This article by Kerry Gruizenga first appeared in Ideas, a magazine from the Presbyterian Church USA and it’s youth division. Shared with permission.
Ah mission trips . . . just the thought brings up conflicting emotions for those of us who do youth ministry. The drama of close quarters, varied temperatures, and sore muscles treis but fails to dilute the joy of truly serving Christ next to our brothers and sisters in different places. The hassle of arrangements and reservations is outweighted by the amazing potential for spiritual development and growth.
In order for service (whether it be a weekend, week, or entire year) to be successful, the experience must reflect the maturity and the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels of the young people who participate. Because adolescence is such a frenzied time and because mission trips are an exercise in patience, flexibility, and Holy Spirit movement, this task is difficult to accomplish.
Here are some facts that can help about younger adolescents. They are:
- Looking for affirmation about who they are from adults and other peers
- Incredibly energetic and excited about life
- Open to other people and new ideas
- Eager to be a part of the decision-making process, especially when it involves their lives
- Walking a fine line between childhood and adulthood
- Growing rapidly and trying to identify with their maturing bodies
- Living in a black-and-white world where things are either right or wrong
- Questioning the values of parents and others around them
What does this mean for the mission trip? Affirmation is both structured and nonstructured ways is extremely important. Younger adolescents need the opportunity to accomplish things together as an affirmation of their changing physical selves. It is important for them to feel loved, successful, and accepted. Physical activity, whether it is a service project or playing games with new friends, is essential.
Younger youth may not have moved fully into abstract thinking, so being able to debrief these experiences will be crucial in order to grow and understand the big picture of mission and service. However, long discussions and lecture presentations will leave many of these youth out of the experience entirely.
It is also crucial to allow these young people to try out their independence in a safe environment. Allowing the group to make some decisons about the trip, both in the planning and the implementation, is important. However, living with the responsibility that goes with the decision is equally important and often difficult for both the participants and the adult leaders.
Here are some facts that can help in planning mission trips with older adolescents. They are:
- Asking whether faith really has anything to do with the “real world”
- Working to distance themselves from parents on a path toward independence
- Realizing their personal strengths and weaknesses
- Making some life-changing decisions about vocation and education
- Looking for intimacy with people in addition to their parents
- Seeking a place to express their opinions and find answers
- Able to accept more responsibility and leadership
- Beginning to live out their personal values
What does this mean for the mission trip? A mission trip allows some special opportunities for intimacy, responsibility, independence, and trust that are less available elsewhere. Older youth are searching for a place that needs them, and planning an experience that asks them to use their strengths without overloading them, is key. Even the busiest students who wish to be involved in putting together the details before the event can make time in their schedules to participate.
Building community before and during the trip is of primary importance when dealing with older adolescents. This proces can be built into all aspects of the trip, including pre-trip meetings and fundraisers. Older youth need to be pushed beyond their normal saftey zone while still having a stable community in which to process the faith and life questions that surface. Open-ended questions are critical in discussion and allow for searching within the group and its individuals. Leaders of this age group need to be willing to be a part of the search, not just the giver of answers. Being honest about the fact that they don’t know the answer to every question allows adults to be in the midst of the group’s struggle and a part of real growth – which the injustice and misconceptions often discovered in mission trips will bring about.
There is a lot to think about when talking about mission trips with youth. That good news is that the long-term rewards of being a part of their lives are tremendous. So be present and flexible and enjoy being a part of the future today!