Short Term Mission Trips: What’s the true cost?

It’s summer, so for those of us who work with youth, it’s mission trip season. After months of recruiting, planning, and fundraising, we’re almost there.

But what’s the cost of these trips? The planning committee and parents can tell you exactly how much they are paying for these experiences–often thousands of dollars per person. I sometimes wonder if the money would be better spent if it were given to organizations already on the ground, if local people were able to rebuild their own communities and given a sense of empowerment–rather than dependence. I wonder if we’re actually helping THEM and not ourselves.

I’ve been on the being helped end of a service project when a tornado destroyed my home. It was powerful, to say the least. But it also wasn’t a solely youth trip, we traveled a grand total of ten minutes from the church parking lot, and were done in two hours. Cost? Probably less than $5 per person. Not exactly the same as traveling to a different state or country for a week or more. I know trips can be fun, create lifelong memories and friendships, and make huge impacts on faith. Who wouldn’t want that, particularly for our youth? Who can put a price on that kind of experience?

So what’s the answer to the cost of short term missions? The ChurchRelevant blog has an interesting discussion on the topic. It seems the consensus, at least as far as I can tell, is:

[drumroll please]

There is none.

There are, however, practices that can make trips more effective  for all involved, adding a significant benefit to the cost. Leaders can communicate why the group is there. The organizations that coordinate work can share what they do–and why it’s so important. Leaders on all ends can teach skills of sensitivity, empathy, flexibility. They can foster a group culture of accompaniment, that is, walking alongside Christ, each other, and those served. They can envelope everything with prayer, and allow time for reflection and discussion. They can teach about our Lord who humbled himself to wash his disciples’ feet, and what that means for us.

I believe in youth and in the future of the church they will shape.  I know they need to form community with each other. I want them to be exposed to different cultures, ranging from urban St. Paul to Appalachia to foreign countries. I yearn for them to experience what it’s like to be deeply integrated into the mission of “God’s work: Our hands.” I deeply want them to live the mission statement that the youth steering committee crafted and to know what that means both for them and for their world: Know God, Grow in faith, Go to serve.

I’m leaving on Monday for my first of two short term mission trips with young people this summer. In one, we’ll be joining 36,000 others for the ELCA National Youth Gathering. We will learn to practice justice under the theme of “citizens with the saints.” En route, we’ll stop in St. Louis to do work at various organizations, ranging from painting to planting flowers to bringing cheer to the elderly. We will get a sense of what East St. Louis, and stark poverty, can be. A few weeks later, I’m serving on the La Crosse Area Synod Peru Youth Delegation. There, ten of us will walk alongside our Peruvian brothers and sisters of the  Lutheran church and discuss how we can live in mission of the church–together. Though these trips are vastly different, our underlying goal is the same: share Christ’s light, humbly serve. Or, as Micah 6:8 puts it, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”

Law: Even when we strive to follow Christ’s commandments to love one another and to follow His model of humility, we are ultimately both saint and sinner. There is no perfect way to serve, and rarely clear answers on what is right–including with short term missions. There is nothing inherently easy about doing justice, loving mercy, or walking humbly with neighbor and God.

Gospel: God can do wonderful things through imperfect humanity. God gives us strength in our weaknesses, and I believe there is nothing more fulfilling than being, in some small way, intermediaries for God’s great work.

Blessing: In all of our life journeys, we represent Christ. Whether  traveling far away or within the thresholds of home, may you discern how you, like Christ, can humbly wash the feet of others. May you remember that you are deeply loved and reflect that love to others. Amen.

Crossposted at


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