Mission Trip or Toxic Event? Resources for Navigating the Issue of Charity

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Yes, it is only October. Yet around this time, many youth ministries begin to discuss short-term mission and service trips over Spring Break or in the summer. While there are MANY conversations that can be held regarding the efficacy of such trips (such as whether they serve a discipleship or service role primarily, whether they should be exclusive or intergenerational, and how accessible such trips can actually be to youth), one of the most necessary is the question of whether or not mission/service trips aid the work of Christ and the people of Christ at the site of the service itself. Two excellent thinkers to help process this difficult question are Brian Fikkert and Robert Lupton.

Fikkert is the founder of the Chalmers Center, whose mission is “to equip churches to walk alongside people who are poor, breaking the spiritual, social, and material bonds of poverty.” One of Fikkert’s most helpful concepts is the idea that poverty is the result of broken relationships, rather than about specific material needs. This causes us to ask whether or not the work of our students helps build or damage the existing and possible relationships in a place. Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts, written alongside Steve Corbett, is a seminal work in this area.

Lupton is the author of the incredibly influential Toxic Charity as well as Charity Detox. Lupton’s wisdom for charities should also be heeded by churches and youth ministries considering any number of service opportunities, especially those built around a physical ‘contribution’ (giving Christmas gifts, building homes or schools or wells, etc.). Lupton is the founder of Focused Community Strategies and The Lupton Center, an organization that provides on-the-ground and online training for individuals and teams in how to love people well. Their 6-week video curriculum, “Seeking Shalom”, may be a helpful training tool for your students and/or leaders prior to attending (or even planning) a trip.

Whatever our position on these complex issues, failing to acknowledge and engage them is a failure to steward the students, resources, and callings we have been given. And no, such conversations are not ever above our youth ministry pay grade.