Last week, I took a large group of pretty typical middle school students and a handful of quite extraordinary adults to Kilmarnock, VA for our middle school mission trip. It is a trip we tend to make every summer. More on that in a moment.
First of all, let me say that I really find the concept of a “mission trip” distasteful. I don’t see much of anything that resembles anything close to a “mission trip” anywhere in Scripture. That is, of course, with the exception of the entire life of Christ. His 33 years of life were in and of themselves a “trip” that took Him from the glory of heaven to a broken earth, to the depths of hell, back to earth for a brief revisit, and then finally back home to heaven, where He now sits.
I can here some say, “What about the ‘missionary journeys of Paul’?” Really? You’re going to compare Paul’s mission LIFE to a short term TRIP we take students on? Think about the apostles being sent out two by two and reporting back. But even then, they seemed to miss the point.
But other than that, I’m not so sure the popular “mission trip” idea is a good idea at all. Here’s why:
Most mission trips fall woefully short in the department of any lasting impression they leave on anyone involved. They are inevitably “over there” and precious little of what goes on “over there” ends up “over here”. But, when [church] people see teenagers going “over there” and then coming back “over here” with pictures, stories, and even tears, it seems to look like something good. Maybe even something like Jesus would do. Or thinks we should do. Or something.
And I want to spill my guts here. I don’t like mission trips. I just don’t.
I like going to exotic places (I’m going on another “mission trip” to Costa Rica in less than a week). I like seeing new things. I like taking pictures and making videos of those places and things. I like watching people do things that freak them out a little bit. I like trying to talk to people who don’t understand anything I’m saying. I like eating foods of different cultures. I like all that. But none of that is Biblically mandated. None of it. And that’s pretty much all the stuff of today’s mission trips.
Let me tell you exactly the moment that drove the last nail into the coffin of “mission trips” for me. It happened just a few days ago, while I was still on that middle school mission trip in Kilmarnock. One of our middle school girls came to me late afternoon on Thursday. Let me back up. We had arrived there on Sunday evening, and we were leaving on Saturday morning. Friday was “play day” (jet skis, tubing, jellyfish stings, you know–fun stuff), so Thursday night was our final “worship service” as a group; the kind of gathering we had enjoyed every night that week. So, just hours before the Thursday night (final) worship service we’d have as a group on that trip, that girl came and asked me this question: “So Jerry….is tonight ‘Jesus night’?” I said, “What? What do you mean?” She responded, “You know, the night of the trip when everyone ‘gets saved’ and makes commitments they’re not going to keep.” Those were her exact words.
Well, inwardly I was absolutely blown away, deflated, and almost entirely sympathetic to this girl’s astute observation. Outwardly, however, I said something cutesy like, “Well, I’d like to think that every night is Jesus night. Every day is Jesus day. Every afternoon is Jesus afternoon. Every second is Jesus second.” She was then distracted by a friend calling for her attention and that was the end of our exchange. But the deed had been done. This girl, in her honest, innocent, and yet right on statement had summarized the very heart of why I don’t like “mission trips”.
It’s primarily because for some reason we’ve decided that God works best on the last night of the trip. And even unwittingly we orchestrate this climactic build; setting the stage for God to be right on time, but not too early. And for the last several years, I load any “trip” I lead students with overt messages that point out the very fact of the inherent danger of a trip being just that…a trip. Something that begins and ends; usually within the span of 7 days or so.
I sound jaded, don’t I? And I’m honestly not that cynical toward what God can do through mission trips. He’s used these trips for incredible good like opening the eyes of students (and adults) to the realities of poverty, injustice, despair, contentedness, and true joy. I’ve even watched Him lay “the call” to full-time missions (is there another kind?) on their hearts. Yep, I’ve see God do lots.
But when God gets predictable and we can come up with an identifiable “Jesus Night”, we’re not knocking on the right door. When that happens, we’ve led a group of students on a trip. Nothing more.
And I’m fully aware that I’m pretty much blowing the whistle on myself. After all, I’m the youth pastor leading this trip. But it also tells me that that middle school girl has been around the retreat/youth convention/mission trip block enough times to know that the final night is when the magic happens.
The root of this, or at least one of them, is the misunderstanding of the Great Commission. We typically translate the “Therefore go…” as “go over there and do that thing you do.” But the “Therefore go” is properly translated “as you are going” or “on the way”. So, “missions” becomes so much less about the destination and so much more about the journey. If my trip to Costa Rica is from July 21st to the 28th and we look the same on the 29th as we did on the 20th, then what was the point?
The “success” of the trip is not measured in whether or not we built that orphange, dug that well, played with those kids, learned that language, or cried those tears. The true measure of the trip’s success, I believe is this: What difference does it make “over here”? In essence, is the “trip” any closer to becoming the “life”? Ask a teen to pay $850 to go to another country to talk about Jesus to a stranger and they’ll do it all day. Ask them to talk to that person next to them in the lunchroom for free and you’re asking too much.
So is it any wonder then, why I don’t relish these “trips”? I’ve found that they do serve their purpose, but not usually any lasting ones. I’ve got some things I’m doing to change all this in my own ministry (and its likely not what you’re thinking), but more on that later.
For now, I’ve got to go pack.