Mission Trips Suck

(Is it sinful to title something provocatively in hopes that people will read it?)

Today in class we talked about mission trips. As tends to happen in seminary classes, we ended up quite critical of popular practice. Thankfully, we moved beyond deconstruction and towards construction of a proper mission trip-ish type experience. Something that tended to come out, based on the theological convictions espoused in the class, were mission trips that:

  • Establish ongoing relationships by returning to a particular community rather than migrating to a different locale every year.
  • Immerse the group in culture as opposed to making sure there is always something to “do.”
  • Create authentic action out of these relationships and immersion.

In discussing these things and seeing the theological importance of such an approach I was struck by just how deficient is the label “Mission Trip.” The label seems to designate within it something detached from local context, temporary, and for the benefit of “our” group. Maybe that is just the baggage the phrase has taken upon itself by the practices of the western church, but that is what comes to my mind.

If we are going to move towards theologically-grounded missional relationships, perhaps we need to call them by something different than a “mission trip”, because it is more than a “trip.” It is a relationship. What should we call it? Should we call it anything?


  1. says

    Good thoughts, Matt. I particularly agree that the term “mission trip” is problematic. With the youth I serve, they often focus more on the “trip” part of it than the “mission” part, particularly when planning the project. They seem more interested in where we are going that what we will do when we get there. The other problem is that the notion of a “mission trip” gives youth a sense that mission is an isolated unique event rather than an ongoing effort.

  2. Matt says

    Brian, whenever I talk to my students about our “mission trip” (yeah, I still call it that, for now), I explain to them that I see it more like “mission camp.” It’s similar to band camp or football camp: a time where you can focus on one particular thing in hopes that you will be better at it because of that focused intensity. I think that is better than the typical “mission trip” designation.

    But, as a result of continuing to think though this theologically, even the “mission camp” approach is lacking because it still misses the relational aspect of what is (should be?) going on. For the past two summers we went to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to do hurricane relief work. We decided this year to do something different, and the more I think about it, the more I regret it. I think we have established a sort relationship with that community and now will no longer return to help them complete their reconstruction process.

  3. says

    When we are at the youth worker’s thing, Chap Clark talked about this idea. I think that’s what his new book is mostly about.
    Particularly ironic, when we were in San Francisco with YWAM (which happened to be one of the best trips I have even been on…irony in layers) we went to worship and read in the bulletin that the youth group from that church was going on a mission trip to New Mexico, mere hours from where we can come from. And each kid had to pay over $1000 to go on the trip. Incredible.

  4. says

    Sinful or not, it caught my attention 🙂

    I remember reading an article in a magazine probably last year that talked about this sort of thing. I think you’re right with the idea of renaming it…nomenclature has a big influence in how we perceive something. I remember the author of the article saying that to be in a different culture for a week is not sufficient. You need to be there for a time (he suggested three months) in which you start to develop real relationships with people, you get physically sick (if it’s a more third-world location), you get homesick, and you see the real ups and downs of mission activity. That’s when you get a real taste of it. Otherwise the tendency is to return back after a week with a tan and a “spiritual high”, when you really haven’t learned all that much.

    It’s food for thought, I think. It was for me. It may be a little excessive, but is a definite step towards breaking away from the detached nature of mission trips that you talk about.

  5. Matt says

    Sadie, I hear you. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a completely local mission trip. If we could rise $500-ish a person like we normally do, we could do some sweet stuff.

    Jake, I hear you. The thing that strikes me is that when we begin to approach missions in a way that you articulate it also forces us to completely rethink so many other things we do. It requires a complete ecclesiological overhaul. What we think of and expect out of church would have to change.

  6. noah says

    Welcome back to the blogging world. Now i have to go read all 100 blogs you’ve done over the last week or so. You’ve been a busy man. I miss you!

  7. says

    I think Jake’s comments about being immersed in a culture for an extended period time give even greater credence to engaging our groups in local mission experiences rather than paying thousands of dollars to travel abroad. While experiences in other cultures can be of great value, I think the general consensus is that “one and done” types of mission experiences do little bring about lasting change in those cultures.

    Sadie, I listened to a recording of Chap Clark from the 2007 National Youth Workers Convention in St. Louis. He was speaking about the difference between service and justice (the gyst of his new book). The point he was making was that there’s a difference between acts of service and acts of justice. One quote that really stuck with me was this: “Service dehumanizes those who receive it. Justice restores human dignity so that both the giver and the receiver become one.” It seems to me that we need to rethink the whole “mission trip” idea so that our goal is justice rather than service. It seems to be a more wholistic approach that lends itself to lasting change rather than “one and done” types of experiences which seem to have a greater impact on our students rather than those we go to serve.

  8. says

    Hello Matt. Greetings from the UK. Thought provoking post. I thought I’d comment from the other side of the pond as we get quite a few of your fellow youth workers and groups over in Europe every summer 🙂 Oh, what a blessing 🙂

    I think the point about establishing ongoing relationships is a very positve one. Return visits help build community and hopefully contribute to something of lasting value to the receiving church or town. Although I agree with the point Jake makes, if that’s not possible, returning and building on what’s gone before does go a long way towards helping young people understand the culture and context. If connections can be maintained throughout the year, the ‘mission experience’ unpacked and built upon back home, then understanding will deepen.

    I also think its really important that leaders think beyond the benefits to their own group and ask the question, ‘What real diffence can we make here?’, whether its a compassion or evangleism (or both) driven opportunity. OK, the trip is an investment in your young people, but I wonder if it should also be a wider kingdom investment too?

    I agree with all the comments that ‘mission trip’ is not a good label and I guess the term has been devalued by a few who equate to it to ‘mission holiday’. I wish I had a simple answer, but I dont! Perhaps thinking more along the lines of ‘engaging in mission’ with the emphasis on ‘mission’ rather than the ‘trip’.

    Matt, I think you’re on the right lines with thoughts of a local mission ‘experience’. Your next mission opportunity might be just across town. OK, I know it doesn’t headline as well as going to Europe or Mexico but I wonder if its provides a better context for continuity,ongoing relationships, immersion and learning.

    Thanks for your thoughts and the opportunity to throw a few back.

  9. says

    We have been graced with John Perkins (Worked along side Martin Luther King, and has been working to racial reconciliation for about 50 some odd years) at Chapel today and i got to spend some time with him talking about a comment he made in chapel.
    We have No Theology of Engagement he said…’We sit in church for an hour- two hours but yet we have a disconnect of any responsibility towards our community and world”…
    this idea that we feel we have no connection to our part of community not only to our church and community but the greater world community…
    and something that cory added about Chap Clark is that this idea of giving/serving becomes a Prosperity of Nothingness (we try to engage and save only the soul/spirit God COMMANDS THE SALVATION OF THE WHOLE) willing to shake the hand of the person with the outstretched hand but not willing to put any money or food in that hand while using the other hand to work along side that brother or sister…

    there is a great work of reconstructing this part of the kingdom but the time is now and we are moving towards a time when we want to start seeing solutions and not just diagnosis of whats wrong


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