Consider Staying Close to Home for Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip

I grew up in an urban neighborhood in Detroit, and I can remember how people would come on a bus to pick up kids and take us to their really nice church building in the suburbs to talk to us about Jesus. We would have time to run around and play games, we would sing a couple of songs I didn’t know the words to, and then some adults would share about a Jesus I had never met. After the meeting we would hop back on the bus and head back to our urban neighborhood where things didn’t seem so nice. We had this great experience playing with really nice things, but then we went back to our reality. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved where I was from—but it was nothing like the suburbs. After a while, I remember feeling a bit strange about how these individuals I didn’t know would come to my neighborhood that wasn’t so nice and take us to experience their nice things. Then they’d drop us back off to that neighborhood, while they went back to their nice things.

Perhaps partly because of my experiences growing up, I never felt the Lord prompting me to take the students I was serving on a short-term mission trip. During the seven years I served as a youth pastor, I often connected with fellow youth ministers who would share stories about taking their students on short-term mission trips. They would talk about their amazing experiences and how much fun the students had on their trip. I often thought to myself, I wonder how the experience was for the people they were serving? Was the week transforming for them, or did they feel like I did as a young person—like it was about those coming to the neighborhood, however good the intent

I realize that going on a short-term mission trip can be a powerful experience, and that there can be a number of benefits for the students serving. I mean, who wouldn’t want to travel out of the country, serve for a week in a marginalized community, and then come back to the comforts of home? But it seems that those who are being served get the short end of the stick when it comes to the experience. 

I am not saying we need to get rid of mission trips in youth ministry; however, I would suggest that we must consider our missional call from the posture of relational discipleship we see in the example of Jesus. In this article, I will layout our missional call as revealed in Scripture, how the finished work of Jesus should inform how we do missions, and how relationships should be at the core of missions. 

Remember the Biblical Call to Missions

The Bible informs our call as believers to be on mission for Jesus. Jesus prayed to the Father, “As you sent me in to the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Why did the Father send Jesus into the world to be on mission? Well, the Father has given Jesus all authority to to give eternal life (John 17:2). According to Jesus, eternal life comes from knowing the Father as the the only true God and knowing Jesus Christ whom the Father sent (John 17:3). 

Jesus came into the world with authority over all creation, to give eternal life. Jesus came as the bread of life not only to fill our physical needs but also our spiritual needs. And the way Jesus does this is through relationship with him. As a redeemed people by the blood of Jesus, God sends us into the world to join him in his redemptive work over creation. Just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, he sends us to be an active agent for God’s redemptive purposes. 

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he spoke to the disciples saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Mission is at the heart of being a believer in Jesus.

The word “go” is a very important and powerful word because it communicates our call to join God in the work he is doing. Our mission is to go and as we go, we offer life in Jesus to everyone as we steward the gifts God has given us. We serve and teach about the God who gave us the gifts to steward. 

At the heart of discipleship is relationship. As disciples of Jesus we get to live out the abundant life Jesus gives through our relationship with him. God sent his Son into the world to be present with his people. Jesus put on flesh to restore relationship. The Father sent Jesus into the world for the sake of the world. Just as Jesus was sent into the world, we are sent. “Go” is our mandate. As we are in relationship with Jesus, having put our trust and hope in him, our missional call is to go and teach about the Jesus who saves us from sin and death. The finished work of Jesus should inform how we do missions.

We must be careful in thinking missions is about an experience we get to have. Emphasizing what students “get out of” short-term mission trips can lead teenagers to believe that the missional call is about us and what we experience. Yes, it can be a life-changing experience for God’s missional people. Yes, God will and can speak to us as we serve his people. However, serving is not about us. It’s not even primarily what we can offer those we serve, but about what God is doing, and how he invites us to join him in what he is doing.

Serve With Teenagers Right Where They Are

God is on mission to seek and save those who are lost. He is on mission to make disciples of Jesus to be the ongoing mission of God in the world. We are the ongoing mission of God. So when I consider inviting teenagers into meaningful service, it seems I need to invite them to be relational because God is relational. I have found that true relationship takes time—an opportunity that short-term mission trips don’t typically afford.

With our relational call to mission with God in mind, let’s consider how we can invite our students to be the ongoing mission of God in their own communities. 

When Jesus was at the Synagogue on the Sabbath, someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah, and he read,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Luke 4:18

This passage shows us the kingdom priorities Jesus had in mind as he related to people and served them in God’s name. We have the privilege of joining him to bring blessing to the places we live and have influence. At my former church, we partnered with the same community in our city each year to host what we called Bless Fest. Rather than traveling far, we engaged our students as part of the local church to share resources in a community that needed resources. I believe this is how the economy of the Kingdom works: God uses his Church as to bless those in need. We supplied groceries for families and school supplies for kids. We brought our church’s ministry trailer fully stocked with clothing to give out to kids. Barbers came along to provide free haircuts and dentists joined us to offer dental work. 

God has invited us to join him in the work he is doing. It is a powerful thing to invite teenagers to be the hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus in their own towns and neighborhoods.

To be his hands means that we reach out to the marginalized of society. We are the comforting touch for the broken. We clothe those who are naked and feed those who are hungry. To be his feet means that we take the light of the gospel wherever we go—into our communities right in our backyards! Beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News! To be his mouth means that we proclaim good news to the poor, whether they face economic or spiritual poverty. We proclaim the freedom from the bondage of sin. We do this all in the name and power of Jesus, so the blind will see and the oppressed will be set free. 

Prioritize Missional Relationships Alongside Students

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying you should never go on a short-term mission trip. If there is a mission organization that has established ongoing relationship with a particular marginalized community or group overseas, by all means, take the opportunity to learn and to serve with your students. And if you go, consider how to prioritize the needs and the dignity of those you are visiting. 

I will caution, however: don’t be so quick to go overseas when there are abundant opportunities right in our own cities. In our missional call, God is inviting us to go even to the places in close proximity in order to offer life in Jesus. 

At the heart of discipleship is relationship. As disciples, we live out our call in relationship with him. Living out God’s ongoing mission alongside the teenagers in our youth ministries means the Father sends us just as he sent Jesus. Jesus came to save us from sin and death and so that we may have relationship with him. We get to teach and model for our students that Christians are sent into the world for the sake of the world to see it transformed by the gospel.

Rooted’s annual conference offers practical, gospel-centered youth ministry resources, biblical teaching, and rich relationships with other youth ministers and parents. We hope you’ll make plans to join us in Dallas October 24-26, 2024!

Isaiah is a husband, father, and a creative. As a spoken word poet, published author, and speaker, Isaiah loves to communicate the gospel in creative ways. He and his beautiful wife, Rahab, have three amazing children. Isaiah serves as the Director of Student Ministry at Strong Tower Bible church in Nashville, TN and as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.

More From This Author