How to Prepare for a Short-term Mission Trip

Youth Specialties
May 25th, 2016

First aid kit—check.

Liability forms—check.

Earplugs and eye mask—check.

Tylenol PM—check.

These things might be essential for you, the youth minister, as you prepare for your next short-term youth mission trip. But what should be on your checklist as you think about how you might prepare your students?

Preparing to take a group of teenagers across the country (or across the world) for a short-term mission trip can be overwhelming. And many times, your greatest hope is that the church van doesn’t get a flat tire or that you can make it through the week without a trip to the emergency room. But with just a little prep work, these trips can be rich and can pave lasting roads in your students’ discipleship journeys.

In order to maximize the short-term mission trip experiences for your students, it’s essential to train them before the trip. You must train your students to remember the gospel, be sensitive to cultural differences, and be humble learners.

Remember the gospel.

This one seems obvious, but it’s often overlooked—and it’s the most important thing you can do to prepare your students for a mission trip. It can be easy for students to think they’re going to change the world through a short-term mission trip.

[bctt tweet=”While they can do good, your students are not saviors.” username=”ys_scoop”]

They can’t change people’s lives. They’re not the ones who “have it all together” coming to serve those who “need help.” Only Jesus can do that. Your students—just like those they wish to serve—are poor and in need of a savior. They’re simply coming alongside others in whom God is already at work, and they serve in response to what Jesus has already done for them through his death on the cross. Reminding your students of this before a trip is crucial. Unless your students have been humbled by the gospel, they could approach short-term trips with—at best—a well-intentioned but paternalistic attitude and—at worst—a judgmental, condemning attitude toward those they seek to serve.

Be sensitive to cultural differences.

On a short-term trip to rural Honduras, I heard an American teenager share his testimony before a large crowd of local villagers. A huge piece of his narrative centered on how he recently got in a minor fender bender with his brand-new Mustang convertible. He was so upset because his parents took his car away after he wrecked it, but it helped him realize how he should trust God more and not rely on worldly things. I’m not trying to diminish the impact these occurrences had on this teenager’s faith—God may have used them in significant ways in his life. However, when you’re speaking to people living in poverty in rural Honduras—most of whom live in one-room shacks and none of whom own cars—perhaps there are other ways the story can be shared that don’t unintentionally demean or alienate the people you’re speaking to.

That is one reason why learning more about the people you’re going to serve can be so valuable. Most often, short-term missions take us to different cultures, whether across the world or across town. If someone has a different culture (set of preferences or practices) than you do, that doesn’t make them wrong or needy. Learning more about the people you’re going to serve can help avoid unintentional offenses that could hinder the work of the gospel. You want your students to “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19), so they avoid comments such as “Wow, it’s so clean here!” which implies that because the people you’re serving are poor, it should be dirty. You should also caution your students against flaunting wealth. Carelessly flashing iPhones or money can be a false advertisement for what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Be humble learners.

Reminding your students that we’re all poor and in need of a savior and that Jesus gave up his riches to pull us out of our poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9) is a huge step in preparing your students to serve those who are “poor.” You must remind students of their own need for Jesus, and you must also remind them of the dignity and value of those you seek to serve. You must help them avoid the assumption that people who are poor don’t know Jesus or have anything to offer. In fact, some economically poor people might have incredibly strong faith in Jesus, because they know what it’s like to truly depend on him for everything. How valuable could it be for your students to learn from saints like this! Your students will only experience that if they can humble themselves to learn from those whom they serve rather than just preach at them.

The challenge: As you make your checklist in preparation for that upcoming youth mission trip, make sure it includes training your students to remember the gospel, to be sensitive to cultural differences, and to be humble learners.

Philip Walkley Head ShotPhilip Walkley serves as the Executive Director for Service Over Self (SOS), an urban home repair and leadership development ministry in Memphis, TN. Prior to SOS, he worked as a youth pastor for four years. Philip, his wife and their three children live Binghampton, the inner city Memphis neighborhood that is served by SOS. 

Philip is also a contributor to Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide (Crossway), as the author of the chapter, Ministry with the Poor.

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.