I am not a big fan of youth missions trips

Youth group missions tripsOver my past 12 years of youth ministry I’ve done a lot of youth missions trips, both domestically and internationally. Some were pretty good, some were absolutely miserable. Some contributed to long-term life-change, some of them didn’t. There’s a lot of different variables that contribute to that, of course (more on that next week), but overall I’ve been more and more discontent with the lack of transformation and outcomes from youth-based mission trips.

This past April when I returned to Haiti for the second time I stumbled into something very significant, something I probably already knew but didn’t know how valuable it was until I actually witnessed it.

Something Better

When I felt like I needed to return to Haiti, I announced I was willing to take whoever wanted to come with me. I worked with Adventures In Missions and together we put together a custom trip and soon teens, parents, single adults, my brother, and a bunch of “random people” all jumped on board. That intergenerational mix turned out to be so healthy — I never would’ve imagined it to be so incredible. In fact, our summer Mexico trip and then this past Haiti trip we did just last month were also family-based, intergenerational trips. I’m convinced that is absolutely the best way to do short-term missions. Every student and parent who participated will tell you the exact same thing, even the ones who were skeptical.

While I have nothing against youth missions trips, we may never do one again.

The Pros

Why? Here are just a couple reasons why the intergenerational trips seem to be so much more effective both on the mission field and at home.

  • There’s built-in accountability for both the kids and the parents when they return home.
  • The spiritual high doesn’t wear off nearly as quickly when both the parent and the student are living with someone who knows what the other just went through..
  • They return to a home to live with someone who “gets it.” There’s no conversations like, “How was your trip?” “Good.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.”
  • The perception of missions in the church moves away from “something cute the youth do” and becomes something the church takes ownership over.
  • The shared experience is something the teens and parents will have in common for the rest of their lives. It’s fun to watch that special bond form. The “remember when” stories will never end.
  • When both the student and parent are uncomfortable and stretched physically, spiritually, and emotionally, they tend to cling to each other while depending on God. That dynamic is absolutely invaluable.
  • Every teen needs to see their parent stretched and vulnerable. Missions (when done well) has a tendency to do that. When the kid sees that vulnerability in their parent, a connection takes place that is amazing to watch.
  • It’s a significant opportunity to integrate teens into the life of the church body as a whole. It helps break down the youth ministry silo.
  • Parents develop a deep respect for their kids when they watch them serving so selflessly.
  • And so much more, like relationships between parents and single young adults, young adults on the teens, and more. I even gained some committed youth leaders who normally would never have attended a trip except that it was a church trip and not a youth trip.

The Objections

“I don’t want my mom to go!”
My answer: “Suck it up. Jesus didn’t want to die for your bad attitude either, but He did anyway.” j/k! The truth is, there are several teens who decided not to go on our missions trips because it wasn’t a “youth trip,” and that’s okay. It was invaluable for the ones who did go, and two trips later, several of the teens who bowed out are seeing just what they missed from the teens who went. It looks like many of these teens are looking forward to going on a future trip with their parents now.

Just to clarify, we require that junior highers have a parent on the trip, but high school students are still free to come by themselves, although we strongly encourage them to bring a parent if possible.

“What about the kids who don’t have Christian parents?”
For the high school students who have come on our trips without parents, it’s been admittedly tough for some of them to see a spiritual bond taking place between other teens and parents, especially when the parent they live with at home is not a believer. What ended up happening for us is that the other parents on the trip stepped in and became surrogate parents for those teens. It ended up being a really positive thing because it gave those teens an opportunity to witness what a healthy, godly relationship could look like with a parent when they have kids themselves.

“Kids need space away from their parents to experience things on their own.”
Yes, and many of them have way too much space. It’s healthy for them to do something together once in a while.

“So-and-so’s dad is way too controlling. He’ll ruin the trip.”
Maybe, but maybe not. A missions trip can transform some pretty intense people. But, of course, this is a judgement call you’ll have to make. It’s quite possible there’s a parent who wants to attend that you have concerns about exposing to minors for a prolonged period of time. That’s not something we’ve had to deal with, but it could definitely be a legitimate concern.

“Where do we start? There’s no organization running family-based missions trips.”
We set up custom trips through Adventures In Missions. They do a great job at it, too! See more about my experience with their custom trips in Tuesday’s post, “Choose my adventure, and then your own!

QUESTION: Has anyone else done an intergenerational missions trip? How does it compare to the youth missions trips you’ve done?

Posted on November 18, 2010

  • Tim, wow, you are speaking right at so many of my/our core beliefs. Though we are a younger organization (youthmark, three years), I have now been doing missions 15+years. As an org we are just now beginning to offer these intergenerational trips, all custom based as well until we really feel great about "packaging" it in such a way the masses can understand the value and see pics and testimonies that show it as well.
    However, all of our emphasis is on what we call Mission51- training for the 51 weeks of life outside the mission. We have components for student, staff and parent alike. We train before, during and after so that it is not about a spiritual high, rather a missional life we are living.
    I am not trying to make this a sales pitch, simply wanting to say this is what I/we bleed! I want to see students, parents and all the church being the church and an extension of Christ anywhere and everywhere!
    Thanks for your great post to continue that conversation!

