5 things youth ministries can learn about mission trips from WestJet

Until last year, I'd never heard of WestJet. Then, on a vacation to Canada, we had an enjoyable experience flying WestJet. Six months later, I, along with millions of others, was captivated by WestJet's Christmas miracle video. This video featured WestJet passengers making Christmas gift requests to Santa at three Canadian airports and then company employees purchasing and delivering the gifts to the passengers. The video is, no doubt, heartwarming. Yet, it's clearly a brilliant marketing ploy.

Given the popularity of last year's Christmas miracle video, I wasn't surprised when WestJet released another one this year. I was, however, surprised when I saw that the recipients of this year's gifts were all from a small community in the Dominican Republic. Though WestJet flies to the Dominican Republic, I cannot help but assume that most of the recipients of this year's gifts don't regularly fly WestJet. That intrigued me – so much so that I watched WestJet's video explaining why they did this year's Christmas miracle.

In the video, Corey Evans, (Manager, Sponsorship, Community Investment and Experiential Marketing) explains how they chose this community in the Dominican Republic because they've been working with their partner there, Live Different, since 2012. Through their partnership, Evans says “we've really gotten to know the residents”.

According to Evans, “It's really important to us that we're part of the long-term development of this area and it's residents.” That's why over 200 WestJetters have gone to the Dominican Republic to build homes.

The Christmas project evolved from the ongoing partnership between WestJet, Live Different, and this one community in the Dominican Republic. As with all of what WestJet does in the Dominican Republic, community leaders worked with WestJet to make sure they considered all aspects of their Christmas project and figured out how to “do it right.” 

For example, WestJet packaged presents not in wrapped cardboard boxes, but in reusable tubs. Such tubs will help protect people's gifts from the water that so often seeps into leaky houses in this area. As Evans describes, “We wanted to give them a gift that was reusable and something that could actually improve their lives.” Additionally, WestJet also hired over 40 community residents to work on the Christmas project with them.

As a youth pastor who's a strong advocate for short-term missions trips and yet is also fully aware of how detrimental such trips can be when done poorly, I watched this video thinking, “This is a crash course in how to do missions well... Taught by an airline company.”

Here are five things youth ministries can learn from WestJet about how to do mission trips well:

1. Well-done mission trips are rooted in partnerships. WestJet works with Live Different. Churches might partner with sending organizations, missionaries, or local churches.

2. Well-done mission trips involve long-term relationships. Just as WestJet has gotten to “really know the residents” by repeatedly returning to the same community in the Dominican Republic, the best mission trips return to the same community again and again. Such an approach fosters long-term relationships and trust. That, in turn, enables mission trip participants to truly begin to understand a community. Does returning to the same location make a trip less exotic? Absolutely! But does it make for a better mission trip for all involved? Absolutely!

3. Well-done mission trips allow local community leaders to decide what and how to do things. Instead of showing up as “experts”, participants in well-done mission trips show up as co-laborers willing to take their marching orders from people who are part of the community year-round. Local community leaders also help mission trips participants figure out how to “do it right”, in a way that truly benefits the community.

4. Well-done mission trips bless communities with things that will actually improve their lives, in big and small ways. Just as WestJet set aside their cultural expectation to wrap presents in favor of providing families with a more useful reusable tub, genuinely improving the lives of community residents requires mission trip participants to not only work with them to understand what's needed, but to set aside their own cultural expectations in order to do what's best for the local community.

5. Well-done mission trips raise money not just to transport their team to and from the trip location, but also to benefit that community. One way of doing this is to do what WestJet did and actually employ community residents to work alongside you. In addition to providing your mission trip team with relational opportunities, such an approach also provides much needed jobs for people.

Doing mission trips well is time-intensive. It's also hard work. But if an airline company can see the value in figuring out how to do justice work well, surely youth ministries can do the same.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling.

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