10 Ways to get the Most out of Your Mission Trip

We’re heading into the season where many student ministries are heading into planning for a summer mission experience. More and more I hear leaders say, “We don’t do camp or conferences. We do mission trips.” Short term mission trips can be great, but they can also be a huge waste of time and money if not maximized to reach their full potential. I’ve led a number of mission trips over the years with various organizations. As I work with April Warfield, our Bridging Urban Mission Partnership coordinator, we talk often about some best practices in building healthy mission experiences. BUMP 2013 is currently sold out but plan ahead to be a part in the future.

Here is my top 10 list in getting the most out of a student mission trip:

1. Why before What or Where

Before you decide where you are going or what you want to do, know why you are taking students on a mission experience. Who are we going for? Teams that go with a list of expectations of what they want to see, do, or experience are often frustrated and frustrating to their hosts. Teams who go motivated to help the indigenous leaders accomplish their vision and encounter God are often much healthier and much more helpful teams.

2. Get a Guide

Studies show that you’ll quadruple your effectiveness and experience by going with an agency rather than going independently. The reason is because they often keep you accountable to training your team, focusing the trip, understand the culture you are entering, and understand the big picture of what the community you are serving needs. It often feels more cost effective to do it yourself, but the reality is the cost of your team, your own sanity, and the community you are serving often increases when you go it alone.

3. Have a Decade Mindset

You’re not going to see lasting impact in your teens or the community you are serving by simply going once. I often hear pastors say we want to give our students difference experiences every summer. I personally feel this is an unhealthy posture that reinforces a pre-existing deficit in our culture. Students are growing up in an experientially rich and relationally poor world. Teach them to build relationships by returning to the same community. From a practical side, it’s absolutely mind boggling to me that you waste the learning of year one by not returning.

4. Prepare Yourself and Prepare your Team

Healthy teams prepare their group by building trust and respect for other team members, equipping the team in being culturally sensitive, and preparing for conflict resolution, communication and other needed skills that will be required on the ground (and usually in the rest of life as well). They spend time preparing their hearts, praying, and surrendering themselves to God’s way. This all starts with the leader. As someone who has hosted teams, I can tell you that some of the most difficult people on the trip can be the leader. The leader sets the pace for the team.

5. Join Jesus

Healthy teams enter as learners. They recognize that they are not coming in as the saviors but instead as ones who are simply cooperating with The Savior who is already at work in that community. They are simply joining Him. Remember that you are the outsider. You’re not coming in primarily to help but instead to learn and partner with those who know their community and its needs far better than you do.

6. Understand the Learning Cycle

Mission experiences provide a great experiential learning environment. Students will glean the most from the opportunity when you provide daily opportunities for students to walk through the learning cycle individually and together:

  • Experience: Ask students what they experienced that day. This is simply recounting their observations and the experiences they engaged in.
  • Reflect: Ask students how it made them feel. Why? What was confusing, unexpected, challenging, exciting, invigorating, moving, disturbing, etc.?
  • Insight: What principles or insights surfaced that are generally true? How do the Scriptures inform what we experienced?
  • Apply: Ask students to consider how they could apply this principle or insight to other relationships, situations, or contexts in their everyday life.

This same cycle is helpful for students to process their re-entry experience after the mission experience as well. The more times you can run them through this cycle the greater the potential for learning that not only sticks but is integrated into everyday life.

7. Ground it in Theology

It is easy to focus the mission trip on doing things for Jesus. But a mission trip provides a fantastic environment to think theologically:

  • Why are we on mission? Who is our missionary God?
  • Why do we engage in justice and compassion?
  • What are people’s greatest needs and what does the gospel provide them?
  • What is the role of the church?
  • How does our view of end-times inform what we prioritize as we serve?
  • How does crossing racial and socio-economic lines of difference flow from our understanding of reconciliation?

A mission trip moves from good to great when it is grounded with strong theological moorings that help students understand that mission is not a trip but instead a way of life that flows from our Sending God.

8. Start with a Disciplemaking Mindset

Mission trips provide a fantastic equipping opportunity. As you plan your trip, allow your disciplemaking priorities to inform your trip. Think through the disciplemaking skills of inflow (following Jesus) and overflow (helping other follow Jesus) that you can equip students in through the pre-trip training, actual mission experience, and even a post trip follow up. If you can’t tie your mission experience back to your disciplemaking strategy, then honestly you’re burning a lot of “sideways energy”.

9. Build Momentum

One of the most neglected aspects of mission trips is what happens afterward. Thought must be given to this before you ever step foot on the ground. Healthy teams think through how they will:

  • Process what they learned and connect it back home.
  • Consider how to stay connected to those you served with throughout the next year.
  • Provide opportunities to serve cross-culturally back in their own community.
  • Intentionally following up and spending more time with those who spiritually “pop” on the trip.
  • Consider how to help students continue to engage in peer ministry back home. Students are often engaged in leadership roles on mission trips and return to a youth ministry where ministry is done “to or for” them.

10. Bring Families

My favorite trips of all times were combined student and parent trips. It is great for parents and students to both be out of their comfort zones. It can be a powerful opportunity for parents to see their children leading in effective ways. It helps greatly with the follow up after the trip. It strengthens relationships between teens and other adults. It enhances follow up because now parents and students process their re-entry thoughts in real time while they are together rather than waiting for a team debriefing meeting.

Don’t allow your mission trip to be simply a neat experience. Steward it wisely to assist in the everyday mission of making disciples that make disciples.

What have you learned about getting the most of mission trips from trips you’ve led?

Consider these EFCA Opportunities:

Email Updates

Subscribe to receive EFCA blog updates.

* indicates required