Leading Spiritually on Youth Mission Trips

Serving with students locally, domestically, or internationally creates an atmosphere uniquely conducive to spiritual formation. Whether students are adjusting to a new cultural context, experiencing conflict with teammates, or struggling to set aside their own preferences in favor of service, they need leaders who will point them to Jesus. As a mission trip leader, countless details and tasks will fight for your attention, but leading your team to engage the trip on a spiritual level remains your primary responsibility. 

The main goal for any trip is to serve and support your ministry partners to form a lasting gospel witness for the benefit of the host community. Still, as the spiritual leader of your team, you must also shepherd teenagers through the experience, speaking the Word of God through the power of the Spirit in ways that will equip them for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12; Titus 3:8). With careful preparation and a mindset of awareness, a trip becomes an important opportunity for spiritual growth.

Before the Trip 

Your first opportunity for spiritual formation comes as you recruit and prepare your team for the trip. Consider how you will communicate your spiritual values for evangelism, service, and carrying the gospel. As you personally invite students, you are calling them to recognize the importance of missions for their lives of faith.

Application 

If you have an application as part of the sign-up process for your trip, you can use it to guide students to consider some spiritually formative questions. Like me, you might have students come up and say, “You want us to write paragraphs!?” Trust me, it will be good for them. Taking the time to apply will let them practice articulating the gospel, their testimonies, and the spiritual gifts present in their lives. Reviewing applications will show you how well your students understand sin, atonement, and the importance of sharing the gospel. The questions you ask will reinforce the purpose and weight of the trip. 

An application implies that a student may not be selected to participate in a trip for one reason or another. While prayerfully reviewing applications for a trip to serve in Eastern Kentucky, my pastors, a few leaders, and I realized that one of our applicants did not have the maturity needed for the trip. I prayed for a spirit of grace and kindness as I entered a difficult conversation with her mother. Thankfully she took the feedback well. A year later, after a lot of growth in awareness and faith, the student participated in the trip and served fantastically. But that first year, we pointed her to the activities in the group that would help her continue to learn and grow.

If you have someone apply who is not the right fit, know that having a difficult conversation on the front end will serve your team and your partners better by far than bringing a student who might jeopardize the mission would. Lovingly direct that student to the other areas in your ministry that will better serve his or her needs at that moment.

Information and Training Meetings 

Information meetings for students and their parents allow you to cast a vision for the purpose and value of the trip. Training meetings for trip participants allow you to go even more in depth and may represent the first time a student has thought carefully about the mission God has given Christians through the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Use these meetings to teach students about the authority Jesus has over all the earth through his death and resurrection, which now propels us to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Explain what it means to make disciples, to baptize, to teach them to obey all that Jesus commands. Without a proper understanding of the mission of the church, your trip will be simply church-sponsored sight-seeing. But with good training, your church can truly send a team of missionaries who are ready to advance the gospel.

Training meetings give you an opportunity to put good resources into your students’ hands. Through required readings, podcasts, or videos, you can help them better understand the mission of the Church. You can work to fill gaps in their understanding of sin and the role of the Church to call lost people to faith and repentance in Christ. With the deadline of a mission trip on the calendar, students may finally see the importance of practicing for evangelism. Pray that God would form their hearts so they can show up ready for any opportunity God puts before them on your trip or in their daily lives. 

On the Trip  

Leading by example  

When the trip arrives, your group can finally put preparation into practice. It’s time for you to lead by example, calling your group to “imitate me as I imitate Jesus” (1 Cor. 11:1). For me, that has looked like being the first one to lead the daily devotion during a weeklong kids camp in Halifax, or the first to survey a stranger on the University of Pittsburgh campus for a new church planter, or the first to knock on a door in Dayton, Ohio to invite the neighborhood to a community event in the park. I’m always blown away by the transformation that comes when a group of timid students, after seeing an example one time, boldly step up to whatever challenge we put before them.

Vision and Preparation with Partners 

If at all possible, start your trip by connecting with your partners for a vision day and a time of preparing for your project. Not only will it help your mission succeed, hearing from your partners will also provide another shepherding moment. Ask your hosts if they would be willing to share their own testimonies, or to speak about how they entered the mission field in which they serve. As they cast the vision for their ministry, your students will see real examples of Christians engaging their cultural context for the sake of the gospel. Having an example of someone who has committed his or her life to missions will often inspire teenagers to step out in faith in new ways. 

You can also encourage your group that part of their role is to bless the missionaries and local church members with whom they come into contact. Before the trip, coach your students to be ready to serve and to demonstrate care for your partners.

Our team in Pittsburgh had extra time one day, so we helped the church planters with a project at their home: removing dirt from below a porch to open up room for more storage. Our students joyfully carried countless five gallon buckets of dirt up a hill, to a truck bed, and then unloaded them into another church member’s backyard. I was so proud of my team as they truly pushed themselves to their physical limits because they wanted to help this church planter in any way possible. While part of our group was hauling dirt, others were helping with the family’s three kids inside. As your students learn more about your partners, they will grow in their faith and understanding of mission.

