Why I Love Short-Term Mission Trips

A Brilliant Interruption Where Kids Find God

My seminary self would scoff at the title of this post. In those days, it was in vogue to be as cynical and sarcastic as possible about the short term mission trip. Short term missions were considered neo-colonialist, were yet another instantiation of white-saviorism, or most starkly, they were “poverty porn.” The deconstruction and demolition of these kinds of trips was almost a badge of acceptance in some ministry classes, or at least it was a virtue to signal that you supported local over global missions. 

There was thought to be a magical and manipulative formula to these kinds of trips. Travel to someplace exotic, bonus points for Africa – check. Spend boatloads of church money that would be better spent on your local community – check. Sleep on a cockroach infested dirty church floor – check. Eat nothing – check. Work your youth to the bone, no whining accepted – check. Once you’ve got them emotionally and psychologically verklempt, throw a little Jesus in their face and get em’ saved – check. I hope some of you laughed at this list above, because a lot of those assumptions have been true at one time or another. But people are always bigger than our assumptions, and the Spirit works amidst our misplaced and misguided ideals. 

Before I tell you what I actually think, and you destroy me in the comments, I do want to offer briefly that many of the critiques of short term missions trips are rooted in truth. Once airfare became a possibility for the public, churches exchanged their sending of long-term missionaries for the exciting venture of sending folks in the short-term. Recent and ancient history are riddled with horrific examples of how “mission” has so often looked more like a spiritualized manifest destiny. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is with the acknowledgement that in its mission the church has sinned, and has therefore often led with shame rather than grace. 

The Immanent Frame

This sordid history, or at least the selective memory of it, seems to be the reason that certain stripes of progressive Christianity carry disdain for the short term mission trip. But I think this cancellation of short-term missions is also rooted in what Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame.” The immanent frame means that whether we are Christian or non, conservative or liberal, to be modern means that at an unconscious and presuppositional level the realm of visible and tangible things reigns supreme in our understanding of ourselves and the world. If you want to know if something is true or real in the modern world, it must be checked against our senses and our reason. If it doesn’t fit into those categories, it is declared untrue at best and superstitious at worst. 

The immanent frame is less of an idea out there. It is better thought of as the air we breathe or an invisible pair of glasses through which we see the world. Our immersion in the immanent frame is what causes us to determine the significance of a mission trip by assessing how far our money went, or how many houses we really built, or how much material advantage we really gave a particular community. While these are fair metrics, and ones I myself have used, they miss the kinds of spiritual realities that make these trips so essential. Shouldn’t our first metric be whether or not one encounters a seemingly invisible and living reality outside of themselves? That metric is not of the immanent frame, but it is precisely the reason why I love short-term mission trips. 


Short-Term Missions for Today’s Young People

It should also be noted that I think short-term mission trips are more important now than they were 15 years ago. The demographic I’m taking on these trips every summer is that of Generation Z – born 1995ish-20013ish. They breathe in the immanent frame in spades. But before you do what older generations love to do to younger ones – judge and generalize – remember that this is the world they were given. Sociological studies show this generation is the most physically safe generation ever, and yet the most psychologically vulnerable generation ever. They drink less, have sex less, get their driver’s licenses late (what???), oh, and they have way less sleepovers (cue another article about the necessity of church lock-ins, but alas, for another day). These lovely young people are technological natives unlike even my generation of millennials, and much of their experience of the world and way of seeing the world has been formed by social media. 

This digital formation has wrought immense suffering in the lives of young people in the last decade in particular. In 2013 a teen mental health crisis began. This is also the year that iPhones created the first self-facing camera (thus the birth of the selfie) and the year Facebook bought Instagram. 2013 is also when social media became more algorithmically determined. It is, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, the year we began raising our kids in outer space, expecting them to return souls intact. 

I have found the short term mission trip to be a brilliant interruption to the problems of the immanent frame and the havoc it wreaks on our youngest generation. Something hopeful and profound happens when adults and teens spend 8 days overnight together in a different place far from home. I guess you could say in the least that a short-term mission trip is one long extended sleepover. And what’s wrong with that? 

I’ve been on these trips enough times to observe just how much the weariness of the world falls off these young people about 48 hours in. And yes, we do take their cell phones, which helps a lot. Every evening our youth continually comment that they’ve “never hung out this way before.” Kids beg me to stay out past curfew so they can bang on guitars and belt out old Johnny Cash country songs by the fire. On long bus rides and on rooftops and after praise and worship, kids tell me things they wouldn’t dare share with me at a youth group. Surprisingly, they share those things with one another, too. I’ve heard people argue that all this can happen at home, but I’m not sure I agree, or at least I’m not sure it happens to the extent it does when you’re away from home. 

