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6 tips for a better Short-Term Missions Trip

6 tips for a better Short-Term Missions Trip

Are you planning a short-term missions trip this summer with your youth ministry? If so, this is the time of year where you start gearing up, make phone calls, recruit leaders, or at least filter through the hundreds of flyers and postcards you’re getting from missions organizations right now.

It can all get a little overwhelming, and our temptation might be to either stick with what’s worked or look for something easy and prepackaged. However, with a little strategic thinking before you start making plans, you can really improve the experience for everyone. Let me offer six quick ideas for improving your short-term missions trip this summer.

1. Define a win.

Start by trying to define a “win” for your trip. What would need to happen in order for you to say that this was a successful investment for both your students and the people you served?

For our ministry, we defined a short-term missions trip as a win when students walked away… having experienced the blessing of humility and service, seeing their unique talents being used for God’s work, developing a deeper appreciation for the diversity and creativity of the global church, having their cultural assumptions challenge, and having been a real and lasting blessing to the local church.

That last one: “a real and lasting blessing to the local church” is so vital because many times it’s the one we often give the least thought to after the trip. How did the local church feel as we got on the plane? Were they sad to see us leave or quietly relieved? How are we doing at staying connected with them? Did we go on a two-week Christian cruise hosted by some friendly native Christians or did we invest in on-going partnerships that will continue the work of God’s Kingdom?

2. Commit to an on-going, long term investment.

As you look for a new opportunity to get your students involved, ask “Where are we as a church already connected and investing?” It doesn’t always make sense to start something new when you’ve got some great connections already formed. In fact, those existing partnerships might open up incredible new opportunities that you would have never had access to otherwise. It’s always great to ask before adding a brand new trip to our ministry program, how is it fitting with what we’ve already committed to?
If your church already sends “Adult” short-term trips, what would it look like to strategically partner with them? To offer an expanded investment with a foreign church with which you already have a healthy relationship? It might open up doors for intergenerational trips in the future, but more on that later.

3. Prioritize relationships.

On the ground during a trip are we integrated with the local church or are we isolated and doing our own thing? Do our goals/projects for the trip segregate us or draw us into deeper relationships with nationals? Are we listening more than we’re talking? Are we learning more than we’re judging? We should have strong reservations about investing in any trip that keeps us too busy doing things for the local church to actually meaningfully be with the local church.

4. Be good stewards of your unique abilities and resources.

Ask yourself, “What can we come and do that no one else can do? What experience, training, resources can we offer that would be a unique benefit to the local church?” We all know the stereotype of the youth group heading to a 3rd world country to build a house for an impoverished family. Everyone’s excited, passionate, and couldn’t saw a board straight to save their lives.

It makes no sense for us to send a team of teens to a foreign country to paint fences and hang posters at a cost of $20,000 when we could raise half that amount and enable the local ministry to hire locals to do the same work, provide needed income, and make a longer term investment in the lives of people in their community. Why send unskilled teen labor to do a poor construction job when we can empower a local ministry to invest in their community and address the issue of poverty by providing opportunities to unemployed skilled workers?
But if our group of teens could go and through their gifts in art, drama, music, sports, etc. open doors into the community that were otherwise closed to the local church, the trip would be more than worth it. Always ask, “What can we do that no one else can?”

5. Embrace intergenerational opportunities.

There’s a time and place for youth missions trips, but there’s a significant value in teens experiencing cross-cultural ministry as part of a team that reflects the larger church. What would it look like for a family to do short-term missions together? Not as chaotic as you might think. For a teen to have adopted aunts and uncles, grandmas, and cousins on the trip can be invaluable as they process what God is revealing both around them and in them as they serve. Moreover, it encourages teens to move beyond the boundaries of youth ministry and see their role in the larger church.

6. $pend your free time wisely.

It’s a great idea to provide a “free day” sometime during the course of your short term mission’s trip. It provides a needed break and a chance to rest. However, many times it involves nothing more than a shopping spree and souvenir hunt. Americans are already too materialistic. We know it, and frankly that’s why we want our teens to see real poverty around the world, right? So why do we spend our free time doing the very thing we’re trying to avoid? Why is our default position to spend our free time spending money?

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place for doing a little shopping and bartering, but don’t let it dominate your free day. Instead of spending the whole day hopping from market to market, set a clear limit with your team, and explore other opportunities for your team to enjoy the local culture and customs – a park, a museum, a historical landmark, an overlook of the city, etc. On a practical level, it sends a healthier message to the locals that you’re working with. “We care more about what makes you unique as a culture than we do about getting stuff to take home with us.”


Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.