I hate that question.
I hesitate to recommend specific mission trip organizations for a variety of a reasons.
I will, however, say this.
By default, most mission trip organizations focus MORE on service than on justice. It takes careful vetting – for the 5 marks of a justice-focused trip – to find organizations that bend towards justice. Often, those bent more towards justice have fewer “outcomes”. They’re not the organizations that boast completed construction projects. For that reason, they can be a much harder sell to senior pastors and church boards, who often like to see tangible results from their mission trip investments.
There is good news, though. You can integrate themes of justice into even the most service-oriented mission trip you find yourself on by doing these 6 things.
1. Talk often about the difference between service and justice as you prepare for your trip. Help teens (and perhaps more importantly, your adult leaders) understand there is a difference between them. For great, interactive resources check out Kara Powell and Brad Griffin’s Deep Justice Journeys.
2. As you prepare for your trip, wrestle with the appropriateness of photos. The goal of your mission trip should never be a stunning slideshow afterwards, nor should it be to post the coolest photo possible on Instagram. Because phones (and therefore, photos) are such an important part of our life, often teens take photos without thinking on mission trips. When that happens, photos often degrade the people we seek to serve rather than honor and dignify them.
3. During your trip, emphasize relationships, even if the organization leading you doesn’t. When you arrive at a work site, before you unload any materials and get to work, first go and meet anyone who’s there. Introduce yourself. Ask thoughtful questions about that person to genuinely get to know them. If you bring a lunch to wherever you’re serving, always pack an extra (or two or three) to share with those who live there. Invite whosever around to actually eat with you. Talk with them to learn their story as well as information about the community you’re in. Model what it means to engage local residents. If someone stops by your work site, stop what you’re doing and talk to them. Always bring a teen with you. Never get upset with a teen for not working if they’re spending time in a conversation with someone local, even if that someone local is a kid. While the service aspects of a trip eventually fade, relationships don’t. When you practice listening to and entering into someone else’s story, that’s when perspectives and hearts begin to change and advocates are formed.
4. As you process each day with your team, constantly ask why. Push teens to go deeper in order to understand why the various needs they’re trying to meet exist in the first place. Watch for signs of holy discontent as teens begin to wrestle with underlying, systemic issues. Encourage teens to get involved in finding solutions to those systemic issues – both during your trip and after they return home.
5. As you talk about your trip, both during the trip and after you return home, be careful not to make yourselves the heroes of your story. Instead, before you even begin your trek home, practice sharing stories from your trip with one another. Encourage team members to tell the stories of the locals – and not just of yourselves. Make the locals the heroes of their own stories, even as you shine a spotlight on their circumstances in an attempt to advocate for those you met. Share not just what you did, but what you learned from the people you met and, if applicable, how you encountered God in them.
6. After returning home, continue debriefing your trip both communally and individually. Challenge teens to continue advocating for those they met, sharing their stories, educating themselves about the systemic issues they discovered, and doing what they can to solve those issues from afar.
While doing these six things won’t magically turn a service-oriented trip into a justice focused one, they will give your team a news lens and perspective from which to understand their mission trip experience and integrate it into their life in a real and a lasting way.
To learn more about how to make a service-oriented mission trip more justice focused, buy a copy of Jen’s latest book today: A Mission That Matters: How to do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm.