Eight lessons learned on a mission trip

Eight lessons learned on a mission trip

Case, Steve

So you’ve got a great Plan A for your group’s next mission trip? Well, God is all about Plan B’s. Here’s what one veteran youth leader learned about maximizing the impact of a mission trip in his kids’ lives.

It was supposed to be a straightforward little urban outreach trip. We fly in the cheap seats to Washington, D.C., spend three days working for some social service organizations, see a few tourist attractions, and come hoe. But our Plan A trip quickly deconstructed into a strictly Plan B, C, and D trip.

Jesus said, “I am the way,” but he never drove his disciples through our nation’s capital in a 15-passenger van during rush hour.’ I’m not saying he couldn’t have done it. But on our fifth merry-go-round ride around Dupont Circle, Jesus’ Way was not the street sign I was looking for.

And that’s what happens on mission trips-sometime, somewhere, somehow, you’ll have to fly by the seat of your pants. That’s basically God’s strategy for helping you and your teenagers actually learn something. Here I’ve cataloged the lessons we learned when our best-laid plans turned to mulch. We did not die because of this experience, therefore, we are stronger people.


You might have a great game plan for your mission trip, but never mistake planning for performance-you still have to play. Things are going to happen that are beyond your control, and you’ll need to divert from your plan to stay in the game.

After an encouraging problem-free flight, we landed in D.C. and discovered our “guaranteed” rental van was missing in action. I spent an hour “on hold” on a pay phone, listening to songs from the Island of Misfit Music, We eventually took a $90 cab ride from the airport to the church that was our home base for the week. Of course, our contact wasn’t there to meet us, and one of my young people jimmied an “open” door. I called the property manager from the church office and asked, “Where are we sleeping?”

We had to rearrange our first-day schedule so we could get transportation and food. Once we did that, the commitments on our itinerary fell like a line of dominoes. We actually started out the week with no idea what we would do the rest of the week.


After we found a van to rent, we spent the remainder of our first day at a transitional apartment complex for homeless and low-income families. The managers had two apartments that needed to be cleaned before new families moved in. Our job was to scrub them from the ceiling to the baseboards. I doubt they’d been cleaned in a year.

I wanted the experience to be memorable for my kids. I wanted them to appreciate what they were doing. But spurring growth in your teenagers is like planting a seed and begging it to grow-you can’t will it to happen. The best we can do is give kids the truth, then let the truth do its own work.


After hours of sweaty work scrubbing the apartments clean, we returned to the church to shower. Then we left to find some supper. We got lost in Georgetown (again) and eventually wound up at the Little China Cafe not too far from our church. The place had only 15 chairs, and we occupied 11 of them. Instead of ordering individually, we ordered several plates of “group food” and everybody had some. In some cases, kids were eating off each other’s plates.

Nothing brings the defensive walls down quite like sweating next to someone. At the table that night, we laughed and

1 Three words of advice about tripping in Washington, D.C.-take the Metro subway to wherever you’re going, make sure you leave time for a Smithsonian excursion, and stop at the Little China Caft in Georgetown to sat. Oh, if you’re looking for some basic information on the nation’s capital, go to pe.net/~rksnow/dc.htm.

talked and began the process of becoming a group. We ate there a second night and several of my teenagers bought official Little China Cafe T-shirts. Sitting around that table, I could feel them starting to jell.


Thursday we went to work for an organization called For Love of Children2. Their office is in a converted YMCA-they help find foster parents for kids who are taken out of abusive homes. Our job was to make 1,000 bookmarks advertising the service. At first it seemed like a relief from the backbreaking cleaning of the day before, but I could sense a “What good is this?” attitude in the room. The director explained that they typically find one foster home for every 300 contacts (phone calls or visits). And our 1,000 bookmarks might produce 300 contacts. So our work there on that one afternoon could get one child out of a dangerous situation.

By the end of our scheduled shift, we’d completed only 740 bookmarks. So, again, we ditched our schedule and stayed until the job was done. Because of that, a few of my kids wound up playing basketball with some foster kids.


The old saying goes: “You can say things while you’re doing the dishes that you can’t say at the dinner table.” There’s something about keeping your hands busy that paves the way for conversation. Prior to our trip, I visited the U.S. Toy Company’, where you can buy cool toys by the gross. I bought a gross each of “stacking waiters” and “finger poppers.” I pulled these out for the kids to play with while we talked, and it helped grease our communication.


