I rang a lot of doorbells, and enough friendly neighbors bought soap, at 25¢ a bar – probably a little more than soap cost then – so I could spend a week shooting arrows, hiking and paddling canoes at Camp Arapaho in the Poconos. It was a memorable week – my first away from home on my own. I recall it fondly. Earning my way made an impression, too.
My neighbors’ children stop by from time to time on similar sales errands. One neighbor’s son is selling something to help his club football team raise money for equipment. I give him a few bucks for stuff we don’t really need, or sometimes just a donation. And the Girl Scouts are selling their eternal cookies to help us keep up our weight. It’s all good-natured and in a good cause – keeping kids productively occupied. I like seeing them directly involved in the fund-raising.
Lately, though, fund-raising styles and stakes have changed. Recently I found a sturdy young man at my door. I didn’t recognize him. He said he was "calling on my neighbors" – a careful distinction from saying he was my neighbor – to let us know his soccer team was raising money to travel to Scotland. He wasn’t selling anything. He was simply soliciting donations to send an entire team, plus chaperones, to Scotland for several weeks. Of course, I had only his word that there was a soccer team – or that it was indeed going to Scotland. (I politely sent him on his way.)
This style has become so common that it has a name: Upscale Begging. Of course, the "beggars" are far from poor. In most cases their families could easily donate whatever funds they actually solicit. But by begging, they get others to fund their enterprise. (As American as apple pie.)
Even Evangelicals are now doing this for so-called "teen missions" trips. An organizer plans a trip for teen volunteers to visit Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico, etc., for two weeks or so, to help a church run a vacation Bible school or perhaps erect a small building. The kids get their hands dirty and usually accomplish something, with plenty of time left for high jinks and typical teen interpersonal dynamics. The trips are very popular.
Parents and participating teens whom I know say what "great experiences" such trips have been. I’m glad. But I object to how they are funded. Teens don’t sell soap or cookies to raise money. Nor do their families supply the funds, except as a last resort. Instead, teens are urged to "raise support" by soliciting friends and family members. Organizers say getting others to underwrite your expenses is part of the "genuine" missionary experience. Many trips cost as much as $1500 per person. I see some problems with this.
I realize some readers who believe in teen missions will wonder why I don’t understand how good those trips are for their kids. What possible objection can I have to such a positive experience? What is my problem? In response I offer three points which I hope they will ponder.
First, there is the careless use of the term "missions". This is more than semantics. These are not "missions" trips. They are (expensive) summer-camp trips to foreign places for teens who probably lack a fully formed concept of either faith or service. Missions – in the evangelical sense – is a serious life-vocation for spiritually mature people who want to help others find God. Often they also minister to physical needs, including education, medical care, and vocational training.
With rare exceptions, American teens are in no way prepared to do such work. They are rich kids (as measured by any world-wide standard) who slum for a few days, then bop back to their real lives. Their sneakers might cost more than a Mexican or Cuban worker earns in a month, but their "missions trip" costs them nothing, personally. They have given up only a little time which they might otherwise have spent shopping, swimming, or just hanging out. We assume the "natives" don’t comprehend this, but we might be surprised at how perceptive they really are (especially when their visitors walk around in shock for the first week over "how poor" everything is).
Second, consider the stewardship of missions funds. My wife and I believe in foreign missions, and we contribute annually to support people who are in that work for the long haul. Some were our college classmates. Most have never had two nickels to rub together. And many are having difficulty raising support for their work. A few have left that work for good because the task of raising support became too difficult and time-consuming.
One reason for this difficulty is that significant funds are being diverted to teen missions and "lay missions" trips. (Lay missions = teen missions, but the travelers are older. They rarely sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag.) One nearby church sent their pastor and his secretary to India for a month. Their expenses totaled nearly $10,000 – all subsidized by church members. Missions organizations look askance at these expenditures. Return on investment is very low. One church official noted how many full-time missionaries could have been funded by what is spent on teen/lay missions excursions within his denomination.
Do I object to summer-camp experiences where teens get dirty helping people they otherwise might rarely see? Not at all. I applaud it. But I don’t see why it needs to cost $1500 (or even $1000). Kids in Northern Virginia, where I live, can serve in plenty of poor places within 50 miles of home. Washington, Baltimore and Richmond inner-city ministries can always use summer teen volunteers. Would suburban kids like to sign up? Well… maybe. Some do serve there, but driving to downtown Baltimore is not nearly as sexy as flying to Costa Rica or Mexico.
Finally, I object to the entitlement mentality underlying the teen missions model. No doubt such trips can be character-enhancing for the participants. Let’s stipulate that. The question is: Who should pay for them? To get at the answer, imagine a possible trip to a music camp in Austria, or to the Bahamas for deep-sea fishing "research", or to Alaska for a dog-sledding instructional camp. If a friend’s son or daughter asked you to support one of these, would you do it?
Probably not, because you would correctly see it as a vacation or an educational excursion. Funding should be the responsibility of the young people, themselves, or of their families. (It’s a different matter if family resources are simply not there.)
A teen missions trip is one part vacation, one part service, and perhaps three parts educational opportunity. If a family wants this for their child, they should pay for it or require the young person to earn some or all of the money. Calling such events "missions" – thus implying that they merit support outside the family – is misleading and ought to stop.
Young people need to learn that no one is entitled to a free ride. If you want something valuable, you’re entitled to work for it – maybe to work very hard, if it’s expensive. Amazing things have been done by ordinary people who desired something costly (like an education), figured out how to get it, and eventually achieved greatness. Taking personal responsibility for reaching your goals is how you learn to become one of those people. You won’t learn it from costly summer trips to the Caribbean bankrolled by somebody else.
It’s not my purpose to rain on anybody’s parade, but entitlement thinking is a big enough problem in America without Christians adding to it. Even families that have the means don’t need to send teens on $1500-trips to Mexico. Call them "teen summer-service opportunities", and drive the kids to nearby big-city slums. Those ministries can use the help, and it won’t cost much to get there. Spend the serious money on real missionaries.