But beyond this communal camaraderie, the most profound thing that happens on these trips is an opening up. This opening up of persons is something more than an abreaction, maybe it’s like what Kafka described as “an ax breaking open the frozen seas inside us.” This opening is what philosopher Harmut Rosa calls “Resonance.” Resonance is what happens to us when we encounter something outside of the immanent frame within the immanent frame. It’s that tightening in our chest when we encounter an otherworldly piece of music, it’s that lump in our throat we feel when a story somehow touches deep parts of us, it’s those chills down our spine when we are rapturously known and seen and enveloped in a moment as never before. 

All of us have experienced resonance. The problem is that the immanent frame has given us ample and rehearsed reasons to discount that the author of those experiences is the living God. Anthropologically, resonance happens when our deepest yearnings and desires are made animate. In the language of Augustine resonance is when lower loves are given a vision and story of higher loves. Theologically speaking, resonance is when we are caught up, not symbolically or metaphorically, but literally and ontologically in the alive life of the living God. Resonance sounds something like a conversation I had with a young women on a mission trip this past summer: 

“Pastor Josh, what is this … feeling? I’ve never felt this before. I don’t know where to put this. I don’t know what to do with this,” she said to me with tears running down her face. 

With the immanent frame pressing upon me, everything inside my modern self wanted to tell her that it was just a surge of emotion, a natural biological reaction to helping someone else in need. But what if instead, I thought, she had been approached by the author of the cosmos? So instead I took a mystic risk. 

“That feeling is an encounter with the loving presence of the spirit of the living God. Follow it. Listen to it. Dwell in it,” I said. 

One might read this and understandably interject, “but Josh, God can meet us anywhere, which means resonance can happen anywhere.” Yes! Mexico’s ground is no more sacred than anywhere else. God told Moses to take off his sandals upon holy soil somewhere in the desert, but today there is no monument to the burning bush. 

However, since we are creatures of desire and longing first and foremost, resonance happens especially when the facades of our quotidian lives collapse and become something like vulnerability in community. God’s grace, says Paul, is sufficient for us, but lest we forget, it is sufficient precisely because God in Jesus Christ came in weakness. Short term mission trips force us to encounter our own needs, our own weaknesses, and our own defeats. And as I have learned from hearing the testimony of countless adults who still tell the story of that time in Mexico 25 years ago, these trips resonate within us like church bells singing from a different world that feels something like home. 

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16 responses to “Why I Love Short-Term Mission Trips”

  1. Eric says:

    Joshua, thank you for this. I am a youth pastor and since the spring of 2020, haven’t been on a short-term mission’s trip.

    Your writing is a great encouragement to get the youth out there and have the potential experiences with God that you are describing. Retreats are too short and we have tried to do an intown mission’s trip and it hasn’t gotten much traction.

  2. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Hey Eric, thanks for the comment. It’s definitely been hard to figure out those trips since 2020 for us, too. I’ve had little luck with in town trips, too. I’m glad you found this piece encouraging. Youth ministry is the wild Wild West out there right now! Blessings on your ministry, and if you ever need to workshop trip ideas my email is rev-josh@fpc-sal.org.

  3. Ginger Oakes says:

    Like CS Lewis said his first step was to believe in something outside the material world. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece.

  4. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Thanks, Ginger, for reading. Yes, Lewis talked about this sortve thing all the time. Take care.

  5. Marcus says:

    Hi Josh,

    This is wonderful. As a Gen-Z’er that first experienced the love of Christ of a short term mission to a Native American Reservation, this hit the bullseye of my experience and validated part of my story that I didn’t know needed it. For years I resented short term missions even though it’s what started my relationship with Christ. The imminent frame is the exact kind of perspective this should be put into. Thanks for your words!

    Can you point me to where Harmut Rosa talks about “Resonance”? I want to dig in deeper to this topic.


  6. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Hey Marcus, thanks for your comment! I think you and I have been in similar boats. I, too, had a transformational experience on a short-term trip. I’m so glad the piece gave you a language and lens for that experience. I hope you continue to cling to that early experience and revelation and think through what it meant. It sounds like God spoke to you and touched you in a really tangible and wonderful way.

    Rosa has a book called “Resonance: A Sociology of how we see the world.” I came across his work on resonance in my own reading of a great American Theologian “Andy Root.” His two books, “The congregation in a secular age,” and “faith formation in a secular age” talk in depth about the immanent frame and resonance. Rosa is not a theologian, but his philosophy points in that direction. Rosa’s other big contribution is his work on “acceleration” and the ever-speeding up of the pace of our lives.

    A really good place to start might be the podcast “When the church stops working.” Andy Root has great 20-minute snippets that deal with a lot of what I got at in my essay. Take care, Marcus!

    • David Zahl says:

      J- Andy Root will be one the keynotes at our NYC Conference next year (April 25-27)! I’m very excited.

