Our blog post is brought to us today by Rev. Rocky Supinger at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. We asked him to give us his thoughts on why he does trips for youth.
Summer is trip season at the church I serve. We have four of them scheduled for students ranging from 5th-12th grade, a fourfold increase in the number of youth trips since I started here in 2016. Clearly, I’m a fan of trips as a vehicle (no pun intended) for growing youth discipleship.
Every trip has a mission, but not every trip is a “mission trip.” The annual youth conference isn’t a mission trip, although its mission of connecting youth to a diverse community of disciples with whom they share meals and deepen their faith is critical. Likewise, the cross-cultural trip that focuses on relationship building but that never lifts a hammer has a very significant mission, even if participants seeking a “mission trip” might not get what they’re looking for out of it.
Mission trips have traditionally been conceived of as groups of teenagers travelling to some needy destination to paint houses and serve meals before returning home to share how they “got more than they gave” out of the experience. That model has come under useful critique in recent years, most forcefully by Robert Lupton’s much-lauded Toxic Charity. As important as Lupton’s insights are about the inadvertent damage caused by well-meaning Christians who do things for others what they can and ought to do for themselves, I believe short-term service trips can be a powerful tool for good. Here’s how I try to maximize their benefit for all involved.
- Elevate education. Youth who serve for a week in Appalachia ought to return home more knowledgeable about the culture and people they served than before they went. They should be able to describe both challenges and assets involved in living there, not just the things they fixed. There’s a growing network of organizations hosting mission trips the emphasize learning in an immersive cultural experience that I think are doing this education piece right, including Urban Youth Mission in Chicago (where I work), The Center in Baltimore, and The Pilgrimage in D.C. (in addition to dozens of others).
- Go back again (and again). The critique of mission trips has a lot to say about the kind of “mission tourism” that motivates participants who eagerly await news of this year’s exotic destination. So remove the anticipation and go back to the same place again. Returning to work with the same people and the same leaders year after year builds mutuality and mitigates against both the tourism motive for mission trips and the pernicious assumption that “we” go to help “them.”
- Don’t just go. Host. It was one thing for high school youth to talk and pray with Abel in Ayacucho, Peru, during their mission trip there. It was a whole other thing for those same students to talk and pray with him where they lived a year later, when their presbytery hosted him as part of its delegation to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. This gets messy and complicated (a second student planned to come with Abel but had Visa trouble), but it’s worth it.
Mission trips are powerful experiences for the youth who go and the saints who receive them. Insisting on education and long-term mutual relationship buildings only makes them more powerful for everyone.