There’s a lot of debriefing to do on a mission trip. Some of your teenagers may never have experienced anything like it. In science class you learn what happens when you add molecules to a small space-they start bouncing off each other until something breaks. There’s a youth ministry principle in there. So we scheduled a morning at the Smithsonian Institution. It was not a tour. We simply said, “Be back at noon.” That gave our kids desperately needed breathing room. And everybody should have a chance to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

It’s also important to give your group members time to process their experiences without you in the room. We arrived back at our home base late one night. It had been a long day, and we’d spent a lot of time wandering in the van. So I let them stay up late, and I found a corner to rest in. They spent a few minutes tossing basketballs in the church gym, but eventually sat down together to talk about the week. I know they were also talking about me. My advice: Don’t listen. Respect their privacy.


We love teenagers-sometimes like they’re our own children. We want to shelter them from all that is nasty and ugly. But as youth workers, we sometimes put our kids in situations they’d never be in on their own, That’s part of the job.

On Friday our job was to clean apartments and visit senior citizens at an apartment building run by Emmaus Services for the Aging.4 On our walk from the Emmaus center to the apartment building, we stopped when we saw an arm sticking out from under some shrubs near a house. Mark, the center’s director, went to check on the man lying there. I was sure he was dead. But the man roused himself long enough to say something in Spanish before closing his eyes again.

Later several of my teenagers sorted through the apartment of Mr. Bay, a man who had died just a few days before we arrived. Mr. Bay had lived on every continent, spoke several languages, and somewhere along the way became mentally ill. Emmaus Services got him an apartment after he lost his home. He had no family and no friends, so my kids became his “next of kin.” They sorted through the mountain of things he’d squirreled away over the years. Imagine the shopping carts you see homeless people pushing-now multiply that to fill an apartment.

Meanwhile, I went with one of my group members, Padrick, to visit Mrs. Staples. Born in 1905, Mrs. Staples had worked as a baby sitter for worn`iin in her neighborhood the first day women were allowed to vote. She was now in a wheelchair-her apartment floor was covered with urine, and her kitchen was filthy. A robber once broke into her apartment, but she refused to give the attacker her money. She also refused to move. She had no family-her last child had died a month before. All Mrs. Staples had that day was us. Padrick and I cleaned her kitchen, scrubbed her floor, and asked her questions about her life.

If there were no Emmaus Services, people like Mrs. Staples would either be dead or on the street. And we must let our kids taste that reality firsthand. Down the street from the $2million-dollar homes, Mrs. Staples still waits for her next visit.


During the time he was working on “the bomb,” Albert Einstein made his staff stop every day at 5:00 to watch Beanie and Cecil,’ a TV cartoon show hosted by two hand puppets. Einstein believed the key to his success was his ability to walk away from his work and exercise a different part of his brain. When we traveled to D.C., we’d planned to spend one full day at a Six Flags amusement park. It wasn’t a reward for working so hard-it was an emotional and spiritual necessity.

I was more prepared for this trip than any I’ve ever planned. But really nothing happened as I’d envisioned. Over the years I’ve noticed that the more confident I am about my own leadership, the harder I get smacked in the back of the head. I think it’s easier to trust yourself instead of God when you think you’ve got everything under control. But God has a way of reminding you he’s in charge. If God wants you to learn, you’ll learn. If God wants you to see something, you’ll see it.

Elijah stood on the mountain and looked for God in the tornado, the earthquake, and the fire. But God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice that blew like a gentle breeze. We want our teenagers to experience life-changing adventures, but more than likely God is going to speak to them in that still, small voice. And that could be the touch of an old person’s hand, the smell of disinfectant as they scrub a filthy floor, or those quiet, unplanned, late-night conversations. In the chaos that surrounds your mission trip, be still and know that he is God.

Steve Case is a veteran youth minister in Florida and a frequent contributor to group. After he got a few angry letters about his “Reinventing Halloween” article in our September/October 2000 issue, a few happy readers wrote

that his ideas were just great. So Steve is in a perfect state of balance.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Mar/Apr 2001

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