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The “Un-glory” and Glory of Short Term Missions

“I hope some teams  will never come back again.”  These words were spoken by my new senior pastor, a 26-year career missionary who joined our church staff last year.  He said these words last April during training for our short-term mission teams. After a lifetime in the mission field as well as leading various international mission organizations where he’d welcomed teams from all over the world, these words were most profound to me.

My pastor is an extremely gracious, humble, and patient person. I love the innovative, team approach he brings to our ministry. Hence, it was intriguing to hear him say that he sometimes wished short-term teams would never come back to his mission field.  He did not say these words with malice or anger as that is not who he is. For him it was just as a matter of fact.

In recent years there have been many articles critiquing short-term mission trips.

In my own youth group a former student who later became an adult leader for our youth ministry suddenly announced to me she was not going on a mission trip because of a few articles she’d read heavily critiquing the trips she’d loved. I was very familiar with these articles but surprised by the impact it had on someone I’ve known for so long. Her sudden change in heart stood in contrast to the huge blessing she’d been on so many trips.

I won’t outline all of the critiques here, though I do in my new book Mission Tripping; but what I can summarize here is that there are some legitimate critiques that teams need to heed. Similarly, as I recall my pastor’s words I believe his assessment is fair when he wished that some short-term teams would never return.

I understand these sentiments.

According to my pastor, the biggest stumbling block was not necessarily the teams themselves. Instead, it’s the negative impact they brought to the mission field he was serving by teams who weren’t there for the right reasons. Moreover, this impact not only hurt the host ministry, but ultimately, didn’t bringing glory to God.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “where you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Here’s what I have been thinking about: How can a short-term trip bring glory to God and not “un-Glory”?

This thought has become my driving force while leading 44 short-term trips throughout my career. I never want to lead a mission trip where a missionary, host, or organization never wants us to come back.

Even greater than that? I want our teams to bring glory to God! For me, that desire that our trips bring glory to God speaks into our preparation for the trip, how we steward our budget and financing, how the trip impacts the participants, and finally how the teams serve at the locations they go to—-everything falls under the umbrella of how the trip can bring glory to God.

I acknowledge that no trip will be perfect. In addition, I own the fact that many of these critiques are well-deserved because there really are bad mission trips out there.

As a final consideration, over twenty years ago a trip from our church, which I didn’t lead or go on, lost one of our students on the trip in a drowning.  This is the ultimate reminder that taking a group of teenagers who are passionate, crazy, joyful, uncontrollable (at times), and ultimately other people’s children, is a huge responsibility.

I believe we are called to glorify God through short-term trips. But we are also called to care and nurture teenagers. Combining those, a trip with your teenagers (whether local, domestic, or international)–when done with a balanced view of missions and ecclesiology–can have one of the most profound spiritual impacts on the lives of teenagers.

Mission tripping is not just an event or summer activity.  Rather, it’s about glorifying God.

Danny Kwon, PhD, is the author of Mission Tripping: A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry Missions and A Youth Worker’s Field Guide to Parents and has been leading the youth and family ministry at Yuong Sang Church near Philadelphia for over 22 years.  He is a speaker/trainer for The Youth Cartel, as well as a professor in practical theology.  He completed in Ph.D. on the topic of innovation in the local church.  Along with his love for sports, eating, and making people laugh, Danny loves his wife Monica, a family and marriage counselor and professor, and is the parent/youth pastor of his three sons.

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