“Should I turn left or right?” Eventually I asked that simple question of each teenager who sat in our van’s passenger seat during the mission trip. We had no idea where we were going; instead, we believed that Jesus would use us in accordance with his will anywhere we ended up.
I’d heard about another youth worker attempting something similar. Where our approaches differed is that I connected ahead of time with friends in several cities who agreed to let us stay at their churches should we show up that week. Although the adult leaders and parents were aware of that, the teenagers knew only that I’d ask the “left or right” question occasionally at a defining intersection. We seemingly had no particular place to go.
My premise for pitching this trip began one day when I pulled out of the grocery store as an attractive female jogged by. During a “guy moment,” I felt tempted to take a second look and even considered turning the car in her direction. “I could just as easily get home that way,” I began to reason. Instead, I paused and invited Jesus to redirect me. He sent me the other direction, for good reason. It occurred to me that this was a pretty obvious “left or right” call.
Not everything is like that. Although teenagers sometimes face clear “sin or don’t sin” decisions, most of the time they must sort out the difference between “better or best.” We all can make those choices using our knowledge, our gut, or past baggage, but Jesus invites us to attach ourselves to him and go on an adventure.
“What if there were a tangible way to guide teenagers into this?” I wondered. After brainstorming the topic with a few leaders and kids, we came up with this trip. The plan was simple:
- Teenagers had to apply. Because we wanted to limit the trip to a dozen kids and two adult leaders, applicants had to write a paragraph about why they wanted in. Our team ended up with a good assortment of personalities and spiritual depth.
- The cost was $125 for four days. Because we slept on church floors, there weren’t any lodging costs. So the fee covered gas, one group meal a day, and “something fun” (which ended up being a water park).
- Everyone contributed $10 to a food fund. The kids managed how it was spent on lunch and dinner, along with any snacks or drinks. It’s amazing how many of them quickly found free tap water to be an incredible blessing. (Only one guy got a cup for water and secretly filled it with Sprite. We busted him with grace and accountability!)
- No electronic devices were allowed. Everyone received a notebook so they could journal their experiences as a way to pray. We built time into the schedule specifically for this; for example, “Take 10 minutes to share your thoughts and feelings with Jesus, and invite him to share his thoughts and feelings with you. If you need help, here’s a psalm for inspiration.”
So how did it play out? We ended up in three states, ministered on a beach, served in a soup kitchen, did yard work in a neighborhood, cleared out weeds and thorns at a camp, visited a Christian college (which fed us incredibly well), and made memories to last a lifetime. The young people all became part of our student leadership team, helping the youth ministry make some “left or right” decisions the next year. That was my real hope all along.
Mission trips can become experiences where we just show up and do the same thing “somewhere else” every year. There should be some real purpose behind what we do and how we do it so teenagers are impacted well after the trip.
Jesus really challenged me toward taking that type of trip during that particular season for those unique teenagers. Since then, I’ve leaned toward great trips that were more planned out or Mystery Trips where parents and youth workers make arrangements behind the scenes. There’s nothing wrong with doing something with quality and intention.
Yet there was something special about seeking God’s will on that “left or right” trip—while trusting that in doing so, we were already in his will. That was my takeaway: We get to interact with Jesus while planning trips just as much as teenagers do while taking the trips. And opportunities abound, no matter where we end up.