A Better Vision for Short-Term Missions for urban faithAs I watched countless groups of white kids invade our inner-city neighborhood to do “missions,” I grew to depise the idea of “drive-by” urban missionaries. But years later, God gave me a new perspective. How I learned to love short-term missions.

I hated short-term missions!

As a young, inner-city African American male from a single-parent home, with a working knowledge of the welfare system, I saw short-term missionaries as doing more damage in my community with their “drive-bys” than the gun-toting gangbangers ever inflected with their own version of this practice. I felt a sense of powerlessness as I watched yet another group of white kids (at least that’s how I remember it now) burst from their new vans every summer to “save” me, and others who looked like me.

Now, as an adult working in full-time Christian ministry, I’ve learned to love short-term missions!

I love the potential short-term mission work has for kingdom restoration when it realizes the power it has to influence church culture. I love when it sees the part it can play building up a generation of people who are aware of their ability to love Christ by selflessly loving others without ever stepping foot inside a bus, plane, van, or car. I love when it realizes its role in engaging the church to be the missional body of Christ, and to be that missional body of Christ the 51 other weeks of the year it is not paying money to go on a field trip.

At YouthWorks!, where I oversee multicultural ministries, our missions experiences occur exclusively among economically and socially oppressed people: the materially poor. As an employee of this organization, I pay my mortgage, eat and survive through the facilitation of service in those communities; therefore, it is my responsibility to struggle against the poverty that exists there. It is my responsibility to fight the economic conditions, which we introduce to thousands of Christians every year, so that they may create life-change for their students and then maybe those communities too.

If I am not working to reverse those conditions, I am at risk of becoming comfortable or complacent with poverty and potentially dependent upon its very existence. This puts me dangerously close to becoming seen as someone who is “pimpin’ the poor” in the name of ministry. The message a community receives from me could sound like, “Hey thanks for letting us serve here this summer, hope you’re poor again next year so we can sell another missions trip.” Because my ministry is exclusively in materially impoverished communities, I have an obligation to work against that poverty.

Making It a Lifelong Journey

Fighting against the oppression that creates poverty will be a lifelong and difficult journey for any church or mission organization. It requires a commitment that goes deeper and further than having a sufficiently “urban” community to bring short-term missionaries to each year, as if it were little more than a summer vacation or an opportunity for college students to earn their “Christian ministry” credit. Here are some ideas for moving forward in the struggle against poverty while we serve host communities with integrity:

1. Keep It Real. Design interactions that reverse the false perceptions the teams may have of the host communities, reducing the tendency to ignore the living conditions of the host.

2. Make It a Two-Way Exchange. Design interactions that allow community members to speak into and contribute to the lives of the mission teams that reverse a perception among the host that they are only recipients.

3. Target Employment Opportunities. Focus on creating jobs that provide livable wages for host community members.

4. Support Improvements in Education. Focus on improving the educational systems to help give children more chances for success.

5. Facilitate Home Ownership. Help host community members to own their own homes, so that they can create and pass down wealth to their children too.

6. Make It Long Term. Use the mission agency’s influence to engage their participants in an ongoing struggle against poverty and oppression that will continue after they leave your realm of influence.

‘The 1K Challenge’ and Reverb Magazine

Because every YouthWorks weeklong trip allows us to influence our participants for 71 waking hours (more time than most pastors have with their congregations in an entire year), we decided to focus the majority of our attention on idea No. 6 above.

In the summer of 2007 we set out to try a few new things that we thought would help people go home and continue the mission. We wanted to be clear about a value we all held, that the team should go home and “do” something beyond a once-a-year adventure. We began writing into our programming the words, “Go home and do something,” integrated this message into our theme and programming elements, and asked our staff to say it out loud as well.

Follow-up is one of the weakest links of the short-term mission industry, and we knew we needed to try to give our participants something tangible to take home with them. We published a post-trip magazine called Reverb, which our staff gave to every participant at the end of his or her service week. The magazine included games for the van, as well as articles written by YouthWorks staff about reentry into everyday life and serving at home. It also included two weeks of devotionals, a few ads, and an entire page devoted to an idea called “The 1K Challenge.”

The 1K Challenge asked our participants to create a service opportunity geared toward the people in need in their own communities. We asked them to put a plan together and submit it to YouthWorks as a grant proposal. We offered ten $1,000 grants to youth groups who best fit our 1K Challenge criteria.

Reverb went out and by September of that year we received 45 applications and awarded ten grants for $1,000 each. The following year, 2008, we received 36 applications and awarded nine grants for $1,000 each. The projects have included community cleaning, home repair, a drop-in center for single parents, and a laundry service for people who can’t make it to the Laundromat.

I realized something good was happening after hearing from a woman I had met at a conference in the spring of 2008. When I mentioned that I worked for YouthWorks, she immediately began telling me about the youth from her congregation who had been on a trip with us the previous summer and how excited they were when they got back. She explained how the group had created three different service crews and how she and her husband were each on a separate crew, and loved it. This group had engaged their entire congregation in their project, not just the youth group, and it was having an impact.

The most interesting part of her report was how nervous the pastor had been about the amount of service they were involved in leading to a reduction in tithes to the church. He apparently was concerned that money that would typically go to local church work might be redirected to other ministry projects. She told me that their church’s giving had actually gone up in the year since the group had returned from the trip. I handed her a copy of the new Reverb magazine and pointed out her group in its pages, and left feeling amazed at the potential of missions if more congregations made space for groups who wanted to be different.

Why I’m Glad They Didn’t Come Back

Many of the congregations who have received the YouthWorks 1K Challenge grant are still serving in one way or another in their community. One of my top-three favorite stories from the past five years is about a group that actually didn’t come back for another trip with us.

After applying and being denied for a grant, the youth of this congregation asked the most beautiful question a youth group could ask: “Do we need to do a mission trip next summer? Can’t we just carry out the project we designed here at home?” The wise youth ministry leader answered, “Absolutely!” This group truly got it. They had work do in their own backyard and didn’t have to pay someone to let them do it elsewhere. I hope more churches catch on to this realization.

What if more of the people who serve with us each year discovered they had missions taking place right outside their church every day? What if we were excited about people not coming back for another mission trip in 12 months, but rather encouraged them to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in their own community and in their own congregations to console the broken hearted, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? What if we took the role of the Good Samaritan to the next level and truly banded together to love our neighbors?

On the one hand, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but this will only be an initial act.” But what if short-term missions could inspire the church to look at and transform their own Jericho Road, so that women, men, and children would no longer suffer the beatings that happen along that way? I believe that those of us who influence the church could be a part of building a road suitable for all to walk on during our journeys of faith.

Related Article: Also check out our review of Road Trip, Christianity Today’s documentary and curriculum on short-term mission trips.

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