Every year, thousands of high school and college students embark on mission trips around the world, driven by their passion for serving others. For Adventures in Missions' Jeff Goins, this passion has become his life work.
I recently led a college break mission trip in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Many of the students were first-time missioners. Devoting a week to following God and serving others was a new and compelling idea for them.
Though their lack of experience initially concerned me, our first meeting proved how excited they were to be there and how willing they were to be challenged. I began thinking about how important it is for teenagers and college students to learn how to serve on a mission trip, to have their faith and world-view stretched to the absolute max.
For a week, these students learned about homelessness from those who experienced it firsthand, served local ministries by addressing urban poverty in sustainable ways, and worshipped God on the streets with their impoverished brothers and sisters. They prayed, asking for what seemed impossible: to alleviate the suffering of so many. Then, they saw their prayers answered, through their own work. It was a sacred week, full of indelible and unforgettable moments that are difficult to translate on paper.
I’ve stayed in touch with several participants from the trip; most of them have been spending their summers serving churches, going on other missions, and working for charities and other humanitarian causes. Their new stories—and their new perspectives—inspire me. It makes a skeptic like me believe in the power of short-term missions; these trips mobilize young people to live meaningful, altruistic lives. Sadly, many young Christians don’t take advantage of such opportunities to serve and be challenged. They’re missing out.
What I love most about the tumultuous period between high school and college is that it tends to provoke a lot of questions and self-reflection. When my teenaged sister found her world turned upside down from a week-long mission to Costa Rica, she decided to spend her entire summer before college in Africa. As students begin to think about what kind of life they want to have and what kind of role service will play in their future, many look for opportunities to serve overseas on short- or long-term missions.
Whether you’re in high school, college, or are a concerned parent, now is the time to reflect. What are you doing that’s of significance? What are you doing that really matters? If you could do anything, what would you do? I propose considering a short-term mission trip, not just for those you will serve nor the cross-cultural experience, but for yourself, as well.
Mission Trips: Short vs. long term
Short-term missions may face harsh criticism, and some of it is warranted. They’re often dismissed as glorified tourism and a waste of money. Some say too much emphasis is placed on the task at hand (e.g., building a house) and the travel (e.g., going to Mexico) instead of true “missionary” work, and perhaps they’re right. Often, there is no visible ministry left behind after a short-term trip.
But this criticism may also be shortsighted. At their core, mission trips are about connecting with people, and this can be accomplished in a single day. Missions are about you and your heart and the lifelong impact of the experience. The biblical model for short-term mission trips, after all, boasts the common saying “I received more than I gave.”
If you search the New Testament, you will find the precedents for missions are, more often than not, short-term trips. God can do a lot in a short amount of time. You just need to give Him a little bit of room to work.
Some think short-term missions are self-serving endeavors, aimed primarily at easing Westerners’ guilty consciences. Those who live in the “first world,” in developed countries, tend to be blessed beyond their abilities to bless others—or so they think. But when you go on a mission trip, you see with your own eyes how much people can do and how much they can change in the span of five days. Churches can spring up in a week.
Make no mistake: short-term missions make a difference in the lives of everyone involved—in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. I’ve seen so much long-term good come out of short-term experiences that I can’t help but believe in the effectiveness of mission trips that are done well.
Each year, I hear stories from young people who have spent a week, a month, or an entire summer in the mission field, and how one trip changed the course of their life forever. Sending a high school or college student on a mission trip is an investment in their future; it’s a way of saying, “This is what’s important in life.” If you’re the one responsible for sending yourself, then it’s your way of declaring to yourself and the world, “I could do a lot of good things with my time, but I can’t think of anything better than this.”
As a high school student, I challenge you to get in the game. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples through textbooks and coffee meetings; he used real-world practical experiences to show them how to live. This is the time to act, not procrastinate and make excuses. It’s time to see the dignity in the eyes of the poor you once pitied. It’s time to understand how big God is compared to the box in which you have been placing Him.
If you’re a parent, I urge you to invest in young people by sending them on a mission trip. The returns are immeasurable. If you’re still unsure, try reaching out to other parents or a youth leader with mission experience. They can testify to the importance of missions in the discipleship of young people.
I can’t think of doing anything better with your summers or spring breaks than serving somewhere outside of your comfort zone. It is an incredible experience to look back on. Don’t put it off. This is a time of freedom and growth, and you may never again have the same kinds of opportunities.
Mission Trips: Step out, be courageous
If you need help getting started, contact one of the many organizations dedicated to mission work. There are plenty out there that are well worth your time. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, do some research online or contact one of the resources below. Whatever you do, follow your passion and find a way to go.
Don’t get caught up in choosing the organization with the best reputation or the most prestigious trip possible or worry too much over where you should go. The act of deciding should be secondary to the primary call to go. Don’t debate and question and end up doing nothing.
The world is waiting for you. It needs you, and you need it.