Philip has lived his entire adult life (almost 20 years) in low-income communities of color, first as a youth pastor in a small town in Mississippi and since 2007 in Memphis, TN, serving as the Executive Director of Service Over Self (SOS), a Christian ministry providing home repair and leadership development in three of Memphis’s most underserved neighborhoods. He is a contributor to the 2016 book, Gospel Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide published by Crossway. Philip, his wife Kelsea and their three kids are residents of Binghampton, one of SOS’s partner neighborhoods. He loves ice cream, running and riding his bike really early in the morning (so he can justify eating more ice cream), and he is an unashamed choir nerd.
Preparing Students for a Short Term Mission Trip
First aid kit — check.
Liability forms — check.
Earplugs and eyemask — check.
Tylenol PM — check.
These things might be essential for YOU, the youth minister, as you prepare for your next short term youth mission trip. But what should be on your checklist as you think about preparing your students?
Preparing to take a group of teenagers across the country (or across the world for that matter!) for a short term mission trip can be overwhelming. Understandable! And many times, your highest hope is that the church van doesn’t get a flat tire or that you can make it through the week without a trip to the emergency room. But with just a little prep work, these trips can be so rich and pave lasting roads in the discipleship process with your students.
In order to maximize the experience for your students on short term mission trips, training them before a trip is essential. In particular, you must train your students to remember the gospel, be sensitive to cultural differences, and be humble learners.
Remember the gospel. This one seems obvious, but it’s so often overlooked. And it is the most important thing you can do to prepare your students for a mission trip. It can be easy for students to think they are going to change the world through a short term mission trip. And while they can do good, your students are not saviors. They cannot change people’s lives. They are not the ones who “have it all together” coming to serve those who “need help.” Only Jesus can do that. Rather, your students, just like those they wish to serve, are poor and in need of a savior. They are simply coming alongside others in whom God is already at work, and they serve in response to what Jesus has already done for them through his death on the cross for their sins. Reminding your students of this before a trip is so crucial. Unless your students have been humbled by the gospel, they could approach short term trips with, at best, a well-intentioned but paternalistic attitude and, at worst, a judgmental, condemning attitude towards those they seek to serve.
Be sensitive to cultural differences. Once, on a short-term trip to rural Honduras, I heard an American teenager share his testimony before a large crowd of local villagers. A huge narrative of his story centered around how he recently got in a minor fender bender with his brand new Mustang convertible. He was so upset because his parents took his car away after he wrecked it. But, through that, he realized how he should trust God more and not rely on worldly things like his car. #firstworldprobs. Now, I’m not trying to diminish the impact these occurrences had on this teenager’s faith. God could have used that in a significant way in his life. However, when you are speaking to people living in poverty in rural Honduras, most of whom live in a one-room shack, and none of whom own a car, perhaps there are other ways that your story can be shared that don’t unintentionally demean or give false hope to those with whom you are sharing.
That is one reason why learning more about the people you are going to serve can be so valuable. Most often short term missions take us to a different culture, whether it’s across the world or across town. Just because someone has a different culture (set of preferences or practices) than you does not make them wrong or needy. Learning more about the people you are going to serve can help avoid unintended offenses that could hinder the work of the gospel. We want our students to “be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19) so they avoid comments like “Wow, it’s so clean here!” (which implies that it should be dirty because they’re poor, etc.). You should also caution your students to avoid flaunting wealth. Carelessly flashing iPhones or money can be a false advertisement for what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Be humble learners. Reminding your students of the gospel – that we are all poor and in need of a savior, and that Jesus gave up his riches to pull us out of our poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9) – is a huge step in preparing your students to serve those who are “poor.” However, we must also remind students, not only of their own need for Jesus, but of the dignity and value of those we seek to serve. We must avoid the assumption that people who are poor don’t know Jesus or don’t have anything to offer. In fact, some people who are experiencing material poverty might have an incredibly strong faith in Jesus because they know what it’s like to truly depend on him for everything. How valuable could it be for your students to learn from saints like this!? Your students will only experience that if they learn to humble themselves to learn from those they serve, not just preach at them.
So – the challenge – as you make your checklist in preparation for that upcoming youth mission trip, make sure it includes training your students to remember the gospel, be sensitive to cultural differences, and to be humble learners.