Always “Life-Changing?” Rethinking traditional missions in Christian education

Three student participating in World Vision's Chosen sponsorship partnership

“It was life-changing.” In the weeks after students return from a mission trip, how often do you hear that phrase?

Their response usually comes from a good place. After returning from a powerful experience in the developing world, it can feel like your life has changed. You’ve experienced God. You’ve seen poverty in a new way: one that breaks your heart and lights a fire in you to do something.

Mission trips are incredibly popular. They create lifelong memories. But at the end of the day, are short-term mission trips really the best way to convict, disciple, and create lasting change in our students?

Unfortunately, … no. In fact, if we’re not careful, mission trips can actually do a lot more harm than good. As World Vision Ignite’s white paper on Christian missions explores, no matter how positive our intentions might be, good intentions alone are not enough. We must invest in comprehensive training, deep cultural understanding, and embrace a constant posture of humility and teachability.

Key questions to consider include:

  • Are we making a temporary fix or addressing the root cause of poverty?
  • 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 and logistics of maintenance be unsustainable?

Cory Trenda, author of After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience and World Vision senior philanthropy director, writes, “In recent years there has been much consternation among mission and educational leaders concerning the actual value of mission and volunteer trips. You may be surprised—and disturbed—to learn that studies have almost universally found no measurable long-term effect of these encounters on the lives of trip participants!”

On top of this, mission trips aren’t accessible to many students, including those with disabilities or families who don’t have the ability to fund a costly international trip. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the challenges of global travel into an even sharper focus.

We need to rethink our approach to global engagement. While students may be inspired by single missions experiences, they will have deeper and lasting change in their lives when they enter a new way of living and learning long-term.

World Vision Ignite’s partnership with Christian schools gives every student in your school the opportunity to be “on mission” as they gain powerful cross-cultural understanding right here at home. Ignite’s focus is on developing real relationships, one on one, with children around the world. This way, poverty isn’t just an issue for us to solve, but a reality affecting friends they care about. It’s a challenge we’ll work to solve together, utilizing each of our unique social locations, strengths, and insights.

In MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education, Dr. Michael Chen, Jenny Brady, and Joel Gaines explain some of the underlying issues with many mission trips in their chapter “From White to Mosaic.” In a world full of the complexities of brokenness—political, racial, economic, and more—we are often quick to offer help even when we may not understand.

The authors write, “We must provide opportunities for our students to learn from those who are different from them and learn with those who are different from them. We must communicate that bridging the divide between people for the love of knowing is fundamental to our faith journey. Our students will lose out on this important dimension of their discipleship life if they don’t engage thoughtfully, intentionally, and redemptively with other students of different racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.”

Ignite’s K-12 curriculum, real-world experiences, and cross-cultural relationships provide a way for schools to do just that. It helps students develop knowledge, empathy, and friendship with kids a world away and value engagement with others in their local community.

World Vision Ignite National Director MaryAnn Osborn says,” It’s important for students to understand how they were created in God’s image, and how their brother or sister in a country thousands of miles away was created in God’s image. and to learn from each other, to perhaps have some of their perceptions challenged … We are called into every area of our world to live out our faith as Christians.”

Download Ignite’s new white paper on Christian mission to discover how World Vision’s unique K-12 Christian curriculum, combined with experiences and relationships, can ignite the hearts and minds of your students.