What We Need to Do to Keep Missions Strong Among Millennials
By Haydn Shaw
Baby boomers in the 1970s wore clothing inspired by India and followed rock-and-roll groups from Europe. Their millennial children buy phone cases from online stores in China and play video games with people from all over the world. Millennials (those who are 17 to 36 years old) have five times as many passports as previous generations (many of which are needed for short-term mission trips).
Ironically, in many churches today, millennials know more about missions than their parents do. That’s because churches talk less about missions during worship services and have fewer missionaries speak or show slides than they did 30 years ago. While adults have been hearing less about missions in recent years, student ministries have talked about missions more. Local service projects and especially short-term mission trips have grown in popularity among the young. Even so, the church’s approach to short-term mission trips is not working. But we can fix that.
From the 1960s, the impact of short-term mission trips on the mission field has been debated.* Proponents of such trips believed the lifetime impact on those who participated would pay dividends for missions for decades, even if the immediate impact on the mission field was minimal. They saw mission rallies and conventions decline in attendance and hoped that many short-term mission trip participants would return as lifetime missionaries and that those who did not would become “world Christians.” World Christians feel the Great Commission in their bones, give sacrificially, think strategically about missions, and pray without ceasing for workers for the harvest.
But short-term mission trips did not appreciatively increase the number of full-time missionaries; nor did the trips create mission champions. Worse, participants didn’t show lasting growth in their spiritual lives or even lasting interest in missions compared with people who did not go. But most disappointing to me, participants do not reduce their materialism and give more to missions, according to the article “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement” in Missiology (October 2006).
Short-term mission trips are not creating the world Christians we need or adding to the number of millennials who are world Christians.
If we are to turn things around, we must do four things immediately:
1. Change the aim of your mission statement and your definition of discipleship.
In my work as a consultant, I see hundreds of church mission statements. Most of them are built on the Great Commission and have some form of this phrase: “reach people, grow them as disciples, and turn them loose in service.” But churches miss the “into all the world” aspect of the Great Commission if they focus their mission statement only on their local communities. World missions may be important to them, but it is a peripheral concern compared to their local community.
Churches with such mission statements need to enlarge their understanding of the Great Commission. Most churches I’ve seen don’t need to change the language, but the aim, of their mission statements. When they do that they will quite naturally incorporate “go into all the world” into their definition of discipleship. If “world Christian” is not in your definition of discipleship, add it. For many churches, these two tweaks will help change the world.
2. Bring missions back into the worship service.
Thirty years of moving missions from the main service to the youth department has shown us that missions must be in the main tent or people will overlook it. The worship service yells what is important to us. If we only show slides of our young people going on short-term mission trips, interest in long-term mission work will decline. I am not asking you to set the calendar back 30 years and have a missionary deliver a sermon once a year. That’s not how gen Xers or millennials engage in causes. This is deeper. It’s about planning services as if the “go into all the world” was meant for everyone.
Technology makes it possible to bring missions into far more services than an annual missions Sunday. Millennials give money to causes they engage with through social media. No other form of fund-raising has proven effective with them. Missionaries who update their communication methods to make it easier for churches to bring them into their services and their people’s homes will find it easier to raise money, prayers, and recruits.
3. Change how you measure short–term mission trips.
Most churches measure the success of short-term mission trips by how many more people went on the trip this year compared with last year. But if you begin measuring long-term impact, you will need to dramatically increase the time you spend with the participants before and after the trips. Experts suggest that to create world Christians, you must prepare them to go, and upon their return, you need to help them translate what they saw and experienced.
Before going on another short-term trip, every youth minister or other leader should read “If We Send Them, They Will Grow . . . Maybe,” first published in the March/April 2007 issue of Journal of Student Ministries (available online at http://fulleryouthinstitute.org). Your elder board needs to put a hold on trips until your church has a plan in place to incorporate these key suggestions. We can improve the results of short-term trips, but it will take six months of meetings after participants return, not one or two debriefing sessions and then a slide show for the congregation. If you do not have the energy or resources to put that much more time into short-term mission trips, send money instead.
4. Change the way you support millennial missionaries.
I spent a day this summer working with leaders from all over the world in a nondenominational missions agency that has 1,000 missionaries. These leaders were even more intent than my business clients to understand my business research on generations, because millennial missionaries are different from their boomer and gen X mentors. Not only do they have the same 12 generational sticking points on their staff as businesses do, they have noticed millennials want more communication from their agency and home church, are more focused on holistic missions rather than just evangelization, and require more emotional support to stay on the field. Your church or agency can learn the key differences and make the changes.
Missions has declined over the last 30 years. But by making four changes, we can develop world Christians who positively impact world missions. Like mustard seeds, these are small tweaks that will yield big results.
* For more about the impact of short-term mission trips on the mission field, go to www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-you-should-consider-cancelling-your-short-term-mission-trips.
Haydn Shaw is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. For free resources on generational sticking points, go to www.peopledrivenresults.com.