Mission Trip vs Pilgrimage: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

Mission Trip vs Pilgrimage: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

“Wherever youth ministry takes you this summer, and whether you lead missionaries or pilgrims, know that God walks with you. Buen Camino!”


Defining Your Journey

It’s the time of year when youth ministers shift into high gear preparing for summer adventures. While the details and mechanics often take center stage – budgets, van rentals, permission slips – leaders must also keep in mind the big picture. Mission trips and pilgrimages offer unique lenses through which to encounter God. So before you take another step, ask yourself, “Am I planning a mission trip, or a pilgrimage?”

Mission Trips

A mission trip is unique in that it has…well…a mission. On the surface, this may be a service project like building a house, planting a garden, or painting a mural. On a deeper level, however, your mission is cultivating relationships, hopefully from year to year as your groups return to the same communities and work with the same organizations. Trips like this are great for incorporating newer members of your youth group (or newer mentors), or for youth to bring friends.

You’ll notice that this all has an external focus, revolving around the community and relationships you are building. There should be time for personal reflection (see below), but on a mission trip you are there to participate in God’s mission to the world. You will grow and change, but mission comes first.


By contrast, a pilgrimage has an internal focus and is meant to facilitate personal reflection and growth on a deliberate journey to encounter God. This is not the time to incorporate new folks.  Youth and adults should spend months, if not longer, in committed preparation as individuals and as a group (and all should be held accountable for participating in this). In most youth programs a pilgrimage is a rite of passage. If you view this as an adult experience, treat your participants like adults.

When my husband and I led a group to walk El Camino de Santiago, we gave our group of high school pilgrims a daily budget, maps, and eight days to complete our walking. They decided each day how far to walk and how to spend our funds. (We made it on time and on budget, and one day we walked for 20 miles, so as to have time on the coast before heading home.)

A pilgrimage is about being, not doing, and the pace should allow space for conversation, reflection, and the unexpected. The trip works especially well if you journey to a place where none of you – adults included – have been before. This way nobody becomes the “tour guide” or “expert.” There is something uniquely beautiful about discovering a new place together.

Five Tips for Mission Trips and Pilgrimages

Despite the differences laid out above, both mission trips and pilgrimages are in the same family.  Here are five key values for either type of journey.

1. A Sense of Adventure
The middle of nowhere may not be on your bucket list, but you never know what awaits you there. The best youth trip I ever led was to South Dakota!

2. Vulnerability
Expect to be challenged. Expect to be changed.

3. Good Manners
You will encounter new people, and they may reflect God’s love by preparing food for you. The dishes might not fit into your diet, and you might not even recognize them! Eat, drink, and say thank you.

4. Clear Expectations
Leaders and youth must share a community covenant from the outset. Don’t gloss over this. All members should see it writing and and sign it. Many churches also honor the covenant liturgically.

5. Reflection
A journey with serious intentions requires serious reflection. Make sure reflection happens both individually and as a group; both spoken and written (introverts will especially appreciate the chance to process via journal). And please, please, please, invite youth to share their experiences with the congregation. Ask your clergy to allow this reflection as a Sunday sermon, at ALL the services.

Wherever youth ministry takes you this summer, and whether you lead missionaries or pilgrims, know that God walks with you. Buen Camino!


The Rev. Rebecca Nelson Edwards was recently the Associate Rector at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego. She is now co-director of Braid Mission, a ministry reaching out to youth in foster care. Rebecca is a lifelong youth minister at heart. 


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