Setting Expectations in Youth Missions

Summer mission trips have the potential to be the best two weeks of the year for your students. They can also be the most disappointing two weeks of the year. Much of this hangs on the students’ expectations leading up to the trip. Allow me to illustrate this using my own high school experience.

In the late 1990’s, my youth group went to Mexico to build a dormitory at an orphanage. Our trip was amazing. We bonded as we mixed and laid concrete all day and worshipped and laughed around the campfire late into the night. We saw Christ at work as we met and ministered to the small villages surrounding the orphanage, earned bragging rights at the much-anticipated taco eating contest, and debated which of the outhouses (affectionately named “First John”, “Second John”, and “Third John”) were the most disgusting.

One night on our trip to Mexico, we built a huge bonfire, the kind of fire you had to stand ten feet away from or you’d singe your eyebrows. I can still picture one of my friends sticking a marshmallow at the end of a 10-foot-long pole so that he could roast it without roasting himself. The fun lasted until our good-natured youth pastor instructed us to put it out. The trip went down in history as a great success.

Expectations were high as we prepared for our return trip the next summer. We looked forward to constructing more homes, having more fun, and building even bigger bonfires. Everyone expected it to be the best missions trip ever.

It didn’t take long for “the best trip ever” to turn south. Upon our arrival, we learned we would not be building dorms but rather pulling weeds out of an old basketball court and digging trenches in the rock hard soil. Neither of these activities sounded like much fun, and our grumbling and complaining confirmed that no fun was to be had. By midweek, our attitudes were pretty low but we still looked forward to the big campfire.

In our quest to make everything bigger and better, we made the fire big… so big that the orphanage director thought our cabin was going up in flames. As we basked in our accomplishment, the director ran up with panic etched in his face, expecting to find our team in mortal danger. Instead he saw that the source of the flame was our own disrespect for the orphanage’s safety, as it could easily have spread to any of the nearby buildings in such a dry climate. To make matters worse, our fire had pulled the director away from his own daughter’s wedding, which was taking place on the opposite side of the campus. I can still remember the sight of him in his wedding tuxedo, trembling with anger as he yelled at us to put the fire out.

It was the low point of a trip that had always been about us and never about those whom we had come to serve. Our expectations revolved around fun, fires, and forming great memories. It was never about the orphans, the orphanage, or how our trip might be used to glorify Christ. Unsurprisingly, the orphanage director didn’t invite our youth group to come back the following year.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I’m preparing to lead a missions trip to Slovenia with my own group of students. This will be a return trip for many of us and last year’s trip was a great success. We worked with an amazing organization (Josiah Venture) to bring Christ to Slovene students who had gathered to be part of an incredibly fun rock and roll music camp. Did I mention the camp itself took place in a castle nestled in the Austrian Alps? Tempting as it is to revel in last year’s glory, we want to plan for success the second time around, and that means getting our expectations in the right place.

We’re doing that by talking often of the gospel and the desperate need for all to hear it. We’re preparing ourselves to gladly spend and be spent for the sake of the good news (2 Corinthians 12:15). We’re expecting hardship and opposition as we set out to extend God’s kingdom (John 15:20), and longing to be used by God (however he desires) so that His kingdom might be built up and His name might be glorified. What we’re not talking about is how excited we are to return to the Austrian castle to build memories that focus only on ourselves.

As you prepare for your own Summer missions trips, consider your team’s expectations and how they might need to be redirected so that you set your students up for another life changing, God-glorifying experience.


Nick Conner serves as the youth minister at Grace Church of DuPage in Warrenville, Illinois. Prior to this he taught for six years at a high school in Jerusalem. A graduate of Wheaton College’s Undergrad and Graduate programs, he is a proud father of four, a Colorado native, and is toying with the idea of becoming a hipster, though he’s afraid he may be too old.

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