The approach of summer brings with it appeals to support short-term mission trips, often to third-world countries. These trips frequently involve youths. Before their journey they troop to the front of the church, and we pray for them. Sometime later they return, and dutifully recount lives transformed, their own as well as those they went to help.
It's something I want my own children to do when they are older, but on the immediate economics alone, youth-oriented mission trips are indefensible. People in need of churches, housing, and the Word could use the dollars and a couple of Christian men with carpentry skills far more than a passel of unskilled kids who are rounding out their spiritual resumes. But is there more here than the immediate economics?
One can argue, for example, that a spiritual resume is precisely what today's kids need -- to be exposed to the grit of poverty and the plight of the unchurched in forgotten reaches of the world. What Christian parent wouldn't want his children to see first-hand, albeit in a relatively safe way, the world we have been protecting them from, and presumably preparing them to enter? The difficulty is that in calling these journeys mission trips, we divert resources from more effective missions. Given the reality that most families have limited budgets, forking over $25 for Jimmy's mission trip to Brazil, and $75 for Susie's mission trip to Kenya, means a more effective program gets $100 less.
But what if Jimmy and Susie are transformed by their experiences, such that they are more likely to give of their time and resources in the future? Then that $100 may reap dividends beyond what appears at first glance. I don't deny that possibility, and hope, each time a young person from my own church goes to a distant country, that it proves so.
Still, it seems we ought to relabel these endeavors, perhaps calling them "Christian study abroad programs." This is likely to wound someone's sensibility about these things, perhaps especially those involved in the dozens of organizations specializing in Christian youth mission trips.
We all want these trips to be meaningful and valuable, but unfortunately, research by Calvin College's Kurt Ver Beek indicates that short-term mission trips don't lead to greater subsequent involvement in the lives of those they are intended to help. Nor do short-term missions result in significantly greater giving by mission-trip participants or their host churches. (For links to Ver Beek's research, and articles discussing it, click here.)
The real test, where youth missions are concerned, is what these young people do when they are grown. I have no doubt that some of them are profoundly changed by a mission trip, making its cost a bargain. I also have no doubt that others get a good tan from their trip, and little more, beyond reinforcing the view of foreigners that Americans are vain and silly. But that's the lot of any church, isn't it, that the movers are mingled with the talkers, the saints with the sinners? And if we ever start separating these groups, I for one will be in big trouble.
So I'm wondering, what should our response be to the onslaught of youth missions this summer? What questions ought we to ask? Should we simply be thankful that young people are showing any interest in missions at all? Should we politely suggest that they can have experiences that are just as meaningful in our own inner cities, children's hospitals, and poverty-racked rural areas? Should we pony up and keep our mouths shut? Am I a bad Christian for asking?