Tips for Taking Your Students Back to the “Real World” After a Mission Trip

Youth Specialties
February 8th, 2016

“I don’t know which one is the real world anymore.”

If you’ve ever taken students on a cross-cultural trip, you’ve probably heard a reflection like this before. Students often see the “real world” in ways they’ve never seen it before, including more of the real truth about poverty or glimpses of the real kingdom of God in action. This is one version of the “real world.”

Then there’s the other real world. The one they have to re-inhabit with siblings, stress, and taking out the trash. The one with friends who may not be as excited to follow Jesus or serve the poor as your students in their post-trip euphoria.

Preparing teenagers for this experience is key to a healthy re-entry following a service trip. In fact, it’s a great idea to talk about reverse culture shock BEFORE the trip begins, DURING the trip, and AFTER it’s over—even a few months later. Research shows that this kind of ongoing processing can make all the difference between service that sticks and service that quickly fades away in your students’ memories.

To process with a student who says something like the opening line of this post, or better yet with all of your students, help them compare what “real” used to look like, what it looks like now, and what it might mean to follow Jesus in real ways back home. Ask questions like:

  • What have you missed about your life at home while you’ve been away?
  • We often refer to life back home as the “real world.” Why do we call it that?
  • If life back home is the “real world,” then what should we label the life we’ve experienced during our work here? What would the people who live here call it?
  • If we asked Jesus which of these worlds (the world where we’ve been serving or the world back home) is the “real world,” what do you think he would say?

Next help students see that when we’re faced with real-world tensions coming back from a trip, we have at least three potential responses:


We can go home with a couple of cheap souvenirs and say, “What happens in ______ stays in ______ .” We can go back to our lives as if nothing happened.


We can get angry about the way our friends, family, and church all seem stuck in their old ways and just don’t seem to “get it.”


We can go home and find ways to get involved in kingdom service in our own backyard. We can choose to create a community that’s centered on mission and stay involved in righting wrongs so God’s kingdom is made clearer to ourselves and others.

As you’re preparing students to re-enter life back home, ponder these three kinds of responses with them and help them brainstorm ideas for what “creating” could look like. Then revisit these ideas in a week, and again in a month or two.

Over time, your students might discover that the “real” worlds they’re trying to reconcile aren’t all that far apart after all.

Explore this and other ideas for leading students before, during, and after service and mission trips in the Sticky Faith Service Guide and accompanying Student Journal, available now, just in time for spring break and summer trips! Download a free chapter of the book today!

Portions of this blog post adapted from the Sticky Faith Service Guide, used by permission.

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Kara Powell press photo 12.14Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary (see fulleryouthinstitute.org). Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and is the author or co-author of a number of books including the new Sticky Faith Service Guide. @kpowellfyi


BradGriffin_2013_500Brad M. Griffin is the Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger (fulleryouthinstitute.org), and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of several books, including the new Sticky Faith Service Guide. @bgriffinfyi

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