Maybe you are one of the many Christians who look back on a youth mission trip as a turning point in your life. Perhaps it gave you a global perspective, made you appreciate what you had, recharged your spiritual life or sparked a passion for service. While serving and evangelizing are at the heart of all missions, short-term trips inevitably have a great effect on those who go on them.
“The sad truth is that students don’t always connect with Christ while they are at church growing up,” said Nick Cocalis, director of Next Step Ministries, an organization that arranges one-week mission trips for junior high and high school groups. “But when you get out in the mission field and you are serving and looking outward for things to do, those are the times you are acting most like Christ when you are most around what God is up to.”
Is your youth group growing stale, bored or disunified? Are members too hung up on material possessions? Or do they simply have a desire to go out and put their faith to work? If so, putting together a short-term mission trip is something to pray about. Here are some ideas to get you back on track.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time
Planning a mission trip can be a daunting task, so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to pull everything together. If you are planning your first trip, don’t set the date any sooner than nine months to a full year away. Not only will this allow you to deal with planning components one at a time, but families with busy social and activity calendars will appreciate knowing far in advance when their son or daughter will be off in the mission field.
Find the Right Mission Partner
Before you decide on where you are going, you’ll need to find someone to partner with. In today’s mission field, it is essential to connect with an organization, missionary or church in the area you wish to serve. This goes for both domestic and overseas trips. You need to work with someone who knows the community, language, culture and what to do in an emergency.
“Always connect with a parent organization that can keep you in the loop and keep you safe,” said Dr. Sandy Friesen, coordinator of service opportunities and intercultural studies at Evangel University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the effect of short-term missions. “You need to have a contact on the ground.”
Partnerships do more than just ensure your group’s safety. If you really want to make a difference in an area, you need to work with someone who has a long-term missions plan in place.
“It’s not a one-week handout that these communities need,” Cocalis said. “They need long-term investment and they need people building up their leaders and who will be there after you are gone. A one-week mission trip is not going to save a community. But if you can get involved with an organization that can take your one week and put it in a plan and a process of being there week after week and year after year, then you can really see the fruit of your labor.”
Does your church support any missionaries? Do you have a sister church in an urban area? Do you know of an organization that might fit your needs? These are all logical places to start looking for a partnership. If nothing immediately jumps to mind, start searching online for an organization to work with. There are dozens that run youth mission trips year-round.
“The number one thing is partnering with someone who is actually in the community that you serve,” Cocalis said. “Someone who understands the needs and the resources that the community has and someone who is there for the long haul.”
Working with an organization can also make things much easier for first-time trip planners. These organizations can take care of all the logistics for you, while you will most likely have to arrange travel, housing and insurance on your own if working with missionaries or a local church.
“For some reason we love to do the stuff that no one wants to do,” Cocalis said. “We’ll take the nuts and bolts and the little stuff on so the trip leaders don’t have to worry about it. They can just lead their students.”
Choosing a Mission Location
If you choose to work with a missionary or sister church, your location may already be in place. If you are working with an organization, it most likely has a bevy of domestic and overseas trips to choose from. Make sure to keep your group in mind—what they would be interested in doing and where they might like to go—when choosing a location.
“So often we think of the missions experience as one week, but I feel that if you focus on that one week, you miss out on 51 weeks of excitement leading up to the trip and commitment afterwards,” Cocalis said. “Find a place that your students are excited about going to, so they can start spreading the word and spreading their faith six months before the trip.”
Domestic Trips. More and more groups are choosing to do their mission trips within the U.S., both because of lower travel costs and the fact that our country has plenty of places in need of service. Mission opportunities include helping in homeless ministries, assisting immigrants, doing community outreach, teaching English and practicing street evangelism. In addition, due to the recent destructiveness of nature on U.S. soil, many groups have jumped at the chance to work in disaster relief.
“Students are becoming more in tune with the needs around them, and they want to be involved in causes and the things that are being talked about,” Cocalis said.
