Despite how mean I am (see previous post), my children have enjoyed the benefit of being able to do some travelling in their short lives. Exotic vacations to tropical locales? Not so much. Short-term mission trips? Yup. Short on glamour and long on serving others. So there I go being all mean again. Whatever. It’s still a pretty cool and rare experience for pre-teens.
People often ask how we have managed to do this, so I thought it might be of interest to you. (See? I’m not mean. I’m thoughtful!) Here are some of the frequently asked questions (plus some of the questions that people should also ask).
How could I ever afford to take my children on a mission trip?
The first time we took our kids on a two-week mission trip to Ethiopia, we had to foot most of the bill. Ouch. But it wasn’t all bad news. Because we were being sent by a legitimate charitable organization, we were able to raise funds to cover our team’s expenses. People who donated towards the trip got a tax receipt for their donation, and we were able to put those donations towards plane tickets, meals, lodging and supplies for the work that we were going to do. Although our children tagged along and we expected them to contribute to the work of the team, they were not technically considered ‘team members’, so we had to cover their costs personally. Yes, that’s a big chunk of money, but it helped considerably that at least we didn’t have to pay for my husband’s and my expenses.
The next time we went to Ethiopia was a slightly different situation. We had been in process to move there long-term and had already begun fundraising towards that end. When our plans abruptly changed, we decided it would be good for us to go for another two-week stint. We contacted all of our donors and asked what they would like us to do with the money they had already given towards our long-term plans; everyone was supportive of us using that money for our short-term trip. We had enough to cover all of our expenses. Plus, by this time our three older kids were old enough to more fully participate in team responsibilities, so we felt more confident justifying their expenses to our donors and our sending church.
My third real-life example is another different circumstance. This trip was to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and we were going to support our friends who pastor an urban church plant there. Because we weren’t flying overseas, and because they were able to get us a great deal on a month’s stay at a nearby hotel, our expenses were quite reasonable. This is the kind of family mission trip that may be the most feasible for people interested in doing such a thing.
The bottom line is this: you have to be prepared to pay their way. It may mean choosing missions over a vacation, but hey, you’ll still get cool family photos and awesome stories to tell when you get back.
What is the point of taking my children on a mission trip?
We had several reasons for wanting our children to be involved in missions. It was important to us that our kids gain a global perspective from an early age. We wanted them to understand that the world is so much bigger than the tiny bubble we live in, and that very little of it (dare I say none of it!) is focused on us as individuals. We wanted our kids to be exposed to poverty and disease and brokenness so they could develop a deeper gratitude for provision and health and wholeness. We wanted our children to embrace cultural and racial differences. Lastly, cultivating servant hearts is a priority for our family and we believe that our kids need to see us serving and also have opportunities to serve.
How old should my children be to go on a mission trip?
I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule about this. One large factor that might help you decide is the extreme change in sleeping patterns. There may be jet lag, missed naps, late nights, early mornings, uncomfortable beds and strange night noises. If your child isn’t old enough to “suck it up” through most of that (within reason, of course; even adults sometimes need to excuse themselves for a nap), then perhaps you need to wait a year or two.
The type of work that you’re going to do is another large factor. (See next question.)
You also need to carefully evaluate the reasons for taking them in the first place. If they’re not old enough to benefit from the experience (regarding cultural awareness and servant attitudes etc.) then it may be best to wait. Bear in mind that culture shock can be a very difficult thing to process in a healthy way. Your children need to be able to articulate their feelings and reactions. They don’t necessarily need to understand all their feelings, but they at least need to be able to say, “I feel sad because that family doesn’t have a home” or “I don’t like it when all of these strangers try to touch my hair.” If the extent of your child’s communication skills is to scream “No!” at every new experience or “Mine!” for everything they want, then I guarantee that your trip will not be a positive experience – for you, your child, or your hosts.
How can I involve my children in the mission trip?
This, of course, depends on the ages and abilities of your children, as well as the kind of work your family is going to do on the mission field. (You would be wise to steer clear of construction projects and medical trips. You’re welcome.) On our Ethiopia trips, our teams provided child care for a missionary conference. Our children have had training and experience working with toddlers and preschoolers at church, so it was an easy role for them to help with overseas. They were able to help in almost every aspect of the program and basic child care.
Where should we start?
Mission trips are not a spur-of-the-moment thing, and with a family it takes even more preparation and planning. If this is something you are considering for some time in the future, you can start now by getting your kids involved in local ministry. Help them develop serving skills by including them as much as possible in various roles at church and in the community. We were very blessed that our church provides a training program for middle-school aged kids, allowing them to work in various ministries throughout the church. Our children took shifts in the toddler room and in the preschool classes, they worked in the library, they served as ushers, they cleaned up craft supplies after Sunday School, and they bussed tables at church dinners.
We were also intentional about occasionally having our kids involved in community service. I volunteered at our local pregnancy centre on a weekly basis, but a couple of times a year, I was able to bring my kids in to sort donated clothes or help give the centre a thorough cleaning. When our life group volunteered to sort supplies and build new shelves for the food bank, our kids were there. When we served Christmas dinner at a community centre, our kids were there.
Instilling an attitude of servanthood in your kids is a life choice. It is absolutely essential for mission service, but it needs to be incorporated into your regular schedule well before that. Your children need to see you joyfully serving the people around you. And they need to feel valued as worthwhile contributors from a very early age.
I have more to say on the subject, but I think I’ll break this into two parts. I know you’ll be breathless with anticipation until my next post. It’s just like when you’re on the edge of your seat, hyperventilating with excitement over what’s about to happen on your favourite TV show, and then the credits start to roll. Yup. It’s exactly like that.