While most of the heavy lifting in planning a mission trip comes in the “pre-trip” planning stages (picking a location, setting the budget, picking the team, and nailing down the details), the importance of planning what happens ON THE TRIP cannot be overlooked. Some of the most incredible things that have happened on mission trips have been spontaneous and unplanned, but I do think there are some general principles and ideas that can foster an atmosphere where those “God” moments are likely to occur.
What follows is a hodge podge of ideas from my 12 mission trip experiences. Some are general concepts to help you foster a spiritual atmosphere, some are just tips and tricks, and some are just “the way we do it” that may not fit in your context, but my hope is that something here enhances your upcoming trip.
1. Plan ahead and plan again
By planning ahead in every aspect, you will enable yourself to be a better, more engaged, more relational leader and will allow you to deal with problems as they arise. For more planning tips, check out the other posts in this series.
2. Build spiritual momentum through daily devotions
Spiritual growth SHOULD be the reason you planned a mission trip in the first place, so set the tone by having your students do guided, well-written personal devotions each morning. Through this simple action, you can accomplish so many things. You help students build the habit of reading their Bible, you focus their attention on heavenly matters, and you can use the devos as a part of your evening teaching time. This is one of the most important things I do on each trip. If you need some great mission trip devos to get you started, check out the youthmin.org shop.
3. Make evening debriefing a priority
Students need a chance to work through the events of the day, to laugh together, and to dig into the Word together. The evening teaching and debriefing time is probably the most important thing you can do to leverage spiritual force. Prioritize accordingly.
4. Be aware of the “tired” factor. Don’t push too hard
A week of travel, long hours, hard work, and sleeping on air mattresses will take its toll, so be careful. If you push too hard, you may have a group of exhausted students that don’t want to work, have short tempers, and aren’t really open to God’s voice. Make sure you are watchful and vigilant about sleep, including enforcing “lights out.”
5. Remember what’s most important
I always remind my group throughout the trip that our main purpose is never to build a fence, finish the drywall, or complete the building project. The truth is that if your group doesn’t finish the project, someone else probably will. Don’t neglect the more important, spiritual growth aspects of the trip for work or anything else. Stay focused and attentive to the more important matters, and guard them closely.
6. Give students ownership of daily tasks
One great way to build in ownership on your trip is to involve the students in the daily tasks. We assign roles to all of our students and they always do a great job. Students serve in the areas of food preparation, trash detail, setup and teardown of tables and chairs, clean up, sack lunch prep, and more. Trust your students and watch them flourish.
7. Prayer partners can empower your students spiritually
“Prayer partners” was a tradition that was already in place when I arrived at Hazelwood, but I have continued it because of the great spiritual and unifying benefits. Each student or adult on the trip is assigned the name of another student or adult as a prayer partner. Throughout the week, they are instructed to pray for that person, to give them notes of encouragement, and to give them some little “gifts” secretly. Then, on the last night, we have a “revealing” party so everyone finds out their prayer partner. It’s honestly one of the best things we do, and I encourage you to consider it for your next trip.
8. Don’t be afraid to punt in a tough situation. Plan B is okay
Obviously, every trip hits a speed bump along the way. Plans fall through, communication lines get crossed, and people let you down. Don’t be afraid to move on to Plan B when you need to. Embrace the chaos, just make sure you HAVE a Plan B.
9. Plan fun activities and tourist opportunities
Every trip we take involves some tourist element or another, which provides a great atmosphere for fun and relational growth. Often, we arrive Saturday night, attend church wherever we are with the people we are working with, and then use Sunday afternoon and evening to enjoy some fun together. Talk to your local contact to get some creative ideas, and have a blast!
10. Technology can be your friend
In this day and age, there are lots of technological resources that can enhance your mission trip. We use our facebook group to post pictures and updates throughout the week, which drives parents and students to our group for future events. When students have their cell phones (not every trip, but often in our context), we encourage our students to upload their photos to the group as well. In addition, we use a texting service to make sure our students know what’s happening throughout the trip. With our new texting service (www.sendhub.com), we will also create a parent group for each trip so that I can give text updates throughout the trip. Find yourself some great technological resources, and use them well!
These are just a few of the tricks I’ve learned along the way, but I’d be eager to hear what suggestions you would have from your experiences.