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?

3 Quick Tips for Volunteer Recruitment

As we enter into summer programming you may not be actively thinking about recruiting new leaders for the fall. Perhaps this seems early for some of you. I know that isn’t how I have typically operated, which usually leads to a mad dash and panicked few weeks in August as we try to find quality volunteers right before we start programming. This isn’t a healthy way to start programming for us or our volunteers as we both end up feeling rushed and not fully prepared for the school year.

As I have begun to take some hard looks at volunteer recruitment, I have realized that things need to change in order to better equip our leaders and ministries to serve our students. If recruiting sounds difficult or exasperating, I get it. I have often felt the same way. But if we approach recruitment differently, we can help alleviate the tension. So here are three easy ways to save yourself a lot of stress and hardship, and help yourself find quality leaders.

1. Start early.

For the first time ever, our team started recruiting this past week. We began to reach out to potential leaders, we added volunteer opportunities to our monthly newsletter, and we asked our leaders to identify potential additional leaders. Perhaps this is something you always do, but for our team it isn’t. The earliest that we have started would be the end of July, and it often led to a rushed and angst-filled month before programming kicked off.

Planning ahead and building up your volunteer group early allows you to make sure your leaders are equipped and prepared for the school year. And as you begin to plan ahead, you can scale it each year and begin to recruit even earlier. Next year we are already planning to begin recruiting as the current school year ends. So think about when you will start recruiting and how you can begin to do so earlier to help best prepare your ministry for the fall.

2. Think outside the box.

When it comes to who you recruit, how you recruit, and where you recruit from, try to think creatively and in ways you haven’t before. I have found that when I recruit I can fall into doing the same thing over and over again. Bulletin announcements, cold calls, asking leaders to talk to their friends, and asking people who used to volunteer. But this year I decided to try something different: I reached out directly to parents.

This may be something you already do, but for me it was my first time doing it in a new way. We send a newsletter out once a month and this month’s almost solely focused on volunteer needs with the hope that parents will see it and consider jumping in. My point with this is to encourage you to try something new and different. Shake up how you have done recruiting in the past. Ask other youth workers what they do. Try something new and see if it provides you with a new recruit or multiple volunteers.

3. Consider changing things up.

I think for many people it is easy to get stuck in habits and rhythms. These aren’t necessarily bad things but they can hamper us, especially if they aren’t providing the necessary volunteers that we need. What we need to do is the be creative as we think about recruitment. If we think of this as an opportunity to creatively try something new, it all of a sudden opens up brand new perspectives on how to recruit.

One of the things we have done out of necessity is think through whether our staff team needs to do all the things we have traditionally done, or if we can empower volunteers to take over those roles. That means creating new positions and leadership opportunities, offering additional training, and identifying new leaders. But the benefit of having leaders take ownership and allowing our staff team to flourish far outweighs those additional needs.

What are your best tips for recruiting new volunteers?

Key Things to Look for in a Summer Camp

Many of us have already thought through our summer programming, and have possibly identified a camp to which you’re taking students. Perhaps it’s a camp you have gone to for ages. Maybe it’s a denominational camp and the expectation is you go every year. Maybe it’s a local camp that has various activities your students look forward to and tell countless stories about.

While you’re thinking through the camp you attend, let me ask you a question: does that camp meet the needs of your students? Does it meet the spiritual needs? Does it meet their relational and emotional needs? Do your students come away feeling challenged, encouraged, and more spiritually mature?

Camps and retreats are some of the most important and developmental times in the lives of students. But if am being honest, I think it is easy to just go to a camp because we have done it forever and it’s easy to keep doing the same thing over and over. We default to doing what we have always done and we don’t pause to think through the rationale about why we do it. At its base reasoning, we should pick a camp that mirrors or encourages the vision and purpose of our ministry. From there we can build outward and upward as we seek to leverage its resources to help our students grow and mature.

Today, I want to share with you a few ways I try to find the best camp for my students in order to help them grow as disciples of Jesus. These aren’t the only ways I try to find a camp, but they serve as a starting point for choosing the best camp possible for our students.

Find a camp that matches your vision.

Our student ministry vision is all about forming disciples who make disciples, and equipping them to do so beyond high school. We want students who know Jesus, are growing in their relationship with Him, and are looking to lead others in the same way during their time in youth group and beyond. So for us that means finding a camp that has a similar heart and vision so it helps to cement what we have been teaching them.

Find a camp your students will enjoy.

It isn’t about finding a camp with all the bells and whistles, but finding a camp that has items all your students will find engaging. It is easy to do a sports themed camp or an outdoor camp, but what about your students who are more artistic or inclined to not compete in sports? Finding a camp that has a good balance and activities that fit a broad range of interests is beneficial as it will encourage more students to attend.

Find a camp that is fun, missional, and discipleship focused.

This may sound like a tall order, but I would actually assert that there are more and more camps leaning in this direction. When looking for a camp experience it is important to find one that has fun aspects to it, but that cannot be the sole focus. As youth workers we have an obligation to help our students develop in their relationship with Jesus.

Many camps focus on the fun element with a little Jesus sprinkled in. That cannot be our focus because while yes, youth group is to be fun, the primary reason we exist is to help our students know and pursue Jesus. That means we should find camps that do likewise. So look for camps that have longer small group times. Find places that include service and missional elements, even if it’s simply cleaning up the camp. While students may not find those activities “fun,” they are teachable moments that help you to show them what it looks like to live as disciple-makers and serve their communities.