  • GGma B.

    You're probably right..

  • Thanks for these thoughts. I've done one intergenenrational trip and I'm planning another. I'm not sure I would want to give up youth only trips, but a good mix of both seems like a healthy way to go.

    • Hmm… why is that? Why does a mix of both seem more healthy than just doing intergenerational ones? Curious to know the dynamic in your ministry with this.

  • bdcurtis85

    I've only done youth based trips in the past but I love the idea of intergenerational trips. We have a family life council at my church that is always looking for ways to get the whole family talking about/walking the faith journey together rather than just having loosely connected experiences from different family members being processed secondhand.

  • George Gracie

    We went to Mexico this past summer and I opened it up to adults as well, and a couple of parents went and it went really well. One of the things that I told the parent is that they are not the parent on the trip (discipline, watching over them. etc..) and the kids knew that as well and what I found out was that the kids that had parents that went actually was looking for their parents "approval" then waiting for there parents to correct them. It was an amazing transformation between them that I believe that would not have happened if I did not put that rule into place

  • Tammie

    We've done only intergenerational trips and it was purely by accident. I knew I needed adult help and, when I asked, several people came forward. Rather than turn them away, I let them all come along so we ended up with nearly equal numbers of students and adults. I've never considered not doing it that way since. In the usual church setting, it's hard to get the same level of connection between the generations. I've seen the relationships that started on these trips last well into the months that followed. Plus, it sparked a renewed interest in missions among the entire congregation, not just the youth.

    A last thought … it also gives the adults a new perspective on the youth. In our experiences, the youth have been as compassionate and hard-working as the adults – totally against the stereotype the adults see everyday.

  • Stephen

    This is how most of the trips I have been on since I was 13 have been. I think which ever way is taken you are creating an opportunity to allow growth.

  • I've done both. I'm not a youth minister, but I have been a chaperon on 7 youth trips, a participant on one intergenerational trip and a team leader on two more intergenerational trips. I agree with all of your 'Pros'. Our intergenerational trips have been to the Dominican Republic where we have built a relationship with a Christian school for deaf children. We have sponsored a summer camp for them the past two summers and plan to do so again next summer. For the DR trips we have required that there be a responsible adult for each youth who participates. That person does not have to be a parent, but at least one 'family member' has to have had mission experience (that's not a 'rule', but just a good idea). Of course, parents frequently participate in our youth mission trips as well. But I must say that the parent/child interaction is much stronger and more significant on the intergenerational trips. However, I have seen youths come to Christ on the youth trips. On the intergenerational trips, the youth (and parents) who participate already have a strong faith. I think both types of mission opportunities serve the purpose of faith development and both have a place in a church's mission programs.

    • Right. I'm not saying there's no life-change on a youth trip — I've just observed plenty more of it (if you can even quantify something like that) through intergenerational trips.

      You make a valid point about the intergenerational trips being more people with a strong faith and the youth trips being more of a mix of everything. If the purpose of a missions trip is to share Christ and serve Him in a different context, I'm not sure I'd bring unbelievers with me on that trip in the first place. How can you tell someone on the mission field about a relationship with Christ if you don't have one yourself, ya know?

  • Once again, another great, though-provoking post! Nicely done!

    Our last mission trip had a lot of parents, simply because they are my volunteers. Worked out very well.

    One concern that I am starting to have, and see a hint of it in your post, is the idea that mission trips are all about US (the missionaries). What is in it for US? How do WE feel when we get back? Was it "successful" for OUR church. Were MY kids transformed…etc, etc. I am guilty of this mentality as well!

    I know that is certainly part of the equation, but more and more it seems like we are forgetting the real reason why we are called to go on missions. It's not for leadership training, team building or self-esteem promoting.

    Maybe another way to put this…would we go on mission trips if we knew that there would be no warm fuzzies or life changing moments?

    • I definitely agree with that, Matthew. I even thought of that before I published this post because I sensed the same thing. However, I posted it as-is because I think that topic requires it's own dedicated post.

      My point here was to point out the positives for US from an intergenerational missions perspective. That in no way is meant to imply that's why we do missions nor that it's even our focus. However, the group dynamics on a trip do affect how well the team serves its missions context, and I would say that it's best both for the ministry context and those serving in that context when the team has an intergenerational dynamic.

  • My church is Gorham, ME has done only intergenerational trips. Partly because I have a med condition where I can't go to certain places, but they have proven to go really well. I think it does several things inside the church

    1) prevents silo's – its hard to stay segregated if you have different age groups interacting and working together, gaining respect and fellowship with each other. It carries out at home. I've seen a better level of congregational unity because of this. A vast majority of these are not parent- child. I think out of 30, i had maybe 3 parent child, the rest were a fair mix of intergeneration from 8th grade, to retirees.

