrooms and beans for breakfast and supper, travel woes, and the colorful natives, do they share the other side? About how they abandoned their assigned (and counted on!) tasks in favor of hanging out in their rooms? About how the leaders had to demand, beg, and plead that they lift a finger to help out? About how they didn’t say thank you or look people in the eye or smile or ask questions? Something tells me that the sending church never hears that side of the story.

Once when I asked a leader about how his group was holding up, he said, “Well, they’re learning to appreciate the things they have, like warm showers!”

Really? That’s why they’re spending thousands of dollars? To learn appreciation? Oh goodness! Mastering the art of appreciation does not need to be an expensive venture!

Now, to be fair, we’ve helped host groups that are interested, engaged, curious, and relational. The difference between the good guests and the bad ones is one thing. Well, two. The good groups are almost always older, late teens and early twenties. But besides age, there’s another big difference. The effective groups call themselves what they are: learning groups. They don’t mask their presence with do-gooder talk. They are up front about their reason for traveling: to experience, understand, and appreciate. With this attitude, the participants are much more culturally sensitive and receptive.

So here’s what I recommend. Let’s drop the “mission trip” lingo. It doesn’t matter where the kids are going—Costa Rica, Kentucky, the inner city, the other side of the tracks, a local soup kitchen, whatever—let’s call these groups for what they are: Adventure Groups. Study Tours. Eye Opening Experiences. Stretch and Grow Trips. Horizon Broadeners. Calling them “mission groups” implies that the participants are doing something beneficial for the host culture. But the facts are these: the host culture is not asking for help from our children. These trips are for our children.

And while we’re in the process of revolutionizing the traditional youth mission trip, now known as The Cross-Cultural Study Tour, let’s set some standards.

First, the group leaders need to be teachers, guides, and facilitators. They need to know how to bridge the culture gap and how to model that for the teens. They must know the kids, have high expectations for them, and be able to push them fairly hard.

Second, the teens need to be willing to work hard, both emotionally and physically. Give them an entrance application and let them write an essay about what they hope to get out of the experience. Assign them reading material relating to the host culture and cross cultural experiences. While on the trip, expect them to journal, participate in small group conversations, and listen to lectures on context, history, and the current political situation that their leaders have arranged for their betterment. Even the best of teens can be cliquey, and they become even more cliquey in unfamiliar situations, so split them up! Get them to relate to the other culture! And despite all I said about kids and nail guns, work projects are good. Wash windows, haul dirt, split wood. Sweat hard and sweat for hours, not just a few minutes here and there.

Third, Churches, be careful about who you send and why. Hold the travelers accountable. Challenge them; ask them hard questions. In turn, be responsive to their stories and questions. Keep in mind that short-term trips (three weeks or less) don’t have much effect on a person’s life choices. Trips three-months or longer have a bigger impact. So think carefully and act wisely. Do you want to support a teenager’s learning process or a volunteer’s long-term commitment? Both can be valuable investments. Discuss these issues as a church, and don’t forget to include the youth in the conversation!

What’s your experience with youth group mission teams? Should there be an age limit? 
Are my requirements too strict? Too lenient? Does shifting the name from 
“mission group” to “learning group” affect how you feel about them?


  • Anonymous

    I agree! As a middle school teacher, I spend several days on lessons leading up to a simple field trip to a museum. Adequate preparation would do wonders.

  • Anonymous

    Part of the problem I see is inadequate preparation for the planned trip. There should be a thorough discussion of the goals, the group goals as well as individual goals for each person. The same holds true for local service projects. I, a widow, was the recipient of a youth group service project–washing the windows in my house–and I had to listen to one young man grouse the whole time about why he had to do the work when my son was perfectly capable of doing it. (My son had just had the cast removed from his arm the day before after surgery on a broken bone.) If the young people understand the "whys" of the project and set goals that they want to accomplish, perhaps the whole experience will have more meaning for them and not just prove to be busywork or travel with entertainment.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    The more I think about it, I think the main problem is in the nomenclature. "Mission trip" is out-and-out condescending/patronizing; that term just has to go (I mean, when it involves inexperienced teens). I think sending the teens overseas with the proper attitude of humility and willingness to learn can still be helpful. To the participants, that is, not the host culture…

  • Margo

    SO GLAD our church called it a "work and learn" trip when the youth went to Guatemala! I am deeply opposed to these trips as I think they feed into the entitled, first-world mindset that is so pervasive these days. I think it's fine for people to have eye-opening travel in their 20s and beyond, when they have a better context for assimilating what they see and learn in drastically different cultures. In every area, I see people pushing children and teens to be more adult, and I think it's good to LOWER THE THRESHOLD so that life slows down a little and it doesn't take such huge experiences to get a thrill.

    So, yes, I totally agree with you and I don't think you're being harsh. Your essay is a breath of fresh air.

