“I want to send my kid on a mission trip so they can learn to be grateful…you know, appreciate everything he’s got and realize how blessed he is.”
In my line of work, I hear variations of this phrase a lot. It always makes me cringe. The point of a mission trip should never be to teach gratefulness. As a parent, that’s your job. Because gratefulness is learned at home and practiced in the world. Not the other way around.¹
I’m the CEO of a ministry called Go Be Love International. We send hundreds of people on short-term trips to mission fields around the world every year. I’m also a wife and a mom to five awesome kids, ages 9-15. So I’m sensitive to the mission trip thing. But also sensitive to the parenting thing. These two go hand-in-hand, because parents have the ability to set their kids up for success before they even hit the mission field.
Cultivate a heart of gratefulness in your child long before their mission trip, rather than expecting them to absorb this value on the field. A child who goes to the mission field with a grateful heart already in place can use their trip for what it’s intended: learning, loving, and serving. This will free up your child to be comfortably relational on the field, to simply meet and enjoy people, focusing on our similarities, rather than constantly drawing comparisons because of our differences.
A short-term mission trip isn’t about changing the world or fixing a developing nation. It’s about gaining perspective, building relationships, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. It’s a little known fact but “mission” doesn’t really happen on a one-week mission trip. Mission happens in the other 51 weeks of your year, depending on what you learn and how you apply it in your “real life.”
I encourage Go Be Love trip participants to view their mission trip as an equipping ground. The field is a place to learn, to ask questions, to demonstrate humility, and to begin to understand how to meaningfully contribute to the global community. A child who already “gets” gratefulness, and who doesn’t need to spend their trip drawing material comparisons, will seize this opportunity to its fullest extent.
But there are also two practical reasons why we shouldn’t use mission trips to teach gratefulness to our kids…
The first reason is because it’s just sort of rude. “Hey Sally… go see how poor people live on the other side of the world and then come home feeling relieved that you don’t have to live like them.” Sending your child to the mission field so he/she returns “grateful for what they’ve got” is a lesson learned at the expense of someone else’s dignity, namely our brothers and sisters in the developing world.
It is, very literally, using their lack to feel good about our excess. And in truth, that’s not learning gratefulness, that’s learning pride.
Secondly, when we use mission trips to teach gratefulness, we’re communicating to our kids that because they have more material wealth than most people in the developing world, their lives are better. We’re effectively saying that stuff makes us happy. And we all know that’s just not true; stuff doesn’t make us happy and money doesn’t make us blessed.
In fact, a quick read of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 reveals what Jesus says makes us “blessed.” Spoiler: He doesn’t mention stuff. Help your child understand this: they are not blessed because they have lots of material possessions. Poor people aren’t less blessed because they don’t. In Jesus’ economy, stuff is irrelevant. Owning stuff is inherently neither good nor bad; the goal is just to make sure your stuff never owns you.
Using a mission trip to teach gratefulness to your child will cause them to miss the point. It places the emphasis on material things rather than relationships. It also erroneously assumes that lack of material wealth makes people sad. But in my experience, most people in developing countries are quite happy. I’d venture to say that many of them are actually happier than us. And I’d even suggest that perhaps that’s because they have less stuff.
Teach gratefulness in your home. Model it in your own relationship with Jesus and in your relationship with your spouse. Regularly tell your kids no, and teach them that they don’t always get everything they want. Teach them to value and appreciate the things they do have. And for heaven’s sake, teach them to say thank you and to mean it. And then, send them to the mission field and be amazed at what God will do.
¹Quote from Jamie Wright
Shelly Owens has served as the Chief Executive Officer of Go Be Love International since 2016. She led countless short-term mission trips and also served as a long-term missionary in Kampala, Uganda. Shelly and her husband Dan live in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with their 5 children, three biological and two adopted. To contact Shelly and learn more about upcoming trips, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, in the spirit of gratefulness and generosity, please consider a one-time gift to Go Be Love’s missionary care efforts. We love to utilize our short-term mission teams to care for long-term missionaries in meaningful ways. Our teams support missionaries by in a variety of ways: bringing yummy treats from home, providing childcare for a missionary date night, even executing all-expense-paid retreats for missionary families. Click here to read more and to support these efforts: https://gobeloveinternational.org/missionary-care/
Posted by Kari on November 4, 2019