Making Youth Mission Trip Follow-Up Your Starting Point

One of my most striking youth group memories happened during the sign-up period for an upcoming mission trip in my third year as a youth minister. A student who had participated in a trip the previous summer kept saying to me and to other students, “I can’t wait to go back…I miss the feeling.” While her words seemed innocuous at first, I started to wonder why she was so fixated on a feeling from our time serving together. Finally, out of love and care for this student, my wife and I sat down with her to find out what she meant.  

In the course of our conversation, we began to discern that this student had idealized a spiritual high she experienced during the trip and for a few weeks after. So she wanted to go back again, to capture that “feeling.” Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar with students in your ministry. Through that first experience with a spiritual-high-seeking student, I realized that short-term mission trips can be done more effectively by facilitating thorough follow-up with our teams. By working to ensure we convey more than a feel-good experience, our short-term trips can have long term impact. 

In fact, I see the follow-up after a mission or service trip as the starting point in our planning—it’s that important. There are at least three crucial components of following up that help to ensure that our short-term trips will have long-term effectiveness.

Prepare from the Start to Come Home 

First, if we want our trips to have meaning beyond the week we serve with teenagers, we need to prepare them for what it will be like to come home. 

Following my experience with the teenager longing to recreate the feeling of a trip, we routinely planted the following motto in the hearts of short-term teams that I led: “the mission trip begins when you get home.” We began our yearly short-term trip training with this statement, and we repeated it at nearly every meeting. 

Our goal was to promote the vision that God calls us to missions for our whole lives, not just for a week in the summer. We wanted the students in our ministry to understand that serving God and others is the lifelong calling of every disciple of Jesus, and part of our ongoing lifestyle as his followers.

I love what John 15:16 says about the gospel for believers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” Do you notice the clarity of the gospel hope for us and our teenagers here? John writes about not only our salvation by God’s grace alone in Jesus Christ; he also says that Christ has appointed believers to fruit-bearing ministry. For each teenager serving with us on a short-term trip, the trip itself is a beautiful thing—but it is part of the bigger narrative of our lives bearing the fruit of the gospel. 

From the very beginning of our preparation process each year for our trips, we are already preparing teams for what comes after the mission trip. Our goal is to build a long-term view of missions for followers of Jesus. As you prepare your summer teams to depart, begin now to talk with students about how God calls them to follow him in their daily lives after the trip ends. For example, encourage them to think about how they can share the gospel in word and deed with their families, at their schools, within the youth group, and in the community upon returning. My hope is that youth ministries will not only focus on the immediate summer trip, but will also consider ways to disciple our students to be long-term missionaries right where they are, long after the short-term trip.  

Provide a Space to Process

Second, following up after a mission trip means scheduling debrief meetings for after your youth group or team returns home. You likely outline a schedule of meetings to prepare for a trip, and then your team meets in the morning and evening daily on the trip in order to process together spiritually. In a similar way, I recommend scheduling follow-up meetings for the group before you even depart. 

For our youth group, this meant we scheduled at least two follow-up meetings in the two weeks after we returned from our short-term trip, and a third follow up mission team meeting about six months after. We set all of these meetings in the team schedule we distributed to our students and parents when trip preparations kicked off. These follow-up meetings were especially important for a few reasons.  

For one, they gave us an important place to debrief our service and process our learning. The gatherings gave each team member opportunities to share about how he or she had seen God at work and had been challenged to grow during the trip. Students were able to share about their spiritual highs and lows. (And as we all know, teenagers will experience spiritual highs during or immediately after a mission trip and, very often, will also face spiritual lows after a trip.) 

These follow-up meetings also gave the adult leaders and me an important opportunity to disciple our students and to nurture a vision for lifelong service in God’s kingdom. This doesn’t have to be complicated! Our leader team regularly did two things. First, we asked our adults to share how God had challenged them to share Christ’s love in service to others in their daily lives after the mission trip—for example to their family members, workplaces, or communities. We also asked them to authentically share where they might have fallen short in these ways and need God’s help to grow. Then we encouraged our adult leaders to ask students the same question.

Second, we prompted our adult leaders to process with teenagers ideas about what our youth group might do in order to keep serving together. For our youth group, this has led to a variety of ways we have served after a mission trip, including work in the local community, a clean-up day for our own church, hosting a dinner for the seniors at our church, and leading an event for students with special needs.

Partner for the Long Haul

Third, following a mission or service trip, we have an important opportunity to promote and nurture a long-term relationship with the missionaries or local churches with whom we have just served. 

One of the critiques of taking teenagers on mission trips is that, by definition, these are short-term interactions. Often student teams come and go to what seems like an exciting new location, and never engage beyond that one week. This model can also promote a false idea of heroism, where the short-term mission teams feel like saviors who swoop in and save the day, then leave and return home. This is a wrong way to do short-term mission trips, or any other form of service. We must work to help our teams recognize that the on-the-ground, indigenous servants—who endeavor for God at a location our teams only visit—are the real heroes. 

In my years of youth ministry, we used our follow-up meetings to find ways to continue serving our partners on the field. We wrote letters to the missionaries we visited. Sometimes we found ways to raise funds or invited students to give sacrificially in support of various projects. Finally, we used these follow-up meetings to plan even longer term, continuous ways to support our friends, or planned for follow up trips to the same location in subsequent years. 

For overseas mission locations and domestic locations that are some distance away, continuing to partner might mean praying and helping with the ministry needs of the mission location we have just been to serve. Once when a mission partner’s video projector broke, our youth group was able to mobilize and raise funds, purchase one, and send it. For our more local trip locations, we were able to maintain partnerships where our youth group would serve with these locations multiple times during the school year, rather than only for a week in the summer.

Ultimately, following up after a youth mission trip is part of planting and watering the seeds of the gospel for long-term fruit. Paul writes , “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). God’s Word assures us that God gives the growth in the lives of both our students and our mission partners. Jesus promises that by his power there will be fruit (John 15:5). Yet, as we minster to teenagers and mission partners, God calls us to plant and to water. Following up after mission trips can be just that.

If you’re interested in learning more about gospel-centered youth ministry, we hope you’ll join us for our 2024 Rooted Conference in Dallas, TX.

Danny Kwon, Ph.D., serves as the Senior Director of Youth Ministry Content and Cross Cultural Initiatives for Rooted Ministry. Before joining Rooted, Danny Kwon served as Youth and Family Pastor at Yuong Sang Church, a bicultural, bilingual Korean-American congregation outside Philadelphia for 29 years. He is married to Monica, a Christian counselor and psychologist, and they have three children. He has authored three books, including A Youth Worker’s Field Guide to Parents: Understanding Parents of Teenagers, and Mission Tripping: A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry Short Term Missions. He also serves as an adjunct professor of Youth Ministry at Eastern University, is a certified ministry coach, has contributed to various publications, spoken at ministry conferences across the world, and has mentored 28 youth ministry pastoral interns over the years at his church. Danny holds graduate degrees from Westminster Seminary, Covenant Seminary, and Eastern University. His doctoral dissertation focused on innovation theory and intergenerational youth ministry paradigms in the local church.  He enjoys sports, eating, reading, and making people laugh, and now is a youth ministry volunteer in his local church.

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