Worship, Prayer, and Devotions  

Throughout your trip, set aside moments for group prayer, worship, and devotions. These might take place in the morning, evening, or as a lunch break. Starting the day with musical worship can set the tone for the rest of the day. You could ask a different leader or a student leader to prepare a brief devotional thought for each day. In the evenings, you might walk through a series of Scripture passages, or a study related to mission or to your specific project. Use these moments to reinforce your goals and direction for the trip and remind students that they are working for the Lord, not to look good or please others. By day three or four your group may be getting weary. Teach them about sacrificial love and service and encourage them to persevere. 

Throughout the day, short prayer touch points can reset your group’s hearts and minds. Consider planning in a lunchtime or a mid-afternoon prayer break to huddle your team, letting them share any highlights from the day so far, and praying for God to strengthen the group to continue serving well.

Making Time for Rest

Moments of rest, or even a partial or full day of rest in the middle of your trip, can serve as a good reminder that we are finite beings and need God to sustain us. On one trip, I ambitiously over-filled the calendar, thinking we needed to make every minute “count” by keeping the projects rolling. By day three, my team was falling asleep on couches, on bus rides, and even during lunch break. We quickly shifted gears that evening. We let the students nap while leaders prepared a spaghetti dinner, then enjoyed an ice cream run and some fun group games.

While we want to avoid turning service into a tourist trip, it’s still a good idea to let your group get out and experience some of the culture while you are in a new place. Our group has enjoyed baseball games, soccer games, and boat rides across the Halifax Harbor. Make sure your students know these aren’t just moments of play—they are meant to restore life and energy as you prepare for another day of joining what God is doing.

The Trip Home 

When the trip comes to an end, your thoroughly exhausted team may have a van ride or a flight back to your hometown. You and your leaders may feel ready to check out. But don’t waste these last moments together as a team! God has been working in your students’ hearts during this trip, and their trust in you, in each other, and in the Lord has likely expanded. As much as you’re able, have meaningful conversations to hear what God has been teaching your group. Help them solidify lessons learned by saying them out loud. Let your group celebrate the highlights of their week and how God has worked in and through them. They will remember the encouragement you provide, and it will reinforce the spiritual lessons you have been teaching. 

Post-Trip 

Trip Debrief and Evaluation 

When your group has been home for a week or two and have had time to decompress from the trip, debriefing will help them reflect on what they learned and how they grew spiritually. Make sure to put this gathering on the calendar before your trip departs, otherwise coordinating summer schedules may prove challenging as the trip fades into the rearview mirror. During the debrief, draw attention to learning from your partners and the example they set. Highlight the ways the gospel was evident in the work or project you joined. Celebrate the ways your students lived out their faith and served others. Remind them why you did what you did on the trip and how it fulfilled God’s mission. 

Use this time to teach students about next steps they can take to keep growing as gospel witnesses, at home and abroad. Help them to connect the experience of serving away from home to your church and community. Challenge your students to pray about opportunities to commit their lives to mission, short term or long term. Make them aware of invitations to serve with your church and outside your church, as well as how to stay connected with the ministry you served on the trip. Many students do not know about the many ways they can use their gifts to serve, especially as they enter their college or young adult years.  

Look to Jesus

A lot happens between your first announcement about a trip and returning home with your team. I’m sure you, like me, will be stressed about whether the rental vehicle would actually be waiting for you, or about what shenanigans your students might come up with along the way. Maybe your bag will get lost between Charlotte and Canada, just like mine did. But I pray you will see lots of seeds planted and signs of spiritual fruit, not only through your group’s work, but for your team, too. Hopefully the stress will lead you closer to the heart of Jesus, as you call out to him to give you the energy for another day of work.

As your students look to your example, I pray you will shepherd them in what it means to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son, and teaching them to observe all that he has commanded, knowing he is with us to the ends of the age.

If you’re looking for more gospel-centered youth ministry resources and friendships, consider joining us at Rooted’s annual conference in Dallas, Texas October 24-26, 2024!

Caleb Creel

Caleb lives in the beautiful mountains of Northeast Tennessee with his wife, Mollie, and two sons, Will and Phillip. He serves as Student Pastor at FBC Kingsport, TN, where his motto is “love students and equip parents to raise up lifelong followers of Jesus.” Caleb has been an avid runner, hiker, and coffee enthusiast for most of his life. His high school and college cross country career culminated in the 2016 Boston Marathon. Since then, running has become a much more casual hobby which often includes pushing a stroller. When he’s not enjoying a light roast pour over with a theological or ministry-related book, he’s chasing around his boys or spending time with students and families in his community.

Originally hailing from Greer, SC where he first sensed a call to ministry, Caleb holds an M.Div. in Theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and a B.A. in Theology from Union University in Jackson, TN. He has ministered to students for over a decade, including Young Life ministry in Jackson, TN, college campus ministry in New Albany, IN, and student ministry positions in both Indiana and Tennessee. He has also been a part of two church plants. Caleb loves to disciple leaders who lead disciples, and finds great fulfillment in seeing the fruit of discipleship in students and families.

More From This Author