As a church planter in the States during the 90s, and globally since 2001, we have used short-term teams as an important part of our engagement strategy. We’ve primarily used these teams to help us put on basketball camps. I love basketball and played a lot growing up. I was never great but always wanted to be the next NBA superstar (which never happened). I also coached some in recreational leagues. When our kids were young, I coached Upward Basketball and really enjoyed their program for children. Since basketball has always been a part of my life, it seemed natural to incorporate it into our strategy on the field.
I will never forget the time a church asked if they could come to Spain and put on a soccer camp for children. Obviously, we declined. We were, however, able to run basketball camps that were a hybrid of basketball and conversational English, and they were always a big hit. We found that having children and students join their parents on these trips was a great benefit for us strategically. These younger team members were often able to connect with children their own age, thereby opening a door for us to connect with their families. The families that came on these trips often connected with families in our area and were invited for ice cream or even dinner at some of the homes of the people we were ministering to.
As field workers we did a lot of preparation to help these relationships take off. We knew many of the families who attended the camps, and we believed that encouraging parents to bring their children with them fit our style of an incarnational approach to ministry. Bringing groups of families meant extra work for us. For example, we had to find hotel rooms large enough to accommodate families. In the States, this would not have been an issue, but international hotels are not always set up to house large groups. We also had to think through the logistics of transporting the team. We usually used public transportation, which meant more walking and more time to get from one place to another. We had to plan out which restaurants we could take the team to as well, since not every restaurant in our area had space for multiple families to sit together. We wanted parents and children to have time to spend with each other, so we were sure to carve out space for them to be together and enjoy our city. And we always left enough room in our schedule that they would be able to accept invitations from other families at the camp to hang out and do life with each other. These were the most fruitful times for us in Gospel proclamation.
Utilizing families on short-term trips can open a lot of doors on the field, but it is helpful to look at both the benefits and the challenges of these trips and determine if this approach is right for you.
Clay Mullins serves as Missions Pastor at Living Hope Church in Bowling Green, KY, and he believes that family trips can help younger team members grow in their heart for missions. “The first thing that comes to mind is that a short-term trip gives the teenager a broader view of the world and God’s mission in the world.” Clay believes that many longer term missionaries can trace their awakening to the nations back to a short-term trip.
As a field worker, I have also seen how involvement in short-term trips can serve as an on-ramp for further missions participation. Most field workers love having the opportunity to invest in people from their partner churches during a short-term trip, and bringing families on these trips gives us a chance to invest in multiple generations at the same time. Ryan Martin, one of our writers here at Upstream, says, “I think these trips build a pipeline for future missionary service, and they develop present missions DNA within the family unit as families begin to think missionally in their present context by reaching neighbors, internationals, and even praying regularly for the nations.”
Most field workers love having the opportunity to invest in people from their partner churches during a short-term trip, and bringing families on these trips gives us a chance to invest in multiple generations at the same time.
As I noted above, allowing children and students to be a part of a short-term team can also benefit the field workers by opening relational doors on the ground for them. We certainly benefited from bringing families to work with us where we were. Since our focus was on reaching younger families, it just made sense for us to bring both parents and their children as a part of our strategy.
When you are trying to determine if bringing families would help or hinder your ministry, there are a few challenges to consider as well:
If a child gets sick, then you lose two members of your team. I remember a trip where one of the children got a stomach bug. Thankfully it was not serious, but it knocked them out of doing the camp that day, and it meant the parent had to stay behind as well to care for the child. As a result, we had to make several team adjustments before we had our camp sessions for the day. I learned that it’s wise to try to recruit a few extra people who can jump in during scenarios like this. It’s also helpful for the team to be trained in multiple areas so they can step in if you have to make adjustments.
Another challenge to consider when planning for teams like this is the general capacity of children. Weeks on mission are often long and labor intensive. Fatigue can set in quickly, so you probably need to plan in advance for this and be sure to give families breaks throughout the day. Jonah Fox in Texas says that having children go on trips is “great in theory, but hard in practice. Our standard is that children need to be ‘on’ from early morning to late at night without a break, so we typically open up trips to children 10 years of age or older.”
I remember a trip where one of the children got a stomach bug...that meant the parent had to stay behind as well to care for the child. As a result, we had to make several team adjustments before we had our camp sessions for the day.
The physical strain of a mission trip–usually long days with lots of walking–may lead you to plan for a different pace. These trips are often difficult for adults, and the difficulty can be magnified by several degrees when you have children on your team. The hiking adage that you can only go as fast as your slowest walker is helpful to consider during your planning. If you have teams composed of children, then be sure to allow more time to get to and from places, more breaks, etc.
We have also found that housing entire families can be difficult in an international setting. We have had to rent out two or more rooms for a family before, which means the family members are separated. This can be hard, especially for children, in a new and strange setting. Thanks to Airbnb, it’s a little easier these days to rent a home or large apartment for families to stay in.
When you’re planning a trip for families, you need to keep in mind that security will be an issue in certain places. If you are worried about the security of your team in an area, then it may be best not to include children in that particular trip. Even in areas where the risks are low, we strongly recommend that you provide security training for your teams before they leave.
Field workers put a lot of trust and confidence in the church mission leader who is responsible for recruiting the short-term teams. I have found that the more specific I can be in terms of what I observe on the ground, how teams will fit into our existing strategy, what I need for them to do, and even what a minimum age requirement should be, the better they are able to recruit the types of teams we need.
As a field worker, you need to determine whether bringing families fits your strategy. If it does not fit, then do not force it. If you are a mission leader in a local church, be sure to ask your partners if bringing families would be helpful. They may feel the need to “make it work” in order to please you or maintain the partnership, even if it doesn’t fit into their strategy. Give them permission to say no without letting it affect the partnership. Depending on the location, strategy, and type of ministry you are involved in, it may just not work or make sense to have children on the trips.
At the end of the day, I think the benefits of opening up some of your short-term trips to older children or students with their parents far outweigh the challenges. Planning and organizing these trips will require more work on your part as a mission leader in the church. You will need to communicate well with your field partner as you decide whether or not bringing families would be helpful for their strategy. If it is, then determine what the needs are on the field and find ways for the families on your team to address them while they’re there. And prepare your families well, not only for the spiritual challenges of the trip, but for the emotional, physical, and logistical challenges they will face as well.
I would love to hear your comments on this and learn from the experiences you’ve had taking families on short-term trips.
Larry is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Upstream Collective. He and his family have lived in Europe for nearly 20 years, where he has served in a variety of strategy and leadership roles. Prior to moving to Europe he was a church planter and pastor in the US. He is a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission, The First 30 Daze: Practical Encouragement for Living Abroad Intentionally, and The MarketSpace: Essential Relationships Between the Sending Church, Marketplace Worker, and Missionary Team.