    And, I have organized teenage work parties before when I was a teacher and MYF leader. It is possible (as Eric Miller pointed out in a previous comment) to keep teens working hard and effectively. It's like teaching children skills: more work than doing it yourself, but in the end, it will pay off. I had to be super-organized. I actually made a list of jobs, sub-jobs, and extra tasks so that I had a task to hand out to anyone who needed it or who appeared to be standing around. Crack the whip, babeeeee!

    • Jennifer Jo

      "I see people pushing children and teens to be more adult, and I think it's good to LOWER THE THRESHOLD so that life slows down a little and it doesn't take such huge experiences to get a thrill."

      This is such a good point! I agree completely, and yet I hadn't been able to put words to it, at least not in this context.

      Also, you've made me second guess what I said about teens and travel being fine. Am I just saying that to go along with the crowd? Hmmm…. stewing, stewing, stewing…

  • Eric Miller

    "…waving pain brushes…." Yeah that's pretty accurate.

    I like your ideas. I have had to supervise a couple of groups of volunteers (local, no expensive travel) and it can be a real pain if they don't have the skills for the job they are put at. Painting is NOT an unskilled job and the setup, wasted paint and cleanup really make the job more expensive then if we had done it ourselves. Don't start me on drywall, carpentry or roofing. And to boot, if they have a lousy attitude or just plain don't work, it is not a good experience on the receiving end. I really like the idea of the group leaders being the teachers/job foremen. We had one youth group come in for a 2 day demolition project and the youth leader did such an incredible job keeping the crew going that all we had to do was provide the project materials and some food. THAT one was worth every minute.

  • Kate

    Yeah! I'm a teenager and don't think most teens could go on a missions trip for actual evangelizing because we don't know enough theology. Aside from that, we also don't always know how to do things like dig a hole or even hold a knife the right way up. I can do both of those, but a lot of the other teens I know can't or don't want to unless they grew up as missionaries. But a lot of the teens would be happy to fill a shoe box for Samaritan's Purse or raise money for sending Bibles to people through Voice of the Martyrs or making hygiene packs for Lutheran World Relief. Most teens are also generally happy to hand out soda and popcorn to people watching the fireworks from our church's parking lot, but not to go visit a shut-in. It's sad. I'm not physically able to go on missions trips or service trips or anything like that and have seen those problems with the trips. So I give money to missionaries and make quilts for Lutheran World Relief and fill shoeboxes. It seems to make much more sense to do those things than to go to Honduras to dig latrines or to Thailand to teach English, like my school sends kids to go do. I'll even help the kids going on those trips get caught up or ahead in their classes, but I won't go on them because stuff like what you wrote about can happen. But some people look down on Christians who don't go on missions trips, like we aren't true Christians or something. I think that causes some of the problems.

  • Anonymous

    Your post is so timely in my life right now as two of our four children are each going on "mission trips" – one to the Dominican Republic and one to Ohio. The base of all our discussions lately seem to be why we and the church would spend SO much money for these trips when there's SO much to do here in our local area. They can do the exact same things they're going to be doing on their trips right here in our town AND they can either donate the money that was supposed to be spent on the trips or use it for other service projects around town. I also agree that most youth's lives are not changed after one week in another culture. After months and months of discussing this exact same thing, I won't be so quick to jump on the mission trip band wagon next year. I will, instead, put a lot more thought and prayer into whether or not this is the best way for my child to serve God. I'm thankful for your honesty. Vicki

    PS – Just harvested cauliflower from our garden and can't wait to try your sauce!!

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    I could not agree with you MORE. You have put into words what I have thought deep inside but was never able to articulate. This is SO TRUE. Would you mind if I shared it on my Facebook page?

  • Becky

    A friend of mine recently posted pictures of a 'mission trip' she chaperoned with one of her teenagers on Facebook. The group went to Chicago and worked in a variety of venues – like soup kitchens and adult day care. It seemed silly to me that they would have to travel so far in order to do those things when that sort of volunteer experience is available in their own city. As I read this post, that trip popped up in my mind as something that was probably more of a travel experience with a few things thrown in to make it more 'meaningful', when really, just traveling to a large city like that is probably enough of an experience.

  • Jennifer Jo

    You all are making some really good points. Allow me to clarify a few things.

    1. I am all for kids learning through experience. There are many, many ways to do this within a family setting that don't involve travel. Welcome foster children into your home, work in soup kitchens, host a child through the Fresh Air Fund, volunteer through Big Brothers Big Sisters, etc.

    2. Travel was a huge part of my formation (though not as huge as what I learned from my parents, family, and church). My university required students to go on a semester-long cross cultural and it really did broaden my horizons. If it weren't for that experience, I doubt I would've volunteered to work with MCC and end up spending several (even more formative years) living in other countries.

