A century ago, missionaries had to commit to years of service. With the comparative ease and affordability of travel, church and non-profit leaders now encourage a different form of congregational engagement: short-term mission trips. These journeys, typically lasting from a few days to several weeks, allow people to put their religious beliefs in action by taking people to other countries or areas of great need to serve the poor or disadvantaged.
A new study from The Barna Group shows that most of the people who embark on service adventures describe the trips as life-changing. In fact, three-quarters of trip-goers report that the experience changed their life in some way. Yet the research also shows that few adults – including a small percentage of Christians – have ever gone on a short-term service trip.
The label “life-changing” is pasted on many things, but the description fits most short-term service trips. Only one-quarter of those who have participated on such a trip said it was “just an experience,” while a majority said it changed their life in some way. The most common areas of personal growth that people recall – even years later – include becoming more aware of other people’s struggles (25%), learning more about poverty, justice, or the world (16%), increasing compassion (11%), deepening or enriching their faith (9%), broadening their spiritual understanding (9%), and boosting their financial generosity (5%). Others mentioned the experience helped them feel more fulfilled, become more grateful, develop new friends, and pray more.
Missing in Action
However, despite the accessibility and personal benefits, most Americans have never experienced such a short-term service project. Just 9% of Americans have ever been on one of these brief service trips, including only 11% of churchgoers. What’s more, most of the people who have ever gone on such a journey did so more than five years ago. To put that in perspective, only 8 million of the 228 million adult residents of the U.S. have been on a short-term mission trip in the last five years.
Some population subgroups were more likely than average to participate in short mission trips: adults under age 25, residents of the South and the West, college graduates, political conservatives, and people who are associated with a faith other than Christianity. The most active group of people in terms of short-term trips was evangelical Christians (23% of whom had taken such a trip).
In contrast to evangelicals, residents of the Northeast, Catholics, and political liberals were among the least likely to go on service trips. One surprise from the study was that upscale adults were no more likely than downscale adults to have participated on a short-term service project.
The research provided additional snapshots of service trips:
- Most people take service trips outside the country; however, 33% of the mission trips were to locations in the U.S.
- A person does not have to go far in order to grow personally through serving others. People who took domestic service trips reported the same degree of life-changing experiences as did those traveling abroad.
- The typical person who has been on a mission trip has taken two such journeys. Two percent of Americans are service trip enthusiasts, having been on five or more such adventures.
- People frequently go on short-term trips with immediate family members, most often with siblings. Only 14% of these trips were parents facilitating a family learning experience. This means that just 1% of Americans have ever taken a mission trip as a family.
Researcher David Kinnaman clarified that “this research does not measure the benefit to the people being helped, since we only interviewed Americans for this project. But short-term missions clearly benefit the people providing the assistance. Many pastors, parents and teachers are searching for ways to transform hearts and minds. One promising way to go about changing people’s perspectives is to go on a service adventure together.”
The Barna study gives evidence that the emerging generation wants to serve the needs of others in short-term missions. For instance, young adults are more likely than the Boomer generation to have ever been on a service trip in the past (12% versus 7%, respectively). Moreover, young adults (defined as those under the age of 25) express strong interest in participating in future short-term service trips. Overall, 10% of young adults said they would definitely go on such a trip in the next three years, compared to just 3% among older adults.
Barna researchers refer to the under-25 segment as the Mosaic generation because of their eclectic lifestyles and diversity. Kinnaman, who is president of The Barna Group, pointed out that “Mosaics are globally aware and cause-oriented. They relish risk, stimulation, and diverse experiences. And they are more sensitive to issues related to justice and poverty. Their craving to take journeys of service could fuel a resurgence of global engagement. Yet, the danger would be if leaders and organizations waste the Mosaic generation’s readiness by simply allowing young adults to be mere ‘consumers of cause’ – selling them a t-shirt or a wristband, instead of challenging them to life-shaping service projects.”
About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1005 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in August 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
“Evangelicals” are born again Christians. In the survey, people qualified as evangelicals if they met the born again criteria (i.e., said they had have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their religious faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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