Many junior high youth struggle to restrain themselves when granted a measure of freedom. They vocalize any thought that comes to mind. They stay up later than is healthy. Their food choices, both in terms of quality and volume, can be horrifying to behold.
Mission trips are as good a lab as you will find to observe this lack of restraint. Engaging junior high youth in a reflection on the day’s service, for example, courts a wide range of random outbursts (not all of which are verbal, if you take my meaning), and setting a shared table for them essentially turns the first page on The Lord of The Flies. For adult leaders, this can be utterly maddening.
The good news is that mission trips are also a terrific tool for prodding young adolescents toward a) maturity and b) the concern for others in community before oneself that is the New Testament vision of the church.
Structure has become my best friend in nudging younger youth towards this kind of growth. On my most recent trip, we observed a hard lights out time, and we dictated how much of each portion of a meal students could take the first time through. I structured reflections that, though loose and informal, had clearly expressed rules for participating. By the last night of the trip, those rules were shot, but I think they had already done what we needed them to do–flexibility is important too.
This structure is the opposite of what I used to do, which was to expect younger adolescents to behave like adults and to get angry and judgy when they failed. This fails for two reasons. First, an angry trip leader is rarely effective. Second, judgment and shame are of very limited value when it comes to developing maturity. If what we want is young people who consider the needs of others before their own, guilt won’t work; guilt will grow resentment of others. Also, an awareness of others before oneself is a developmental achievement. Some of the young people we’re working with are literally not yet capable of it.
I think we have to look out for instances of maturity and call them out to reinforce them. Hold up youth’s peers and adult leaders as laudable examples and, eventually, as the norm. We also have to regulate our own reactions to youth’s selfishness and inappropriate outbursts. The indignation of adults is just as harmful to the community we believe God calls us to be as is the thoughtlessness of adolescents.
I was in Detroit for a mission trip with junior high students last week. So some thoughts about mission trips based on this experience.
Starting with free time.
Too much down time is a problem for service trips and for retreats. It is perhaps the most argued for program component on evaluations–“more free time!”–, yet I suspect the students clamoring for it have a very good sense of how and with whom they would fill that time. The problem is the effect that unstructured time has on the others.
Some of the youth who come on mission trips are experiencing this kind of ’round-the-clock community for the first time. Some have never been away from home. For these students, too much time to fill with their own activity is a prison sentence. Homesickness and anxiety easily fill the space that a structured interactive activity otherwise would.
Free time is a must. I don’t believe every moment must be scheduled; part of the value of trips and retreats is an unplugging from a frantic rhythm of activity. I don’t want too much free time though, and I want some structured options within what free time I offer. That’s actually better for forming community than allowing (or demanding) youth to fill the time themselves.
One of the best experiences my students ever had with a mission trip was a week at a church in south Louisiana that somebody from that church and I planned over the course of about nine months. We’d never met, but my church’s youth group had spent two days at her church on a post-Katrina trip only three years earlier, and they couldn’t stop talking about it. So we decided to spend a whole week there.
The trip checked all the boxes. It was a partnership with a congregation. The congregation was culturally and theologically different from the progressive mainline church our students knew; the worship services we participated in were some of the most transformative things that happened. There was meaningful work to do that extended the congregation’s ministry, like painting the church’s preschool classrooms and helping with outreach projects in the church’s neighborhood. The congregation extended a hospitality to our group such as few of us had ever experienced. Students were changed on that trip. So was I.
There are so many good options for short term mission experiences with youth. The best ones are “immersive,” meaning they emphasize the relationships a church has with its local community and invite visiting students to experience and contribute to those relationships. They’re partnerships in which the visiting youth learn as much as they serve. Great programs like the one at my church seem to be popping up everywhere.
The element in these programs that makes the biggest impact on the experience of students and leaders alike is the people in charge of them (we have a good one). Working with leaders at the church in south Louisiana to discern the work we would do together made all the difference, as a good partnership always does.
A partner you trust; immersion in a particular culture; learning that complements service; spiritual depth. These are the boxes I look to check on a youth mission trip, and it’s the time of year to start planning the one(s) for next summer.