Something you will hear me say often in reference to short-term mission trips (Barna research has my back on this one), “There is no lesson I can teach or event I can plan that can do what a short-term mission trip can do”. What I mean by that is this, the spiritual life change, the comfort zone breakdown, and the transformation that I consistently see result from these trips…it is hard to reproduce, and it certainly should not be replaced in our youth ministries.
Over the years, God has given me the blessing of being able to lead trips to inner-cities (Chicago/New York), overseas (Barcelona, Spain & Ireland as a student), and more local trips like the mountains of Kentucky and the campgrounds of Scioto Hills. These are some lessons I learned along the way:
- Preparation is Key. What if a doctor never studied anatomy…what if a bungee jump operator didn’t learn to tie a knot…what if a hairdresser never went to cosmetology school….the answer, they would cause a lot of damage! And same with mission trips. If you don’t prepare well in advance, you may just cause more damage than good.
- Give Expectations Up Front. This isn’t a come to the meetings when you feel like it experience. Each potential team member goes through an interview & application process. As part of the interview, the applicant is given, in detail, all the expectations of the trip, from behavior to training requirements and assignments.
- Train Them. Soon, I will need to write a detailed list of the mission training, but here are some highlights: read a book together (ex. Crazy Love, Do Hard Things), unity training (see #5), mission training (curriculum like Prepare.Go.Live), Personal Evangelism Training, Guest Speaker with Professional Training, Trip Presentation to Church, Group Practices (Drama, Crafts, etc.), and accountability (see #4) to name a few.
- Keep Them Accountable. They know the expectations (see #2), so keep them accountable. Each time we meet for training, the team is asked about their church attendance, daily time with God, homework, and team responsibilities. Sure, they miss every once in a while, but if it happens twice in a row, the student in warned, and extra assignments follow. If it continues, a meeting the parents and possible dismissal from the team. Behavior can also be a means of dismissal as well.
- Work on Unity Early. You may thing unity exercises are silly, but you will thank yourself later if you start them early and often. The transformation I saw from the first time we did the exercises to the last day, it honestly gave me goose bumps to see the difference. It was because we worked at it.
- Open Their Gifts. Something we do during training is a spiritual gift inventory and assessment. Following that, I give each student responsibilities based on their gifts. Ranging from team encourager to teaching team, each team is given responsibilities, but because their jobs are connected to their spiritual gifts, it allows them to have a better chance of success, and less chance of frustration.
- Raise the Ante. One year I walked out on a limb and had students be in charge of certain groups and given leader responsibilities, such as drama leader or music leader. Sure, I gave them guidance in the process, but I raised the bar in the preparation process, and boy did it pay off! I saw some amazing leadership growth in those students.
- Never Underestimate a Teenager. I can remember a shy 9th grader coming into my youth group. He usually sat quietly during events & lessons, saying very little. Well, as the years went by he began to grow, but still had a quiet, shy nature. During his senior year, he signed up for the mission trip to Spain. He was the sound/media leader, which fit his personality. But, I felt he needed more, so I gave him the task of learning a magic trick for the park presentation. That same shy, quiet 9th grader, I got to see him do a magic trick in front of hundreds of people, and use that trick to share the Gospel. NEVER underestimate a teenager…give them opportunities, and push them to new heights in their spiritual lives!
- Can I Get a Testimony? Every year we do a wrap up service for the mission trip for our church. It’s great, because many in the church gave towards the trip and were praying faithfully (Prayer cards with a team picture are a wonderful idea), and they want to hear all about the trip. In the past I have asked if anyone would like to share their testimony of what God taught them. This year, I decided to have every member of the team, including leaders, give their testimony. Man was that powerful! Sure, there were some that were extremely terrified, but the audience, especially parents, was extremely grateful. (Next week’s blog – How to Plan a Mission Trip Testimony Service)
- Life Transformation. As I mentioned in the intro, there has not been a trip that has gone by that I have not seen at least one student’s spiritual life dramatically change as a result of the trip. There has been dramatic change (not just a mountain experience either) that I have seen in students. Students taking their summers to go back to the mission field we went to on the summer before or students saying they want to work at the mission we served at after college graduation. What a blessing to see lives changed! That makes the effort that goes into #1-9 worth it.
Special thanks to my youth pastor growing up who taught me many of these lessons early, so I didn’t have to learn the “hard way” all the time. Love you PK!