    2) mentors- when adults get involved in the lives of kids, they tend to start caring about other areas of life. I guess you can also call this mentoring. I have seen a couple of our musical people on the trip take a couple youth into their praise team (our church uses several teams- all with different styles to do p&w..) So letting them on this team makes it rock. I've also seen some really good one on one mentorships happen NATURALLY, doing shop work at a car shop, looking for opportunities for community service projects.

    3) advocates – The youth ministry has more people in the church who are aware of what is going on. So if i get up and stick my neck out, i already have a certain degree of buy-in from some people I would have to work harder to get.

    4) Increase ministry participation from adults. – with this I have also pitched ministry at home and some adults have caught vision for ministry in other areas of the church. We have launched a cooking program where a couple parents take youth, cook meals and deliver them with the youth to families IN THE COMMUNITY who are in need.

    For a small church, this place is getting it big time!

    • We've seen a lot of the teen/adult relationships form into something deeper here at home, too. When we've had a great prayer experience overseas and that vision comes home, there are adults in the church who carry that into their various areas of ministry and that overflows back into the youth ministry. For example, there are a couple parents who get together to pray for our church and the youth ministry on a weekly basis now.

  • adamwormann

    I pretty much exclusively do intergenerational trips now. We did a couple of youth only trips in the past (actually, maybe only 1), but I don't find them nearly as effective. We went to New Orleans several times, and they're always directed at youth, but totally open. They wind up being half students and half parents/congregation. It works out beautifully.

    My biggest pet peeve is how, as youth ministries, we've allowed ourselves to become compartmentalized from the rest of the church. It's flat out not healthy. I'd be really scared for the health of our ministry and church to move back to more youth-only trips.

    • Scared? Wow, that's a pretty strong word. Sounds like you're pretty opinionated about this whole thing. :)

  • jmgreenhill

    One of the things that I liked best when interviewing at my current church is their approach to missions. Almost all of the trips are intergenerational and they are all done with partners (meaning we go back to the same communities multiple times a year)

    I say most are intergenerational because the youth seem to dominate the summer trips bc they are the only ones that they can go on because of school. That makes it more lopsided but there are still a good number of adults that go…

  • I don't think I've ever done a youth-only mission trip… On the other hand, I've never done a "family only" mission trip. All of my mission trips have involved youth and adults, as well as other folks in the congregation. Sometimes youth outnumber the adults, other times there are more adults, and occasionally the numbers are the same.

    My philosophy has always been affinity-based mission trips. I don't put a specific demographic limitation on a mission trip. (I am with the youth much more so I have a stronger influence and presence with the youth of the church though) If a random adult from the church is passionate about the situation/people we are going to serve he is free to go. If a parent and child both have an affinity for helping orphans, they both come on the trip. If one cares about orphans and the other cares about disability ministry they go on the appropriate trip. I like it when parents and teens bond on a trip, but I like it just as much when teens and other adults deepen their relationship.

    As far as life-change goes, I'm not sure I have ever measured it… especially not long-term. I have also had to deal with problem parents, adults, teens, and hosts… I am just better at managing the situations and keeping those folks from having too much influence in the group. Lastly, some parents and teens should not go together. I do want parents and teens to grow deeper in a relationship built upon their common faith in Jesus Christ. But, a mission trip is not the place I want therapeutic breakthroughs happening, or worse, not happening. (I can't spend the whole mission trip doing family counseling) If a parent and teen don't get along well I will recommend that only one or neither go.

  • As a parent who went on two trips with AIM to Haiti with my daughter, Raessa, this past year, I can say that without a doubt our relationship is much stronger as a result. Yes, our purpose of going was to serve in whatever way God led, but we were blessed immeasurably in return. For instance, the first morning after we returned from the second trip, Raessa and I were the first ones to get up. Before any words were spoken when we saw each we just started to sob in each other's arms. The trip revealed God at work in many ways and when we got back it weighed heavy on us. What we experienced that week seemed to hit both of us at the same time. I will cherish the moment as a parent for a long time.

    • So glad you two went to Haiti together twice this year! :)

  • Elmer Goodeill

    My first "All-Church" mission trip was in 1989. I have never looked back. I offer the trip to high school and above. If a Jr. Higher or someone younger I require a parent to come. (Not a rule mainly a guideline) My youngest has been 7 or 8 years old and my oldest mid-seventy. You are far more spiritual then I though. The main reason I like having adults is there is less fund raising. They have jobs. Great job.

  • THANK YOU for this! How immensely encouraged I am by your post! I am a mother to four children… and am praying desperately through this season of transition in which they become adults… a wonderful season during which we can all stretch, be vulnerable, and grow both closer with one another and with Jesus. I am a huge advocate of the family mission trip — especially if one of the trip's goals is that of lasting life transformation… I couldn't agree more with your "pros" for family mission trips. Again, thank you for your encouragement!

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