Opportunities to experience short term mission trips have exploded in the past few years as churches help their youth live into their call to serve those in need in Christ’s name. These trips not only express an understanding of our Reformed faith that we are saved to serve, but also tap into the need of young people to belong. Community building and faith sharing abound while living, working, and worshiping together for a few days. In addition, such trips develop life skills, shape our faith in new ways, and touch the deep hunger we all have to make a difference in the lives of others.
My experience on 29 trips has taught me that one major misconception about these service trips is the notion that WE are going there to serve THEM. I draw on the story of the raising of Lazarus to point out that Jesus did indeed tell the people to unbind Lazarus and set him free (John 11:44) just as we go out to unbind others from their poverty, lack of education, and job opportunities. The flip side is that when we go into a community to serve, we discover that we are unbound as well….unbound from our prejudices and limited thinking as we form relationships with the recipients of our efforts and work in partnership with them. I have never come away from a trip without being unbound to a greater degree than what we offered in return.
Two things are pivotal in raising awareness of God at work on a mission trip: community building and the adult sponsors. If the young people do not feel accepted and respected by the adults and if they do not feel a part of the group, they are less likely to be open to sharing and learning new things about themselves and their faith. For this reason, it is important to hand-pick your adult sponsors since a volunteer might have their own agenda about “right thinking” or ego-boosting of self. It is also important to reserve accommodations that have a gathering space for meals, Bible study, games and laughter.
In my book, Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips, I include ideas for choosing a project with a detailed trip-planning schedule, ideas for building community, handling conflict, nurturing faith, and a resource section that can be accessed in Word so you can edit the resources for your own use. May your mission trip efforts unbind those you serve and may you find yourselves unbound as well.
Jann Treadwell, retired certified educator in the PCUSA and 2010 APCE Educator of the Year