Mission Trip Reflections from Kentucky

I recently was able to take a short term mission trip to Hazard, Kentucky, to help with relief efforts following severe flooding in July. To say that this was an incredibly humbling and impactful trip would be an understatement. The devastation and hurt that I saw was unlike anything I have seen before. The stories I heard and the destruction I saw will remain with me for the long term, and it has shaped my vision for where we will be sending student teams for the foreseeable future.

This area of our country has been largely forgotten due to its location, socioeconomic status, disasters in other places, and more newsworthy media. But there remains much heartache, loss, destruction, and needed rebuilding.

Our team was focused on rebuilding and repairing homes and churches, and on hearing the stories residents of this rural area shared. The emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical needs are vast and everyone has a flood story in this community. Whether they lost something like a home or possessions or for those who lost someone, the hurt and pain in this and surrounding areas is very real and raw.

As I’ve had time to reflect and think about my trip, I have pondered the impact that trips like these have on our students and leaders. Today, I would love to share some of my thoughts and takeaways in the hope they bring you some insight and clarity when it comes to short term mission trips.

Mission trips are necessary.

Mission trips are so important in the lives of all believers but especially students. They are forming their understanding of faith and wrestling with deep and thoughtful questions. Mission trips help students see the Gospel in action and help them form a healthy, biblical worldview. But I think for some of us–myself included–coming out of multiple years where we didn’t do trips due to a pandemic, the necessity may have faded in our minds. We cannot allow that to be the case.

Going to Kentucky solidified the necessity of taking students on trips like these because of the way it helps to shape and mold their hearts for the kingdom of heaven. We cannot loose that vision and we must provide opportunities for students to step into new environments and see the Gospel in real and tangible ways.

Mission trips grab your heart.

It is so hard to put into words all that I experienced in Kentucky. I have taken multiple trips throughout my high school, college, and ministry years, but this one moved me in some powerful ways. Perhaps it was seeing the devastation and destruction firsthand. Or maybe it was the proximity of this disaster in relation to where I live (only nine hours away). Or it may have been hearing the accounts of people who lost everything and loved ones in the spans of moments.

Regardless of the reason, the reality is mission trips have a way of grabbing our hearts in ways youth group and church don’t often replicate. Serving with people who are hurting, experiencing the reality of loss firsthand, hearing stories, and seeing the power of both the Gospel and God’s people moving to action stirs something within our hearts like nothing else. This is why our students need to go on trips like these because it helps capture their heart for the Gospel in action and how it applies to their lives and others.

Mission trips move your students to action.

This past Wednesday and Sunday I was able to share about my trip with our students. I relayed stories, showed them pictures, and explained why help was needed. The response I heard from multiple leaders and students ranged from “we had no idea this happened” to “when are we going” and “what can we do.” When we are able to cast vision and share stories, it moves our communities to action and cultivates a desire to care for and serve those who are hurting.

Proximity breeds empathy.

This became so apparent to me once again as I was serving in Kentucky. When we are around those who are hurting or struggling, it moves our hearts and minds because we are sharing life with those who have experienced loss. The more we can get our students into areas and communities that differ from theirs in all capacities–socioeconomic, diversity, hardship, loss, etc.–the more they will be able to understand the hope and healing the Gospel brings and their calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And the more they will learn about others whose lives look different from theirs.

Mission trips will stretch and grow people.

Coming back home from my trip, something was different in me. The Spirit of God was tugging at my heart and pulling me toward an ongoing partnership with our mission agency in Kentucky. I knew that if I could cast that vision well to our students, they would also be moved to action. What I became acutely aware of was God was using my experience as a catalyst to invite others to action. And the same is true of our students.

As they go on these trips, build relationships and memories, and the Holy Spirit moves in their lives, students will return and help to ignite that passion and desire within others. It will not only stretch and grow the people who go on the trips, but we will see cascading effects on the people our students engage and interact with when they return home. They will help cultivate passion and excitement for Jesus and what He is doing in your youth group. They will tell their friends and families about what God is doing. They will ignite a passion to see the world changed among their peers. Mission trips have a far reaching impact beyond just those who go, and through these moments we will witness the kingdom of heaven grow and expand.

