Level 1. Youth relate to their peers on the mission trip, the ones they already know and the ones they’re only just meeting. They laugh, they flirt, they argue.
Level 2. Youth relate to their youth leader as the one making decisions, encouraging them, and asking them hard questions.
Level 3. Youth relate to the youth leaders of other churches, not their own. This level doesn’t exist on every trip, but where it does it expands the community of adults who are caring for and working with teenagers, and that is an unqualified good. It also models collaborative leadership.
Level 4. Youth relate to the staff and volunteers of the organization hosting them. DOOR. Borderlinks. The Life Church of Walker, Louisiana. Here is where the context of youths’ service gets provided. Here also is the model of a saint who is serving here day in, day out, and who can share stories of suffering and redemption in that place.
In some cases, the organization employs college students and other young adults as leaders of youth on mission trips. Four of the six trips I have led have done this, and it’s a great source of mentoring for teenagers by people who are working through the phase of life that is on deck for teenagers. However, this practice is also often a source of conflict between the group leadership, who can be inexperienced with the decision making style and moral absolutism of young adulthood, and the host organization, whose mission is to empower those same Young adults.
Note, some of these organizations, like DOOR, primarily exist to connect teenagers to work at local agencies like food pantries and homeless shelters. The staff and volunteers at these local agencies thicken this level of relationship and often provide a less filtered version of life and struggle and grace in that place. Some of our youth spent the day with a formerly homeless musician who coached them through talking with the clientele of a drop-in café for people who live on the streets. The wisdom, the color, of this level is invaluable.
Level 5. The youth relate to the people they are there to serve. Without this level it’s not a mission trip. Here is where the greatest transformation can occur, as assumptions about things like poverty and race and even religion buckle beneath the weight of an honest-to-God relationship, however brief.
Level 5 also poses the greatest risk of damage done to the people we set out to serve. If youth aren’t properly prepared, their perfectly appropriate fear and insecurity can produce hurt and even offense. Leadership of mission trips is most critical here, to model interactions of mutuality and dignity.
Level 6. Youth relate to God, who called them to this journey, who has been with them every day, and who will be with them when they go home, although hopefully in a richer way. This level infuses all the others, and, like level 5, is required for the experience to be a “mission” trip.
Leaders aid in this level by holding space for worship, prayer, silence, solitude, and reflection. I routinely feel like the work required of leaders in level 6 is the most difficult.