Think Tank Urges More Effective Short-Term Missions

Debates over the effectiveness of short-term mission (STM) brought a team of youth pastors to one conclusion: we need to do a better job helping students interpret and apply their STM experiences to life back home.

As youth groups pump out tens of thousands of students across the nation and overseas each year for missions that last anywhere from a weeklong Spring Break to a three-month summer vacation, more researchers and mission experts are finding that STM trips may not be producing expected results.

Fuller Theological Seminary's Center for Youth and Family Ministry cited recent research that found the explosive growth in the number of STM trips has not been accompanied by similar explosive growth in the number of career missionaries. Also, it's not clear whether or not participation in STM trips causes participants to give more money to alleviate poverty once life returns to "normal." And participating in a STM trip does not seem to reduce participants' tendencies toward materialism.

Senior mission thinker Dr. Ralph D. Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission called short-term missions a "dubious matter" in a 2005 interview. Although participants learn, you can't save the world with short-term missions, says Winter.

Conclusions from a November 2006 Think Tank on short-term missions were released in the March/April 2007 issue of Journal of Student Ministries, giving youth pastors a way to get the most out of STM trips for greater transformation of students.

Drawing from a the Joplin model - a framework for youth STM trips - a key start to a successful short-term learning experience is to help students focus on the experience and the challenging actions they will go through, the report stated. Beyond raising the financial support, leaders are encouraged to help prepare students emotionally, mentally, spiritually and relationally for what lies ahead.

The "action-reflection" process is the main component in students' learning during STM. Students are constantly placed in a situation during the trip in which they are purposefully stretched by using a new set of skills in an unfamiliar environment. Many STM trips lack the reflection part of the process, where they make meaning out of their actions, the report stated.

Support and feedback from friends, fellow STM students and adult leaders can help facilitate the action-reflection process, as Laura Joplin lays out in "On Defining Experiential Education." Youth leaders at the Think Tank said most youth workers overlook the importance of high quality, ongoing feedback. Adult leaders must help students talk about the meanings they are creating from their experiences.

At the end of a STM trip comes debriefing. Rather than a typical slide show and shared testimonies, the mission model suggests ongoing evaluation and discussion of what happened during the trip, which is most effective in a community setting, according to the report.

Transferring what students learned during the trips to their own lives is also one of the most difficult processes. And most student ministries don't have programmatic structures that assist in this transfer process. One recommendation is to have students engage in a post-trip learning experience through service opportunities in their local community.

The five components suggest that although the mission trip may be short-term, youth leaders and participants must view it as a longer journey and a year-round reality in the life of the church and the youth rather than just a distant memory.