Tips for Picking a Mission Trip

Serving in student ministry often includes leading a mission trip at some point during your tenure. And if you are like me your education probably didn’t prepare you for it. I never took a class on preparing a budget for a mission trip nor did I receive any help in building a student fundraiser (check out a previous post on fundraising for some ideas). I also was never given any thoughts on how to pick a destination and what to look for.

Today’s post is designed to help you critically think through how to pick a destination that will have the desired impact and outcome with your group of students. These ideas aren’t meant to be all encompassing, but to give you a springboard from which you can build out a trip that meets the desired aspects you have for your team.

Scout the location.

This is honestly one of the best things you can do as a trip leader. Wherever you are going–whether domestic or international–the ability to scout where you will be and what you are doing will allow you to be a better leader for your group. It will also help establish confidence and insight for students, parents, and leaders. You can answer questions, help quell fears or doubts, share stories, and bring a personal touch to the trip, which will help build the team and shape the heart of the trip.

Look for ongoing partnerships.

Ongoing partnerships can help aid buy-in from your students. If you choose a place you can continue to engage with, it affords your students opportunities to build connections and relationships with that community. This then generates a desire to continuing being a part of what is happening, as well as excitement to continue serving in that area. This mentality also helps to align your students with the understanding that mission trips aren’t designed to be a one-and-done experience, but instead are about building relationships, serving others, and growing the kingdom of heaven. It builds an intentional relationship and partnership that will ultimately benefit that community and your ministry.

Find a trip that can connect with your students.

This is something I always try to think critically about as I look for a missions partner, but it doesn’t ultimately drive where we go. I do believe it’s important to consider the connection between students and where they serve as it will help shape their hearts and challenge them to think outside of their normal spheres. If students connect with a location, they will create momentum and desire that will overflow to other students and hopefully generate a stronger response and desire to be part of the mission. With that said, a connection isn’t the ultimate driver of where we go because students may see greater change and spiritual impact at a location with which they don’t initially connect. If they do connect with a location it’s an added bonus.

Consider local and global options.

Sometimes our propensity can be to look for more exotic locations or ones that are outside of the continental US. But that isn’t always an option for every group and there are amazing domestic opportunities in which groups can participate. I encourage every youth leader to consider looking at both local and domestic options, as well as global opportunities, and try to find a balance between them.

Look for discipleship pathways.

Discipleship is the foundation of our ministry, so we always look for mission trips which further that focus. We don’t want to just take our students to a location to work hard, we want them to be formed and stretched as followers of Jesus. We value discussions and small group time, engagement with the people we’re serving, challenging students to think about how they can grow and change, and thinking long term about what changes they will implement in their lives.

Understand how students will serve and contribute.

Mission trips are fantastic opportunities for students to serve in real and tangible ways. However, some mission sites require skilled laborers or people trained in skill sets that students may not have. If you are going to a location that has been struck by a tragedy, they may desire contractors or counselors and often students do not fit these needs. However, they may be able to general maintenance, VBS programs, certain aspects of construction, outreach programs, and a variety of other tasks. If students can fully contribute and be a part of the mission, they will continue to serve and have a desire to be a part of future mission expeditions.

Have training options and resources planned ahead of time.

This is a big part of choosing a location. Make sure that you can equip and prepare you team for wherever they are going and for whatever tasks they will be doing. Whether it’s walking through When Helping Hurts, doing evangelism training, having mission reps share, bringing in someone from the site, engaging in skills training, or just team building, these aspects will all help to not only strengthen your team but inform and equip them as well.

Build out what you want students to come away with.

If you build out a plan for your students prior to choosing where you will go, you can make sure that each location will match your desired outcome. By building a plan and making sure the mission matches the plan you will have higher success when it comes to providing your students with what you desire.

What aspects dictate how you choose a mission trip location?