Many Christian college students use their time to serve or participate in campus fellowships during their college years. However, more and more students are also incorporating short-term missions to be a natural part of part of their college experience—almost a fad.
According to mission directors across the board, the participating in short-term missions for college-aged students has been on the rise.
The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board reported the number of college volunteers for has increased by 14 percent in 2002. Every year since, a steady number of 3,500 college students enlist themselves for mission.
"Volunteerism is the new fad on college campuses, so mission work benefits from all of these cultural influences in Christian students' lives,” said Felicity Burrow, student-missions consultant for the IMB. She said a practical reason for the trends is that students live in a more multicultural world than ever before where “traveling to Europe on spring break is as normal as going to Padre Island."
She added that current events revealing the risk involved in missions don’t affect students’ decisions much. “Terrorist attacks and other things have made some Christians afraid of serving overseas. Students rise to that challenge," she said.
Howard Culbertson, professor of missions at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., has noticed the trend as well. Sixteen years ago, only 15-20 students would go on mission trips per year but now that number has shot up to 100 per year, according to Culbertson.
"The more students get involved in missions, the greater chance other students have to be in close contact with people who've had global experience," he said.
Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., said the experience students gain on their mission trips help students to develop a sense of purpose in their lives.
"College students don't know what to do with their lives, and going overseas gives them some context and maturing to do,” said Johnson. "There's some young people who think that time is running out, and they need to get out and do some evangelistic work."
Even though students are entering short-term mission, some for as little as two weeks between semesters and some for as long as two years, few follow through to take on long-term mission.
"In general, the number of missionaries going into long-term is decreasing, while the number going into short-term is exploding," said Ralph Winter, editor of Mission Frontiers magazine and an international missionary for 10 years. "Whether there's any connection or not no one knows, but I don't think most short-termers think about staying on."
The short-term mission trips are a way students can see if becoming a missionary is their life-long calling. On the contrary, according to Winter, the trips are becoming more of a fad, which poses problems for mission fields that need more than a short-term commitment.
"That's a good thing, not a bad thing," he said. "But it's a very expensive form of missions that doesn't do much good. You can't translate the New Testament in two weeks."
However, students who would like to consider long-term missions as a future career cannot easily do so since missionary agencies don’t accept students with college debt as long-term missionaries.
"You can count out all the students who have a lot of debt — they'll never make it," Winter said. "It takes 10 years to pay off their loans, and by then they've settled into another job. That's already happening; otherwise, we would have twice as many missionaries."
Steve Holt, a student at Pennsylvania's Grove City College, who spent five months working for Youth With A Mission in Chilibre, Panama, said most agencies require a bachelor’s degree, placing students in a financial Catch-22.
"I would love to just go from college to seminary, and then from seminary onto the missions field," he said. "But with the costs of a private school and then graduate school on top of that, it's not easy to accomplish."