A pastor friend who read my book, A Mission That Matters, recently wondered, “When is the right time for me to go to ‘the ends of the earth’ and lead an international trip for my congregation?”
It’s a good question and one that’s not easy to give a blanket answer to. Having said that, here are a few things you need to consider before choosing to embark on an international mission trip with your teens.
1. Have you already gone to Jerusalem and Samaria with your teens? Arguably, there are reasons why Jesus tells his disciples to first go to Jerusalem, then to Judea, and then to Samaria before going to the ends of the earth. These experiences build off one another. Teens are better equipped to minister to the ends of the earth when they’ve first ministered to people who are like them (Jerusalem / Judea) and then ministered to people who are – in some way – different than them (Samaria) before finally being thrust into an experience where EVERYTHING is new and different.
2. How spiritually mature are your teens? At one congregation I served, after leading several mission trips to our Jerusalem and Samaria, I confided in one of my trusted adult leaders, “Next year, I really want to take these guys on an international mission trip.” In response, my very wise leader looked at me and said, “Jen – I know that’s what YOU want to do but I don’t think these guys are ready for that. At all.” She was right. The next year, we ended up going on a trip to an even more intense Samaria. While it was good in many ways, it was also obvious that it was the right trip for those teens. Anything more intense – no matter how good our preparation – would have been incredibly overwhelming for them. And when teens are overwhelmed on a trip, it’s hard to do short-term mission trips well because all your energy goes into caring for your teens – not caring for the community you’re trying to serve.
3. Do you have the bandwidth to prepare your teens well for an international mission trip experience? While doing short-term mission trips well ALWAYS requires advanced preparation, an international mission trip experience requires even more preparation. I liken it to a combination of being on a varsity sports team with Advanced Placement level work. That’s the commitment that your participants need to have… And you – as the trip leader – need even more time and energy than that to be able to adequately prep your preparation meetings.
4. How deep is your adult leader bench? Doing an international short-term missions trip well requires you to take the BEST of your adult leaders – not leaders that you’re simply getting to know for the first time on your trip. For that to happen, you need dedicated adult leaders who serve with you and your ministry on a weekly basis, understand your philosophy of ministry, know your teens, and are committed to not just being a part of your regular ministry, but to the additional prep required for an international mission trip.
5. What’s your motivation for going international? As much as I’d like to believe that it’s only teens who are attracted to mission trips by the allure of the exotic, the truth is sometimes we are too. If you simply choose a destination you’ve always wanted to go to for your international mission trip, you’ll likely create a great adventure – not necessarily an effective and healthy short-term mission trip. For that to happen, you’ve got to understand the DNA of your congregation and know how an international mission trip experience connects with it. That’s what will enable your trip to have a lasting impact on your teens – and congregation – long after you return home.
Answering these questions will help you determine whether or not you, your teens, and your congregation are ready to go on an international mission trip… And they’ll help ensure that when you do, that trip will have the impact you want it to have without the long-term harm that short-term mission trips so often have.
To learn more about how to do short-term mission trips without long-term harm, check out my book, A Mission That Matters.