Reflections on a Decade of Short Term Mission trips

When I moved to University Park, the “main” campus of Penn State, for my junior year I got involved in Christian Student Fellowship (CSF).  Later that year I went on my first short term mission trip, rebuilding houses in North Carolina.  The next year we went to Miami and worked with Habbitat for Humanity.  Then I took three years off to attend seminary before returning to work, at Penn State Berks, as a campus pastor in 2005.  Every single spring break we take a mission trip and I just realized that this makes ten years in a row of trips for me as staff.

In the last year or so I’ve noticed some blogs and articles questioning short term mission trips, with others stepping up to defend them.  Many of the criticisms are valid, though they seem to be more focused on cross-cultural, oversees type trips a youth group might take over the summer.  We’ve done two such summer trips in my time at Berks, but most of our trips do not fit the stereotype of tourism masquerading as a mission trip.

At the same time, after ten years of trips I find myself reflecting.  Long graduated students, wonderful memories and fun stories keep coming to mind.  And I wonder, why do we do it?  Just because it is spring break and we do it every year?

1. We Go to Serve – We do not always have the most skilled group of students, but every year they work hard.  I remember mudding out houses in New Orleans months after Katrina in 2006, painting a house in Joplin in 2012, helping kids read in DC in 2013 and hanging drywall in  New York in 2014.  Some students were terrified of these tasks, whether reading to kids or working with power tools.  But they learned, with the help of great leaders.  After one week it may not appear much was done, but usually months after we are home I receive emails with pictures of completed houses, worked on by our group and many others.

2. We Go to Learn – Staying in the United States may not appear to be “cross-cultural”, but as we leave our comfort zone students are confronted with an often unfamiliar world.  I remember the shock of one girl in Miami in 2010 as she saw a homeless person eating out of the garbage.  Seeing images of hurricane destruction or homeless people on the news is one thing, seeing it up close is something else.  The way I see it, university is the time for students to get an education.  What CSF does on these trips is contributes to this education (I’ve asked Penn State for a kickback in this, they’ve never complied!).  The students return with a bigger vision of the world and their place in it.

3. We Go to Build Community – Every year when we return from the trip, our students are more close-knit then when they left.  It  makes me wish Spring Break was in October.  The relationships that form on this trip are the equivalent of months spent on campus.  Throw a bunch of college students together for  a week and they will grow closer.

4. We Go to Grow Closer to God – They do not just grow closer to each other, but to God.  We have Bible studies and prayer and such on campus year-round.  But it is different on these trips.  Maybe it is the daily rhythmn, maybe it is being away from distractions, but as students do private devotions each morning and have large group discussions at night, they experience God in new ways.

5. We Go as an Open Group – I am not sure how to word this one.  When I said above we build community, the obvious goal is not to create a Christian bubble.  That is why I mention this point – There is no requirement that one must be a Christian to attend.  This trip is open to, and has included, atheists and Muslims and others who are just unsure.  They go because they want to spend a week serving others, or maybe they just do not want to go home.  But we love when people who do not identify as Christians choose to come and work to help others alongside of us.  Again, it is in these situations that real life change (see 3 and 4 above) happens.

6. We Go to Have Fun – Every year the students have a blast.  I have fond memories of eating crawfish in the French Quarter (2008 I think it was), of the bus breaking down on the way to the Gulf Coast, of seeing many national monuments and some museums in NY and DC, of standing where three states touch just outside Joplin.  I remember games of Dutch Blitz and Catan, delicious filling meals and sparse, nearly unedible ones.  But the fun does not just happen in our spare time, it is fun working together.

7. We Go to Build Habits – Part of the function of campus ministry is to help students build good habits they will carry with them through life.  Spring break helps with this as students encounter great organizations doing fantastic work (Mennonite Disaster Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Center for Student Missions and more).  They may discover skills they can use on such trips in the future as part of a church, or even in their career.  Or, they may further build the habit of helping others so when their neighbor needs help hanging drywall or fixing a toilet, they have experience.

There are probably more reasons.  I know that the students do not return from these trips unchanged.  They are highlights of their college career that are both fun and a step in their discipleship to Jesus Christ.

So pray for us next week as we go on our trip to Crisfield, Maryland to help rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on a Decade of Short Term Mission trips

  1. This is really good! I’ve always done mission trips within the US. I definitely see the criticisms of short term overseas missions trips though. Its a lot of money to spend on sending 20 or so teenagers to do work that frankly the locals could do on their own if they had the resources and talent. I rather send my money to missionaries stationed in these countries so they can figure out what needs to be done and get the talent they need to do it. I’ll stick to my own backyard for missions work!

    1. Its almost like for overseas trips we ought to call it a pilgrimage. I mean, just out and admit the purpose is to expand the kids’ view of the world. Maybe they can help in some small ways, but the goal would be to overcome the attitude that we are going to save the world and replace it with one that says we are going to learn. Of course, I still try to instill this in our spring break trips – we are entering someone else’s world and learning. Thanks for the comment.

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