Latin America and the Caribbean. If your students have taken Spanish classes in school, they may be excited to use the language on a trip to Mexico, the Caribbean or Central or South America. Trips to these locations can be eye-openers for students who thought of these places as merely beach resorts. Extreme poverty plagues many of these “idyllic” locations, and groups can take part in community development, hunger ministries, orphanage outreach, medical missions, church planting and evangelism.
Africa. When it comes to mission work, Africa is often the place most people think, and for good reason. Poverty, hunger and disease make everyday life a struggle for many rural Africans. The opportunity to teach the gospel to unreached groups is also a major draw for youth missions. Trips to Africa often include evangelism, church planting, children’s ministries, medical missions, teaching English, technology training, and homeless and hunger ministries.
Europe and Russia. While poverty is less prevalent in most parts of Europe and Russia, there is still a great need for mission groups. Church planting and evangelism are common activities, and you will still be able to find construction projects or medical missions in these areas. Orphanages, children’s ministries, teaching and refugee relief opportunities are available as well.
Asia. While people often think of Asia as restricting entry to Christian mission teams, there are actually plenty of opportunities to do work in countries like China, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand and India. Most of these destinations will welcome any group coming to teach English, and while you’re there you can take part in church planting, community development, medical missions or children’s ministries.
Critical Steps Leading up to Departure
Once you’ve decided upon a certain trip, begin the process of pulling everything together as soon as possible. Most organizations will handle booking flights, housing, meals and travel insurance, but if you are responsible for these components you will want to have them figured out well in advance.
Fundraising. Inevitably you are going to have to do some fundraising to pay for your mission trip. If you choose to set a flat fee that each group member must pay for the trip, some parents will pick up their student’s tab, but you’ll need to assist others in raising money.
Writing letters asking for support is the traditional and most effective way of garnering funds. Still, not every student’s family and friends will be able to contribute as much as the next, so get creative. Many organizations will give you a packet of fundraising ideas, with everything from a typical bake sale to selling bobble heads of your senior pastor.
Make announcements during church asking for donations and have students share to the congregation why they are going on the trip. Run a car wash or sell spaces in your church parking lot during a local event. The opportunities are endless, so find one or two fundraising techniques that will meet the needs of your church and local community.
Training. No matter where you are going, you will need to have your group go through several cultural, language and safety training sessions before departure. Talk to your parent organization or the missionaries on site to figure out what you should tell your group to expect and be ready for.
“Always do safety and security training so that students understand everything from pick pocketing to keeping your passport safe,” Friesen said. “Always train students on cultural implications—what women making eye contact means, what clothes to wear and what phrases not to say.”
Enjoy your mission trip. Have fun, serve the community you are in and let God do what he wants through your group. You may find that the people you came to serve will teach you something.
“They might not have the most money in the world or the most material goods, but maybe because they lack material goods they have such a heart and such a passion for Christ,” Cocalis said. “Some are so tuned in to who God is and what he means to their life that when we are serving them, we are really being served relationally and spiritually.”
Don’t let your service be an excuse not to take advantage of opportunities for spiritual growth. Debrief with your group each night, do worship and give a message or devotion. Find fun ways to bring your group together and build camaraderie. Consider using “prayer partners.” Give everyone a name of someone on the trip to secretly pray for and give gifts and encouraging notes to them.
Keep the Spirit Alive
Most people on a mission trip come away with a “spiritual high.” Serving and being a part of what God is doing in other parts of the world will have your youth group eager to live out what they learned when they get home. Unfortunately, this zeal often wears off once your group gets back into its everyday routine.
But there are things you can do to keep your group on-track and energized. Schedule get-togethers often to keep the trip in everyone’s mind. Discuss what was learned, how you are incorporating it into everyday life and continue to foster relationships established on the trip. Encourage group members to connect with people from your parent organization on social media, or even with people in the community you served. You never know what your youth mission trip could spark in one of your group members.
“The short-term trip has almost become the new church camp, where students go on a trip with their youth group and want to stay longer than just 10 days,” Friesen said. “These short-term trips are the building blocks of long-term missionaries.”