What your student won’t learn on mission trips

What your student won’t learn on mission trips

Who wouldn’t want to go on a mission trip? In high school, these trips open students’ eyes to the reality of poverty outside of our comfortable world of technology and instant gratification.

Through mission trips, Christians help at-risk communities in very practical ways: building houses, sharing Christ, and — through our insight and technology — bringing hope to people in deep need. It’s challenging to take cold showers, eat unfamiliar food, only drink (or brush your teeth with) bottled water, but it’s an amazing chance to see the world, while helping those in need. Students often visit local tourist sites, buy beautiful souvenirs, and come back as a new person. Their lives will never be the same again.

Sound familiar? Here’s the problem. Mission trips are wildly popular, and those who participate in them usually have the best intentions. Yet the uncomfortable reality is without careful training, deep cultural understanding, and a constant posture of humility and teachability, good-hearted individuals can often do more harm than good.

Without understanding language, culture, and community values, good-hearted intention can often dangerously misdiagnose the work that needs to be done.


      • Are we offering poor solutions?
      • Are we addressing a temporary problem or the root cause?
      • Can the local community be empowered to do this work themselves?
      • Will our solutions still be helpful in a few years, or will the cost or logistics of maintenance mean our fancy technology sits dormant and collecting rust?


In When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, noticeable reading about global development, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert say short-term mission trips are usually focused on relief efforts, which are most effective in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. The issue? Short-term teams usually visit communities who are “experiencing chronic problems that need long-term development.”

What’s more, “our American idols of speed, quantification, compartmentalization, money, achievement, and success” can make it so “projects become more important than people.” We feel a need to report back specific numbers: wells dug, houses built, and people converted to prove the time and expense was worth it. Lasting, sustainable change takes a long time to nurture and cultivate. It often won’t look impressive to our fast-paced world back home.

If mission trips don’t work, what does?


At World Vision, drawing on a popular model highlighted in books like Trenda’s After the Trip and Corbett and Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts, we have replaced the traditional model of the short-term mission trip with something called a Vision Trip.

Vision trips are “cross-cultural mission trips that are carefully designed to expand our vision,” Trenda explains. “The goal is that as a result of what and, more importantly, who we saw while traveling, we would see life, the world, people who are materially poor, God, ourselves, and maybe even our vocations differently.”


There is a misconception around poverty, and what that actually means.

At World Vision, we do not view poverty as a lack of material possessions. Instead, we define it as a condition that exists largely as a result of broken relationships.

Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, When Helping Hurts states, our work with low-income people will do more harm than good. We must repent of our pride and give up our need to be the hero. We must partner with local communities in a substantial way, reject the materialism of Western culture, and learn to see poverty on relational terms.

As a child, Criselde was sponsored through World Vision. Today, this mother of two volunteers with World Vision’s work in her Filipino community.

“When I was in grade school, World Vision was there for us,” she says. “They built a school building for the children in our community. They gave me school supplies, bags, pencils, and other necessities for school. I finished my studies because of World Vision.”

When she became very sick in 5th grade, Criselde was able to see a doctor because of World Vision. All these years later, when she heard World Vision was coming to her new community, she told her husband she wanted to volunteer with them. Working with local Filipinos to staff World Vision programs — at all levels of leadership — isn’t the exception. It’s key to how we approach our development work.

Mike Chen, head of school at Pacific Bay Christian School in Pacifica, California, says, “I’ve been very impressed and excited to see that World Vision is really adhering to the principle of empowering the local communities to really participate in solving the problems that are most concerning to them.”

Chen, whose PhD work focused on the resilience of war-affected widows in Nepal, has seen firsthand how global development efforts need to be an authentic partnership, and one centered on relationships with those we feel called to serve. He recently visited World Vision’s work in different cities throughout the Philippines, including the communities his school partners with through World Vision Ignite.

“Interacting with World Vision’s national office in the Philippines,” Chen says, “we saw how they are local Filipino nationals: registered nurses and educators; professionals who come and are part of World Vision endeavors. They enter into these village communities and walk alongside these communities. Seeing this has been incredibly humbling and incredibly hopeful.”

Re-examining the Great Commission


Jesus’ final command to His followers before returning to heaven — the Great Commission — is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Matthew 28:19–20

Making disciples of all nations doesn’t end with baptism or conversion. It means investing in and disciplining followers of Christ. To do this, we must recognize that when we enter communities overseas, we are not bringing Christ there. Christ has been present and at work long before we arrived. And Christ will be at work in His beloved community long after we leave.

As Christians, we have the opportunity to join God in his story of healing, wholeness, and redemption. But doing so requires work. It’s more than flying, eat a couple of meals together, write a check, share the Gospel and leave.

By carefully investing in the ‘Vision Trip’ model, Christians can avoid the painful reality of participating in a trip where we unintentionally cause harm; while participating in the real world, now.

In this model, the biggest challenge won’t be the unfamiliar food or the cold showers but learning to reject the earthly mindset that sees us as superheroes sent by God to rescue those who are materially poor. On a Vision Trip, we all enter into relationship and God-given identity empowering one another in the process.

This is not a vacation or sightseeing opportunity, with a couple days of manual labor or photo-ops thrown in. Vision Trips transform the superheroes mentality into God’s people, like clay, which God will shape into a vessel that will best accomplish God’s purpose.

Will we allow God to shape and form us into the creation He desires for us to be?