By Rodney A.
Is your youth ministry needing a pick-me-up? Are you looking for a way to get students excited about the Lord? You might think, “Maybe a short-term missions trip is the answer! A little time in a third world country is just what these apathetic students need to get fired up about pursuing God and sharing the gospel!”
Before you jump on the short-term missions (or STM for short) bandwagon, I plead with you to reconsider your strategy. Certainly, desiring the spiritual revival of your students is a worthy goal, but an STM trip is not the solution. In fact, sending a group of students overseas for this purpose may cause more harm than good.
Now, that may sound like a pretty harsh statement, and you may assume that I am against all STMs. That is far from the truth. Having led a number of STM teams and having served for three years as the STM coordinator for a large church, I know the benefits that such trips can have. I have seen churches and missionaries encouraged and strengthened through STM teams who went to help them, and certainly many people have come to Christ as a result of their efforts. So why the warning?
To put it simply, STMs are beneficial only when the people participating are truly walking with the Lord and already serving him wholeheartedly in their local churches. Sending a half-hearted or spiritually lethargic student to accomplish something in the name of “missions” will not only disrupt the team itself, but may cause harm to the ministry your church is endeavoring to support.
Even a well-meaning team of teenagers is capable of wasting a lot of time, energy, and money if they lack purpose, leadership, preparation, experience, and direction in their efforts. How many building projects started by STM teams sit unfinished or unused? How many items are donated, only to sit in storage once the team departs? How many teams of young people have descended upon school campuses to only share a shallow gospel that leaves people thinking they are saved because they prayed a prayer? How many long-term missionaries take valuable time away from their ministries to act as tour guides and babysitters for STM teams who really have no clear reason for being in their country at all?
However, with careful consideration and planning, problems like these can be avoided. The keys to making a STM trip successful and worthwhile are purposefulness, determination, deliberation, and faithfulness.
Choose a Destination Purposefully
The secret to choosing a place to go is simple – don’t do it.
What I mean is, don’t choose a destination based on where you perceive the needs to exist. Find out where the needs actually are. See if there is a missionary supported by your church who could use a team of students to come and minister alongside of them for a few weeks.
Missionaries understand the needs and the culture of the country where they are ministering and will know how or if an STM team like yours could be useful. Perhaps the missionary could use some help advertising for and organizing an evangelistic youth camp. Maybe he knows of a need in the local church for childcare during an upcoming conference or for a group who can help to organize a church library.
Go to a country where your services are desired by someone who already understands that country. Working hand in hand with a missionary or pastor will be most likely to result in long-term benefit for God’s kingdom, and will also help to prevent cultural missteps that could distort the gospel.
Determine Your Mission Wisely
Figuring out what you will be doing in country is critical and will set the direction for the rest of your planning. What type of ministry will you be doing? Do you have a group of teens who can reasonably be expected to do that type of work? Does the focus of this ministry line up with the mandate to make disciples of the nations?
The STM trips of the early church were always gospel-focused. They strove to spread the gospel, strengthen the church, and encourage the long-term missionaries (Acts 11:18-24; Acts 13:1-14:26; Acts 15:36-18:22; Philippians 2:25-30). While humanitarian efforts can be a demonstration of love to the world, the best and most lasting change to people’s lives will be through the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ. Seek out a ministry where the team can have a positive impact for the kingdom of God!
Select a Team Carefully
People who are not walking with the Lord have no business being sent out as missionaries, even for the short-term. Of course, only the Lord knows a person’s heart, but you can take steps to find out about a student’s walk with the Lord. Ask them to share their testimonies, get references from people who know them personally, and make sure you get to know them yourself before allowing them to join the team.
A student’s character is also very important to consider. When you travel to a new location you will quite possibly encounter physical exhaustion, unfamiliar foods, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, long church services in a foreign language, and a myriad of other stress-inducing situations. At such times, complaining and arguing are natural responses – but certainly not godly ones! If a student is a complainer or an arguer while in the comfort of their hometown, you can pretty much bet that those qualities will be magnified while overseas!
Set the bar high for those that are allowed to go on an STM trip. They should already be faithfully serving in your church. They should already be demonstrating that the Spirit is at work in their lives. They should be people that are willing to suffer and be uncomfortable for the glory of Christ.
As you select your team, aim to be a blessing to the people you are going to serve, don’t send a thorn into their flesh!
Prepare the Team Faithfully
Once you have selected the team carefully, you must spend significant time preparing them for the ministry ahead. They need to be prepared to submit to their leader, even when they might not agree with his decisions. They need to practice working alongside their teammates before they get to the field. They need to be prepared to fulfill the purpose of their ministry. Prepare your team to recognize and respond well to the cultural differences they will encounter, and to respond in godly ways when difficult situations arise.
If your team is not over-prepared when you board the plane, then it is unprepared. The time that you spend on the field is merely the implementation of many hours of diligent preparation before you ever leave home.
Choose a destination purposefully, select your team carefully, and prepare them faithfully. Failure to take these steps can be detrimental to you, your team, and the people you are trying to serve. On the other hand, STMs done well can be a blessing to long-term missionaries, their churches, their communities, and to the students who participate.
About the Author: Rodney lives in East Asia and serves the body of Christ there by training pastors and ministering in the local church. He is a graduate of Master’s Seminary and oversaw the Short-Term Ministries program for Grace Community Church for three years.