The Truth About Student Mission Trips

April 13th, 2017


“Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.” – Proverbs 29:18

Before we ever consider taking students on a mission trip, we must have a ministry vision or wait patiently and not go until we find one. Many well-intentioned youth workers remain aimless on their journey to nowhere. Good intentions will never take us where we need to go. Without clear direction, we will lack confidence and try to copy the success of others. It is easy to fall prey to the most recent youth ministry trends and wander “unrestrained” from one new idea to the nextUntil we embrace our God-given vision, we will never know why we lead, how to lead, or where we are going.

Vision must be in everything or it is in nothing.

Vision brings life to everything it touches. It must be released into every aspect of mission trip planning, execution, and follow-up. Vision cannot be asleep in the background – it begs to be awake and active.

[bctt tweet=”A mission trip without mission is just a trip.” username=”ys_scoop”]

Be the vision

Our DNA determines who we are and what we look like. One invisible strand causes us to be healthy or diseased. Similarly, our spiritual and leadership DNA determine the health or disease of how we lead. What we do and don’t do is more powerful than what we say we will do. We must inhale it deep into our lungs so that we can breathe it into others. It must sink deep into our being. Only when our vision becomes a part of us, can it become a part of them.

Vision leaks

Without consistently pouring vision into everything, it will leak faster than we can produce it. Posting it on a website, stating it in meetings, or printing it on documents is not vision casting. We must commit to casting vision strategically and often. It is impossible to over-communicate vision. It is our responsibility to steward it well – if not us, then who?

Culture always outweighs vision

Culture is a set of beliefs, values, norms – it is a way of life. My lead pastor often says, “Vision is cast. Culture is experienced.” We can know a vision, but we live in a culture. If our vision is, “we desire to reach the lost in our city and the world,” yet we never go to our city or the world, our vision does not match our ministry culture. The same is true when we have students register (like an event) rather than apply for a mission trip – we create a culture with little distinction between a fun trip to Disneyland and a mission trip to Honduras. If we are going to develop leaders, wouldn’t it make sense to only invite students who are mature enough in their faith and truly want to be developed? A culture of low expectation will always outweigh even the best vision.


The Great Commission

We tout the Great Commission as the reason we take students on mission trips, but how intentional are we at leading with it in mind? The Great Commission is to “go and make disciples of all the nations” if we are not making disciples (developing leaders) then we are merely assembling tourists. Since leadership development is the Great Commission, then we must be willing to say no to students and leaders who aren’t ready. Jesus’s disciples left everything behind to follow Him there is a cost to discipleship and students willing to pay it.

Leadership development is not informational – it is transformational

Typically, the bulk of mission trip training is fixated on the what. Information is only part of training. It is neither innovative nor motivating. Developing leaders requires more than gathering to raise funds, prepping a VBS, rehearsing a drama, and discussing trip details. Imagine if Jesus never showed His disciples the bigger picture of the movement of God? What if He never invited or empowered them to live it out?

In Luke 9:13, at the feeding of the 5000, Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat.” Why would He say this knowing He was about to perform an incredible miracle? He could have just said, “Hey guys, watch this!” yet He leveraged the experience to develop their faith and leadership. He allowed them to struggle with the tension of a “pressure cooker” moment until they realized they couldn’t lead their way out of the impossible – then He invited them to take an active part in a miracle!

Process versus outcome

An outcome is produced yet a process is experienced. An outcome is static but a process has movement. An outcome leader leads a trip while a process leader leads people. Developmental leaders understand that missions does not exist to create a workforce to build houses or perform street dramas – (outcomes). It exists because students are the Great Commission taking next steps on their journey with Jesus – (process). Philippians 1:6 says, “For I am confident of this; that He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day Jesus Christ returns.”  God is working in us – it’s a process!


We are not changing the world – God is.

We plan what we think is most impactful instead of asking what really is. When we bring our American ideas assuming it will both bless others and fit in a different cultural context, we risk becoming the “Great White Hope” who came to save the day. We take the local church or missionary away from what God has called them to do while we pollute the development of our students. By promoting the idea that we are “changing the world” rather than serving it, we toss heaps of selfish garbage into our mission trip culture. God is moving long before we arrive to our destination and He will continue long after we leave. God doesn’t need our help He is inviting us to take a next step into what He is already doing. On our mission trip, I tell my students “You are not going to change Honduras – God is going to use Honduras to change you.”

Who is serving who?

All too often, we plan a mission trip with little or no input from the local church and/or missionaries. Rather than partnering with these local experts, we expect them to partner with us. Instead of making a deposit into their life and ministry, we make a withdrawal. Missionaries do not need more withdrawals – they have already left most everything they know to follow Jesus. In their kindness, they accept our “support” for fear of seeming ungrateful or losing the much-needed financial/practical resources we bring. We must learn to join the movement of God by serving them with life-giving love, meeting real needs, showering them with encouragement, and providing ways for them to rest and recharge. When we leave, do they feel like God met needs they have been praying for or do they feel used by yet another well-meaning group?  We should never expect missionaries or the local church to serve us we are there to serve them. In Mark 10:45, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.”

Lead with your eyes up

We need to learn to look at things with our spiritual eyes wide open. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18.  We should never let the things we have planned to do on a mission trip keep us from seeing why we are really there. What God is doing in the unseen is always greater than what we see. When we lead with our eyes up, we no longer see projects we see people. We will see God’s heart more than we see a broken world.

To help create a culture of leading with your eyes up, I consistently ask students, “Where are you seeing God move today?” especially after seeing extreme poverty, disease and the mistreatment of human beings. With only physical eyes, they will be overwhelmed by a broken world, numb and disengaged or living a lie that they changed the world in a week. I want students to wrestle with the tension in these “pressure cooker” moments. They need to see the huge gap between our drop of effort in a sea of overwhelming need. When we help them see the movement of God, we lead them towards a “feeding of the 5000 moment” where God is inviting them take an active part in the miracle He is doing through them, around them, and in them!

john pontusJohn Pontius has been in youth ministry for 30 years and currently serves as the High School Director at Valley Creek Church in Flower Mound, TX.  He is also the Director of the Denton County Youth Minister Network (DCYMN).  John is passionate about helping people find true freedom in Christ, developing authentic leaders, and supporting youth pastors through the ups and downs of ministry and life.


Instagram @PONTIUSJ




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