In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, Rick and Jeff Thompson, longtime leader of our Group Mission Trips team, explore the five service-trip no-no’s that can derail the transforming impact of your summer mission experiences.
I spearheaded a GROUP Magazine survey of Christian college students several years ago, focusing on the important milestones on their path to a deeper commitment to Jesus. I first asked: “Do you remember a moment in time–perhaps almost as personally significant to you as your conversion–when your commitment to Christ was especially launched or solidified?” Nine out of 10 of these students, surveyed at Christian colleges around the country, said they’d had their own “booster rocket” experience. When I asked them to describe that experience, the top response was a “mission/service trip.”
We tend to treat service experiences like they’re “mountaintop” moments for kids. But years after they come down from those mountaintops, they look back on them as key turning points in their life. Transformation is why we do what we do, and service offers the richest environment for that to happen. But what we do on a service trip can either help or hinder the transformation we’re hoping for. I asked Jeff Thompson, longtime leader of our Group Mission Trips team (a world leader in involving teenagers in service experiences, at groupmissiontrips.com), to offer his top-five big mistakes to avoid as you lead, or prepare to lead, a summer adventure.
- Focus on safety. One reason service trips are so powerful is the unpredictability of what happens when you’re traveling long distances to a strange place doing difficult and unfamiliar work. All of that sets kids up to grow because they’re off-balance. But those same dynamics can lead to accidents that derail the focus and purpose of your trip. A safety-consciousness in everything you do provides a foundation for the growth you’re hoping to leverage.
- Don’t assume everyone knows everything. Most service trips involve a lot of details and a lot of stakeholders who need to know those details (parents, kids, volunteers, hosts, and so on). Immersive communication, even (and especially) with details you feel like you’ve already overcommunicated, is crucial. When you’re giving instructions, assume that most people didn’t get it the first time and that some didn’t get it the second or third time. Ask, often, for stakeholders to confirm what they think they’ve heard you communicate. Don’t assume.
- Serve in ways that are needed, not how you want to serve. In Matthew 10, Jesus decides to send his disciples on their first “service trip” alone, without him. He pairs them up, details their tasks for the trip (heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead—easy peasy). Then, to ensure that the disciples feel desperately dependent on God the whole time, Jesus tells them they can’t take any money, extra clothing, or even a walking stick with them. They’ll have to depend on the kindness of strangers for food and housing along the way. In short, they’ll need to “lay down their lives” (and their agendas) to do what Jesus is asking them to do. He wants them to serve out of a dependent heart—“Show me what to do, Jesus”—rather than their own willfulness. Personal agendas, rather than Jesus agendas, will kill the spirit of a service trip.
- Remember spiritual growth. On a Group Mission Trips experience, young people learn to look for Jesus working in and through their lives in everything they do, not just during the morning or evening programs. Every day they’re expected to record “God Sightings”—moments when they see Jesus influencing a situation or person. And every night during the evening program, those God Sightings are shared and celebrated. The point is to decompartmentalize their relationship with Jesus, breaking down the walls we set up between our everyday life experiences and “church.”
- Stay calm if everything doesn’t go as planned. There are many guarantees on a service trip, but one thing will happen for sure—something will go wrong. And when it does, you have a powerful opportunity to teach the “Spirit’s curriculum.” I mean, your response and presence when something goes wrong has an immersive impact on young people. Model what it looks like to relax, trust Jesus, and resist panicking. Your “nonanxious presence” amid disappointment and confusion has a powerful and lasting impact.