      • Joshua Musser Gritter says:

        Dave–That’s wonderful news. Lara and I were just chatting about trying to make it to NYC. Andy’s presence there gives us all the more reason! His new book “When the Church Stops Working” is really solid, and sort’ve a summary of his secular age series. Best to you and yours in C’Ville.

  7. God is so good that he can produce good things even from badly broken systems and processes. So, yes, given the millions of people who have gone on short term missions trips, and the billions of dollars spent, it is possible to find a few success stories. But if someone jumps off a cliff and survives, that still doesn’t make it a good idea.

  8. Sue Beuning says:

    Thanks for a wonderful article. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and was blessed to go on week-long, high-adventure youth group trips, where I got my first taste of accepting, intimate, Christian friendships; extended quiet time with my Bible; and the richness of community with believing brothers and sisters. This generation needs to get unplugged and away from home, with plenty of time to just BE and be together. I was starting to poo-poo the idea of short-term mission trips too for all the reasons you listed, so thanks for reminding me how life-giving they can be.

  9. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Thanks for your comment, Warren. I definitely agree with you that God can produce good things from badly broken systems and processes. I think I’d also argue that their are ways of doing short-term missions that are not badly broken. Human sinfulness being as thoroughgoing as it is, sin is going to be present, and I’m not sure any systems we have–local or global–for doing Mission are without brokenness.
    I’d also argue that there’s more than a few success stories, at least I’ve witnessed that in my years of ministry. I’ve seen these trips change the trajectory of people’s lives–my life included. I think ultimately my point is that the harsh dismissal of these trips wholesale can neglect to bear witness to the transformation that does happen. And personally, I’m willing to spend church dollars on that. Take good care, Warren. Thanks for interacting.

  10. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Thanks, Sue. Yes, it’s a gift to get unplugged and spend intimate time with one another. That’s a huge part of the richness I’ve experienced. Thanks for reading, and take care.

  11. Melissa Dodson says:

    As a former missionary in a place that received thousands of STM groups a year, I would like to respectfully offer a different point of view. While I do agree that STMs can provide powerful spiritual and relational experiences to participants, and while I can appreciate the deep value in that, I believe we’d be remiss to ignore or minimize the harm we are doing to the local people we’re hoping to serve.
    You said that STMs force us to encounter our own needs, weaknesses, and defeats, but the majority of STMs (along with so much of the service and social justice efforts in which we engage) do not invite us into weakness. Rather, in the service itself, we tend to lead with our strength, our wealth, our resources, and/or our expertise. Approaching locals in this way harms them, not only because of the dependency it creates (which has been widely researched and published), but because local people feel devalued and belittled, their God-given gifts go unappreciated (even unacknowledged), and any real chance for genuine relating with them is greatly diminished.
    I agree with you that young people need brilliant interruptions, but I wonder if we could be more creative in how we foster those interruptions—so creative that we “do no harm.” I also agree that going far away, being uncomfortable, hanging out for extended periods, and the absence of phones can all open up space for experiences of resonance, awe and for the Spirit of God to be revealed in new ways. But I wonder how those things could be incorporated into non-mission trips. And I wonder how, if we are indeed called to a mission trip, could we approach locals more vulnerably? Simply being with? Listening to? Learning from? Receiving from? Accompanying? Allowing locals—regardless of their SES—to be mediators of God’s grace to us?

  12. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    I really appreciate your perspective here, thank you, and especially coming from someone who has so directly worked in this context. A part of the difficulty with an essay like this one is that in order to make the argument I had to leave out a lot of specific aspects about how I do STM’s. I completely agree with you that when unthoughtfully done, and when unaware of the agency and humanity of those we’re serving, these trips become problematical. I did try to acknowledge that in the essay. However, I have seen trips where the humanity of the local people is observed and acknowledged. For instance, on our trip we are always working alongside local families, being led by paid local workers, and have built a mutual relationship with a local congregation.

    I think you’ve also put your finger on something else I’ve wondered. Maybe we should just call these pilgrimage trips, acknowledging that a lot of them are for those participating? My only push back here would be that if you strip away the service aspect of the trip, say, if you just went sight-seeing in Italy, something integral to the encounter would be lost. It has been in the giving of one’s self and life away that I have seen some of the most profound change in young people. That being said, what kind’ve practices we put into “service” is significant, as you’ve rightly observed. Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful pushback. Take care.

  13. Matt Thompson says:

    That breaking-in / breaking-out resonance after 48 hours sounds a lot like what happens during a multi-day canoe trip as well. That might be more of a Canadian thing, but that Rosa-ish sense is still very present. I mean, I find that sense can even show itself even just an hour or two on the water, in the right place, with the right people.

  14. […] read with gratitude Joshua Musser Gritter’s recent paean for youth group trips. My own teenage experiences in Haiti and Honduras nearly twenty years ago opened my eyes to my […]

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