Improve Mission Trips: Less Service, More Learning

I recently returned from a mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico with students from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. The trip took place over our spring break, and in Ensenada we worked with Lantern Hill, a small US-based non-profit with whom the college has partnered for several years. When I returned to campus, I met with a professor friend who spent his spring break accompanying students on a border ministry study experience during which they learned from several mission organizations active in San Diego and Tijuana. I asked this professor how his break went. He replied, “My group learned how mission trips like yours are stupid.

My quick response went something like this: yes, I agree that many short-term mission trips are highly problematic; they are made better when the emphasis is put less on service and more on learning.

Problems with Mission Trips

The problems associated with short-term mission trips have been widely chronicled in recent years. Mark Wm. Radecke’s fine article, “Misguided mission: ten worst practice” in the May 18, 2010 edition of Christian Century notes the mistakes of many mission trips. When they are for ogling, or “just because we always go,” or lacking significant local partnerships, or all about feeling good, they’re less help than they could be and are likely a net drain on the community.

With the increasing awareness of our environmental crisis, it’s also wise to ask questions about the carbon footprint of any air travel, especially when it’s for a service trip meant to serve God and neighbor. Finally, I’ve observed that mission trips have the tendency to emphasize social problems a great distance from a congregation’s local community without making connections back to local justice issues.

Better Models?

With all this in mind, I’m convinced that the best models for mission trips include significant learning experiences and relatively little hands-on mission. Why? I would much rather have our students learn about the myriad of systemic social issues facing the indigenous people living in poverty on the margins of Ensenada, and then wrestle with questions of economic justice on a local and global scale, than kid ourselves that the impact of 20 work hours is anything but in support of larger learning goals.

Now don’t get me wrong: Lantern Hill is a very fine non-profit. I’m a big fan. Its leaders think carefully about every aspect of their work, and our week was full of fine learning experiences—including, by the way, the naming of helpful distinctions as to why Lantern Hill was building sustainable practices of service as opposed to some mission organizations in town that seem only to bring in US groups to paint buildings another shade of American feel-good green.

I know other mission organizations that do a fantastic job of balancing learning, reflection, and sweat-based service. For example, one cannot complete a week with Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia without deepening one’s understanding of homelessness, food justice, and the complexities of urban life. Yes, there’s hard work, but it’s not to feel nice, it’s to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.

Which brings me to the proposition: the best mission trips are those in which the actual service work is understood as taking a supporting role, not the lead. So maybe, the term “Mission Trip” needs to be re-worded, re-branded to something else entirely. Concordia calls campus ministry service trips, “Justice Journeys” which isn’t bad, but isn’t overly descriptive either. “Service learning trip” sounds painful, though I’m not sure what language might be better.

What I am more certain about, however, is the need for robust travel experiences that emphasize learning, justice, and reflection—sweaty service is fine, but it shouldn’t be confused as the point.


  1. These are often hard to hear ideas. But we must think critically about how we do justice. Our young people are ready for a new way. Thank you Adam.

  2. A great organization that focuses precisely on what we can learn and how we can be together (in contrast to what we can do) is Sister Parish:

  3. Katherine says:

    I can’t help but think of CTS’s Alternative Context program – I know the purpose is different, but the idea of learning about the church in a different context seems parallel to learning about poverty/discrimination/social justice, etc in a context other than our own and then learning to apply it to a global perspective.

    • Thanks, Katherine. Yes, indeed, that’s a strong alternative program and a fine approach, I think. In fact, I’m working with Lutheran World Relief at the college to develop a not disimilar approach with students for a longer study away experience next year. More to come…

  4. Hannah Winge says:

    Finally, somebody who gets it! As a Concordia STLF Chapter Core member, I was responsible for planning, leading, and facilitating a spring break service trip this year. And that’s how we advertised it–a service trip. And I disliked every bit of that label. It’s not “the point.” After enduring a zillion cringe-worthy questions about what service projects we do on the trip, all I wanted to do was to explain why we did them, how we learn from them and take action, and overall how the service projects are just a means to a greater end goal and not the point themselves.
    As our inaugural year, I did not want just another spring break service trip to go do a service project or two and have a good story to tell later. This leads to complacency not change, engagement, learning, and action. The STLF Pay it Forward tour is so much more than a bunch of service projects jammed into a sleepless week. And any “service trip” or mission trip has the capacity to be SO much more than just the work, and it should be!
    After experiencing countless service projects across the country through Pay it Forward tours and church mission trips, I know what you mean by painting buildings another shade of American feel-good green, or in my case, fences and garbage cans. I cannot say I have witnessed anybody whose life changed by making dumpsters more aesthetically pleasing. However, I have seen the powerful service learning that occurs during meaningful service and intentional reflection. These moments of impact are almost always accompanied by experiential learning through individuals and/or communities to which we serve.
    And all that rambling is my affirmation that learning and reflection are essential for any service or mission work, and I hope more people and organizations are recognizing this.


  1. […] opportunity to connect with students: Traveling as the faculty advisor on a Justice Journey to Lantern Hill in Ensenada, […]

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