Mission Trip High: Keeping it Going or Leaving it There?

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I was recently visiting a mission camp where I had participated as both a youth and adult camper, and spent several summers on staff when I was in college. I had been invited to preside at Holy Communion for the camp’s Friday night worship, and I had the opportunity to witness campfire skits and community sharing where kids talk about what they’ve learned about God that week and what they’ll do different from now on.

I heard many of the types of responses one often hears at the close of mission trips. Several kids said this was their first real experience of God. Others talked openly about some real pain they had on their lives and the healing they were experiencing. One even said they were going to do everything differently once they got home, that God had done a “total 180 (degree turn) in my life.” It brought back memories of my first mission trip experiences many years ago and how they shaped my own faith journey and call to ministry.

Before the closing worship I was helping the staff set up, and one of the adult campers who was designated as a communion server and I began talking. He marveled at the change he’d seen in some of his youth during the week and said how valuable the experience was. But he also lamented how hard it was to “keep it going” once the youth group was back home. Once the kids were busy with sports, school and their social lives, once trips to the mall recommence, TV and the internet come back into the picture, and the influence of non-Christian friends again becomes a factor, the great missional spirit and effusive love for Jesus in the group during this week seems to die out.

“You’ve been at this for a long time,” the youth leader asked, “how do we keep this going back home?” Something about his question really struck me. Not that I hadn’t heard it before or asked it many times myself, but because I suddenly realized that this might not be the right question.

I politely identified with his frustration and said something about doing the best you could and finding mission opportunities near home to do throughout the year, but I really wish I could go back in time and simply say, “You can’t.”

Summer mission trips and Christian conferences, while very valuable, are fundamentally artificial environments, and it’s not fair of us to expect the effects of an artificial environment to last when conditions are entirely different.

Think of it like a science experiment, with controlled elements and variables. When we do events like summer mission trips, we take kids out of their normal environments, remove as many distractions and outside influences as possible, and we bombard them with Jesus for the entire time. We sing praise songs, sell Christian t-shirts and other products, and we preach to them about putting their faith at the center of their lives. The only variable is how each youth responds to the conditions of this environment we’ve created. 

Of course they’re going to be enthusiastic and feel more committed to their faith than ever. That’s what we designed the environment to produce.

Mission trips and conferences have tremendous value. They provide opportunities for life changing decisions to be made, for relationships to be strengthened, and for substantive growth to occur. We shouldn’t stop doing these things. What needs to change is our expectations about what comes next.

Too often, youth come home floating a few inches off the ground on their “mission trip high.” They can’t wait to tell everyone in sight how much they love Jesus. But like any high—be it from an artificial environment or a controlled substance—it goes away. 

Too often, youth leaders will take teenagers on a fall retreat and berate them for not “keeping it going” once they’ve gotten back home. “I saw such a great spirit right when we came back,” the speech goes, “but you all haven’t kept your promises to be different, you haven’t tended to your spiritual lives the way you said you would, and now look what’s happened.”

If the high becomes the goal, then we quickly become addicted and orient ourselves toward chasing the next high. It becomes a destructive cycle fueled by unrealistic expectations that ends up accomplishing the exact opposite of what we intend in taking people on mission trips and to conferences. We take them so that their lives will have some kind of difference when they get back home, not so they can be constantly chasing the next spiritual high.

What if, instead of pondering how to “take this back” or “keep it going” once we get home, we admitted to our youth that we’ve created an environment where it’s extremely easy to wear our faith on our sleeve (quite literally, if you bought the t-shirt), and that there will be some adjusting to do when they get home?

What if, instead of asking the blanket question “what will you do differently?” knowing very well that the answer many kids will give is “everything,” we asked kids to identify one thing they’d like to commit to changing with a measurable goal, and we checked in with them in the following weeks to see how it’s going? What if we encouraged the other kids on the mission team to help encourage each other and hold each other accountable in their goal?

What would happen if we changed our expectations from one mission trip or conference making a 180 degree turn in every kid’s life, and instead focused on incremental, 5 degree turns that will add up to big changes over a lifetime?

What would happen if we trusted God enough to carry us and our youth on a lifelong journey of sanctification?

If we adjust our expectations, our long term experience of mission trips and conferences might shift from frustration to joy.

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