By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary
Between 20-33% of young people in the United States have participated on a short-term religious or mission trip. That’s around 5.5 million 13- to 17-year olds. Yet I continue to hear youth workers ask, “Why do mission trips?”
Mission trips and service learning have become a stable in ministry, not only with youth, but within congregations as a whole. (For example, about 10 years ago the number of participants in Protestant mission organizations tripled!) And while many congregations have jumped on the mission trip bandwagon, ministry leaders continue to be unsure of the place these trips have in ministry. Some see their potential, but struggle to find mutually beneficial ways of engaging in service, others see the financial costs of our current models and believe there has to be another way to engage in mission.
As people of faith, mission trips, and servant learning, can be fruitful ministry opportunities which draw us out of ourselves and into God’s world in meaningful ways. Yet these same experiences can also reinforce unhealthy stereotypes, do little to break the cycles of injustice, and limit our imagination about serving God in the world. And, it seems there are no simple answers to the “mission” dilemma.
Hence, as we approach another summer where hundreds of thousands of young people will set out in “mission,” we at the Center for First Third Ministry want to offer space for a thoughtful and critical dialogue on this topic. The dialogue will launch with three webinars, the first three Fridays in March. I will launch the series talking about mission being more than a trip. Mark Jackson, youth ministry professor at Trinity University, will share his perspective on service learning. And Andy Root will conclude with his critique of mission trips. In between, our blog posts will offer various other perspectives, including the voices of past participants, links to resources and articles, and themes which surface.
So, won’t you join us? For more information on the webinar, click here.
Join the conversation on Facebook.com/FirstThird!
Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She’s our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.
 Short-term mission experiences, domestic and global, range from weeks to a year and are on the rise in the past decade. Within Protestant mission organizations alone participation in short-term mission tripled between 1999 and 2001, from 100,000 to 300,000 (Priest, 432) And short-term mission experiences have become a mainstay within youth ministry, with surveys showing between 3.6 and 5.5 million 13 to 17 year olds having experience with them. “In a survey of American teenagers in 2000 (Barna Research Group, 2001), it was found that of the 80% of American teens self-identifying as Christian (n=500), 16% indicated they had traveled ‘on a short-term mission trip.” This translates to roughly 3.6 million US teenagers. In his National Study of Youth and Religion (n-3370) carried out a couple years later (2002-2003), Christian Smith asked 13- to 17-year olds: ‘How many times, if any, have you ever gone on a religious missions team or religious service project?’ Fully 29% claimed to have ‘gone’ on at least one…his data show that around 5.5 million 13- to 17-year olds have jointly ‘gone’ on more than 11.5 million such religious missions/service projects” (Priest, 448) For more, see Priest, Robert J., Terry Dischinger, Steve Rasmussen, and C.M. Brown, “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” Missiology 34(4), 2006: 431-449.
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