Find a camp that is affordable to everyone.

In every youth group I’ve worked in there has never been just one socioeconomic category. We’ve had students from all different financial categories and that means that not everyone can afford trips, especially ones that cost a higher amount. Let me encourage you to not simply choose a camp that has a lower price at the cost of sacrificing various aspects that other camps offer. Instead look for camps that offer a reduced rate as needed or have a more affordable option for everyone. If you are not able to go to a more affordable camp consider offering scholarships, a reduced rate, or designating funds for students into your budget.

What do you look for in a camp?

10 Low-Prep, Low-Cost Summer Activities

Does your summer programming look different than what happens during the school year? Has your budget been trimmed or are you approaching the end of a budget year? Many of us can relate to these issues and almost all of us are on the lookout for fresh ideas that can make summer more meaningful, fun, and Gospel-centered for our students.

Today’s post is designed to provide some ideas for the summer that will help you reach your students, look awesome while doing so, and hopefully add little to your workload.

1. Summer movie nights.

These are super easy and can be a ton of fun especially when you incorporate various elements. Having food for nights like these is a must and can range from having students bring their own movie snacks, to popcorn that’s provided, or even having a nacho bar where everyone brings a topping. It is also a lot of fun to allow your students to be involved in what movie is shown because then they have ownership and are more likely to invite their friends. Consider letting the students vote on which movie to show or doing polls at youth group. Also, remember to consider the legalities that are involved when it comes to showing movies. It may be necessary to have the proper licensing and to check the number of people you can show it to.

2. Nerf battles.

These are a ton of fun and super low-cost (even no-cost) to put on. Send out an invitation to all your students to bring their own Nerf guns and darts to a certain location to have a Nerf battle. If hosting this at your church, consider setting up various barriers and obstacles or even different venues for different styles of game play (everyone for themselves, team battles, king of the hill, etc.). If you have the finances available I would also suggest having some extra Nerf guns and darts as some people may show up without either and darts will inevitably get lost or broken.

3. Trivia nights.

These are a ton of fun and fairly easy to pull off. There are tons of websites that have trivia in just about every category and you can also utilize DYM or Trivial Pursuit to get trivia content as well. Consider having a student or a group of students host the night as that will generate ownership and a desire to invite their friends. Also, if finances allow, consider having some snacks for everyone and a prize for the winning team.

4. Grill out at the park.

Hosting a night at a local park is a great way to get students to an event outside of the church. Find a local park that has a grill or two, bring along food, grab some outdoor games and activities, and you have the makings of a great evening! A few quick tips: make sure to bring a variety of activities, a portable speaker for music, some board games for people who would rather chill, and consider grilling chicken drumsticks as a cost-saving option.

5. Worship nights.

These can be a little more involved when it comes to planning, especially if you are not musically inclined. But consider handing this off to some leaders and/or students who have the talent and passion for these moments. Allowing students to take ownership and plan out the event ensures that they will invite their friends. These are also great outreach opportunities where you could incorporate a student testimony.

6. Start a volleyball (or other sports) tournament.

Students love a good competition and an opportunity to challenge their friends. So think through what resources you have that you could utilize and leverage them to facilitate the tournament. It could be volleyball, kickball, Spikeball, 9 Square, ping pong, Foosball, or even ultimate Frisbee. If possible, have water or sports drinks and snacks available and maybe even a prize for the tournament winners.

7. Youth room redesign/makeover.

This is one that could be a lot of fun and truly give your youth group a unique identity. Many of us have very creative students and leaders in our programs and this will afford them a wonderful opportunity to put their creativity to use. I would encourage you to make sure that there are guide rails in place and that you provide a vision for those who are helping so as to provide cohesiveness and stability to what you are looking to have in your space. It may help to start with a planning meeting or two before getting started.

If you don’t have the freedom to completely redesign your space, think about some non-permanent options. Maybe your leaders and students can create removable decor, like paintings, modern sculptures, or cool lighting. Or you could put up butcher paper over a plain wall and let them create a mural to temporarily display. Or you can host a creative night where participants can take their creations home at the end of the night.

8. Small group neighborhood cleanup.

Another awesome summer activity is to utilize your small groups in a way that serves and engages with their communities. This may require finding opportunities where your small groups can serve, or you could hand that responsibility off to your small group leaders and/or students. I would also suggest hosting a gathering after the cleanup is done, using it as an opportunity to celebrate what was accomplished and to engage in community as a group.

9. Camp-out at church.

For some churches it is difficult to take trips during the summer, so an easy and relatively low-cost alternative could be a camp-out at the church. You could set up tents, fire pits, and activities for your students to engage in, and possibly turn this into a family activity. You could also host various night games, engage in camp fire worship, and even give the food for the activity a theme like “old west cooking.”

10. Beach/lake trip.

If you live near the beach or a nice lake, doing a trip to either could be a great low-cost activity. Essentially it would cost you gas money and some beach or lakeside activities (think footballs, Frisbees, etc.). You could even offset the cost of gas by asking families to pay for it. Depending on where you are going, you could even host a grill out and allow for a student to share their testimony.