    3. Our youth (and subsequently our communities, churches, and broader culture) can benefit from travel and from horizon broadening experiences. I am not suggesting that the youth should not travel! I'm simply saying that we should be honest about who these trips are really for—US, not them. We should drop the patronizing do-gooder talk. We should raise our expectations for what WE will get out of the experience. In other words, we need to take responsibility and be honest and hold ourselves accountable.

    4. I am uncomfortable with the concept of "service," especially when no one is asking to be served and the level of work that the host culture has to do for the guest is often an inconvenience and a hassle. Perhaps we should flip the tables and the host country/culture should be the ones doing the service project by hosting US?

    Carry on! I love hearing your thoughts!

  • Zoë

    This is a good post. I'm tempted to forward it to our church but we only recently started attending there and I don't want to be presumptuous.

    I took part in three "mission" trips in high school and 2 of them were great. The other one I acted just how you described: like an ungrateful, whiny bitch. I'll blame in on hormones, or something. Who knows. At any rate, the other two trips I did think we were actually helpful. Or at least I felt helpful. Maybe not everyone in the group was 100% on board but I do think I pulled my weight those times. Then again (and not to brag), I am a more skilled person so that's probably why I was more helpful than some.

    I'm pretty sure you are on the right track, JJ. At least, I agree with you. Calling the trips "learning" instead of "missions" is a good idea. I don't think the trips should be completely canceled as they are good for certain people. They shaped me a bit, anyway. Perhaps not like a longer term trip would have but that wasn't in the cards for me (yet) and I'm grateful for the few weeks I did get to take.

    I like Suburban Correspondent's idea of paying the host culture to keep our kids for a while. That would teach 'em! (The kids, not the hosts…)

  • Lora

    I have really mixed feelings about short-term trips with teens, for all the reasons you mentioned. Where I've ultimately come down on it is: you can't learn to see your own backyard differently until you've stepped out of it. You couldn't have ever convinced me as a teen to go to Cleveland or Chicago for a week, especially since I'd been raised in a semi-subconscious farm community narrative that said we should all pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It hadn't yet occurred to me to ask if everyone has bootstraps. The other point that sways me is that people–not just teens–are going to keep doing these trips, and we can either choose to step into them and shape them as best we can, or we can eye them disdainfully and watch as well-off North Americans come anyway and spend weeks here that never challenge them. Maybe any group that comes to your school should be required to spend an equal amount of time serving (however that looks) in the nearest high-poverty region. I'd say major city but that isn't always the case any more.

  • the domestic fringe

    I've had many discussions about short term missions with my husband. I am skeptical of the good they do. Sometimes I feel like they put a lot of pressure on the host missionaries in foreign fields, not to mention the huge the cost for little return. I'm not discounting the impact on young people, I'm just wondering if our dollars can't be better utilized for the missionary families already on the field doing the work.

    When I was a teen, a group from the south came on a short term mission trip to NYC. My church hosted them. It was so very interesting for us…I'll leave it at that.

  • Donna

    Perhaps the money raised would be better spent learning a skill right at the home church setting, assisting others after actual skills are learned, practicing first with the needy locals. Interesting to read your observations, thought provoking, even for volunteer work done everywhere here. Does it seem like the youth and young people no longer have actual skills such as our parents had?

    • Jennifer Jo

      The youth here know how to haul 100 pound sacks of corn on their backs. The kids here know how to plant fields of beans and haul tubs of masa on their heads. They know how to wield a machete like it's a third hand. The kids that we send to "help" them know how to load the dishwasher and vacuum carpets…maybe. Watching the work team kids work, I can't help but wonder if some of them even know how to pick up their shoes. It sounds harsh, but I do think that many of our young people have been deprived of a solid education in How To Work Hard.

      And as for skills? Forget about it.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    Thanks for making me feel better about not having the money to send my kids on one of these! Even the ones we do here in the states make me wonder – all the money we fundraise, etc, wouldn't it be better to hand it over to skilled contractors to do the work? If our kids need to see how the other half lives, I can drive them into a certain section of our nation's capital and they can see plenty. For free!

    I think it's wrong that we pretend to the kids that they are capable of helping in this manner. I think we should be more upfront that this is a learning experience and that they aren't doing anything that amazing. Would you believe, when our workcampers come back from one week of helping paint or build porches or whatever, the parents have a custom (this is almost too embarrassing to admit) where they gather at the church and receive the "heroes" back with congratulatory signs and cheers? Honestly, people, Elmira (NY) just ain't that scary.

    On the other hand, I have fantasized quite often of running some sort of program where people would pay copious amounts of money to have their teen girls live in Haiti for 2 months, maybe helping out at that medical clinic founded by Paul Farmer. Without cellphones, of course. Teens do need to understand that there is much more to the world than what they see; so why not pay people in poorer countries money to host them? They can use the money, and they'd be doing us a favor by showing our kids that life without indoor plumbing does exist.

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