It’s summer planning time! And for many youth ministries that means summer mission trips. Have you ever really asked yourself (or your congregation) why you offer service projects and/or mission trips to your youth? Why are service projects and mission trips so important to you and your ministry?

“It’s a great way for our youth to serve those in need.”
“It’s a transformational experience for our youth and leaders.”
“We want our youth to see poverty and truly recognize how blessed they are.”
“Mission trips are a spiritual high point for our kids.”
“Mission trips are a great way for our youth to interact with people from other cultures.”
“We really bond as a group when we’re together serving.”
“To those whom much is given, much is expected.”
“To love is to serve.”
“Jesus said to care for the poor and hurting.”

Sound familiar? These are the answers I typically hear when I ask youth directors that question.

Here’s another question: What is poverty?

Think for a minute of some words or phrases that you would use to describe poverty…

“Not having the ability to take care of oneself”
“Lacking resources, money, education, health care, a job”
“Poor or destitute”
“Basic needs not met”

Do any of these phrases sound like what you were thinking?

I know the first time I really thought about the meaning of poverty I had a similar response.

In the book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert discuss the stark differences in the definitions of poverty they have heard and read from middle-to-upper class (predominantly Caucasian) North American churches vs. the voices of those struggling with poverty in low-income countries and settings:

While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.

…many observers have noted similar features of poverty in the North American context.

Without even realizing it, we (middle-to-upper class North Americans) tend to assume things about people in poverty, and these assumptions then influence how we serve them. If we assume that the biggest problem is lack of material things like food, clothes, money, etc. then we assume the solution is to provide those items (through clothing drives, food pantries, free medical clinics, etc.). If we think that someone struggling with poverty needs a new roof, then we assume the solution is to get them a new roof.

Have we completely missed the mark? What if the biggest problems aren’t the material things? How do we address poverty that is relational and spiritual too? What would missions look like if we thought about it through the lens of those struggling with poverty?

Here are two questions to ask yourself regarding your local service projects and/or mission trips: 1) Will this project/trip bring shame to those we are helping? 2) Can we eliminate that shame in the way the trip is set up?

Here’s another hard pill to swallow. When we show up with 20 or 30 youth for one week to do the work, we might actually be making it HARDER for the local community to help themselves. Sometimes those receiving the help don’t want to say no to us. Mission organizations and local communities recognize our “need” to see poverty with our own eyes in order to support them financially.

In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says it bluntly, “Service projects and mission trips do not affect lasting change. Within six to eight weeks after a mission trip, most short-term mission-trippers return to the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to the trip… Most work done by volunteers could be better done by locals in less time and with better results.”

I’m not saying that we should give up on service projects and mission trips all together. But I am suggesting that we consider creating partnerships with mission organizations or non-profits that continually receive input from those they are serving and have an intentional plan for empowering those in need.

It’s important to recognize that there are three stages of charity (both “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity” talk about these three stages):

  • Relief- responding to a crisis or initial need (like destruction from a hurricane or flood)
  • Rehabilitation (which overlaps with Stage 1)- enabling the local communities to respond to future crises (like education and empowerment programs)
  • Development (which overlaps with Stage 2)- raising the standard of living and quality of life long-term (like creating jobs, vibrant neighborhoods, community coalitions, food cooperatives, etc.)

Too often our charity gets placed in Stage 1 and those we intend to help never experience a long-term higher quality of life. Poverty alleviation can and will only happen when we recognize the importance of supporting charities focused on Stages 2 and 3, not just Stage 1.

One of my favorite scriptures in the Old Testament is Micah 6:8- “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

For me, the hardest part of this verse is definitely “to walk humbly with your God.” Walking humbly means I don’t have all the answers, I am not going to save someone, and I am to see the poor through God’s eyes—not my own.

In Toxic Charity, Lupton says, “Mercy combined with justice creates: immediate care with a future plan, emergency relief and responsible development, short-term intervention and long-term involvement, heart responses and engaged minds.

We can do missions differently. Mercy and justice combined. No shame, no humiliation. Long-term involvement and reciprocal relationships where those in need have a voice, where those serving volunteer in ways that empower the poor, where we don’t do for someone what they can do for themselves, and where those being served have the opportunity to serve as well.

Ultimately, youth missions (as well as adult or family missions) are about relationships, especially our relationship with God, but also with each other and with those we are serving.

I definitely don’t have all the answers. But in my partnerships with churches through Ministry Architects, I have learned that a healthy church climate and a strong infrastructure is a recipe for success in any ministry area. If you’d like to continue the conversation, feel free to contact me at