Mission Trips & Matching T-Shirts

I have the privilege of overseeing Expeditions, the short term service division of Young Life. Over the year, I’ve come to learn there are many opinions, misunderstandings and very strong feelings about the idea of short term mission trips.  From time to time in this blog space I’ll address some of these hot topics because they raise important questions. Plus, truth be told, now and then I just love to stir the pot.

The Expeditions staff team knows if there’s one soap box I will stand tall on it’s the subject of mission teams wearing matching shirts while traveling and/or serving in an under-developed nation.

Now I do realize a group of people dressed in bright purple or yellow in a busy airport can be very helpful. I also can appreciate matching shirts creates a sense of unity. However I would say those well-intended purposes or conveniences may also have unintended consequences.

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I’m aware I’m probably making some people squirm or even feel badly because they have a drawer full of said matching shirts, collected over many years of travelling to a place filled with people they have come to love and adore. And these shirts can evoke great memories. The intent behind these souvenirs is good. However, Americans wearing matching shirts, arriving with eager and caring hearts in a developing or under-developed nation, can actually, inadvertently, communicate something negative. It can say things like,“We are here to save you.” Or matching shirts can even say, “Look at us.  Look how ‘Christian’ we are, giving up our spring break to come serve people in material poverty. We are here to make your terrible horrible no good very bad lives better.”

Am I using too broad a brush to paint a complex topic? Perhaps. They’re just tee shirts for goodness sake. However, I do think we (by ‘we’ I’m referring to westerners and/or Americans) need to ask deeper and more thoughtful questions as we seek to serve those in need.

“Is what I’m thinking, saying, doing and even wearing honoring to our hosts, their culture, community? Are we serving people and an authentic need? Are we seeking to build trust and enhance relationships by adding to, not subtracting from, a community?”

Our goal in service needs to be about relationship, about engaging more deeply.  We can’t just go in for a short, defined period of time and then leave. We can’t, like the Lone Ranger, show up, do a quick job, then ride off saying, “My work here is done.”

We need to not be the heroes in the story. In Expeditions, everything we do is to point people first to Jesus. We do this by coming alongside staff, leaders and kids in a particular place and time. Our focus is to encourage, affirm, listen and learn from our new friends, the heroes of the story. We might do this while mixing cement for a new school walkway, or by helping serve food or run activities at camp for kids with special needs. Or it might happen while we sit under a mango tree after lunch hearing someone’s family story, their suffering and their rejoicing.  

Robert Lupton in his book, Toxic Charity writes, “For some reason healthy people with hearts full of compassion forget fundamentals when it comes to building relationships with those they attempt to serve. Forging ahead to meet a need, we often ignore the basics: mutuality, reciprocity, accountability. In doing so, relationships turn toxic.”  

Following Jesus is always about building loving relationships and lifting other people up, particularly the lost, the last, the least and the forgotten. The sooner we figure this out the better.  Compassion, kindness, goodness – these are all the fruit of God’s character, and we need more and more of it every single day, whether we’re leaving the creature comforts of our lives to serve elsewhere, or we’re walking across the street to talk to a lonely neighbor.

There are many great resources that can help us think more broadly about how to serve in meaningful ways.  “More or Less,” by Jeff Shinabarger” is one of my favorite books to help you think about how to live out generosity day to day.  Poverty Inc. is a fantastic documentary the sheds light on the cycle of politics and misguided efforts to help move people out of poverty.

Am I saying stop caring; stop serving? No. Never. Just the opposite. But be wise, think and act in strategic ways, and for goodness sake, wear what you want to wear. But make sure it’s never about you and always about the other.

In Expeditions, we send a fun shirt to each person who serves Young Life within a few days of returning home. We include some suggestions on how to serve back in their own neighborhood. Our hope is that those shirts get worn a lot and initiate conversations about where they went and what they learned and their new friendships and how they’re changing their own lives.

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It’s a lot to ask of a shirt but God can use anything he wants to change people’s hearts and minds!

Written by: Michele Sbrana

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