When do you schedule the “fun” activities on your short-term mission trips?

JULY 2018
When I was in youth ministry planning mission trips, we often scheduled a short sightseeing adventure for the end of the trip. Do you do this too? Often we hoped that this time would be an incentive for the more reluctant students to join us on our trip.

I had grown so accustomed to the end-of-the-trip fun activities that I was shocked when I met a fellow youth pastor leading a group from Texas who took his students to New York City BEFORE starting their mission trip at Urban Promise, in Camden, NJ, where we were also serving.

I had to ask why, and his answer was rather nonchalant: “Because we have to be back in Texas by the next Sunday.”   I then started to question the logic behind having the “fun activities” take place at the end of a trip, as if we need some sort of materialistic reward for serving God in places of poverty.


Then, the end of our trip to Camden came, and we went on to Philadelphia to have our fun.   And it was a bit of a nightmare. Many of the students who had served selflessly throughout the week transformed into angry, frustrated adolescents complaining that they were not going to get to do what they wanted. All of a sudden, the unity  we had experienced serving on mission together had been replaced with a small-scale revolt.

Afterward I was dismayed, exhausted, and re-thinking the place of fun activities on mission trips altogether. I decided to try something different the next year. Why not do the fun activities at the beginning?

And surprise, surprise, it worked out excellently. Here’s why: At the beginning of a short-term mission trip, everyone is excited and, in my thinking, has a vested interest in bonding as a group: they are going to be together for the next several days / weeks.

At the beginning of a mission trip, students are excited about getting away from their normal lives with their parents and being around their peers. At the beginning of a trip, students also have an abundance of energy, having, in all likelihood, been sitting around a lot throughout summer break.

We also know, from recent studies, that how people remember their trip is most impacted by their last day of that trip.
Whereas, at the end of a trip: Students are exhausted, and the novelty of being around their peers has definitely worn off. (Apparently, it’s not just parents that they are ready to get away from).

The exhaustion, paired with what you might call “selfish activities,” puts students back into a consumerist mindset: “I want to do X but he wants to do Y”. This is precisely what we experienced when I was leading mission trips.

Ultimately, this can really sap the vitality and inspiration that students first experienced being on their mission trip.

We also know, from recent studies, that how people remember their trip is most impacted by their last day of the trip.

So for instance, the psychologist who discovered this has been known to cancel the last day of a vacation if he and his wife had a wonderful day toward the tail end of their trip. Thus, the stakes are rather high when it comes to short-term mission trips.

A student’s memories may be significantly impacted negatively if their last few days were filled with conflict and a lack of joy. We want students to come back inspired to serve God, not ambivalent towards the experience.

I am now a huge proponent of doing the “fun” activities at the beginning of a trip rather than at the end. The end of the trip is the ideal time for a short de-brief and preparation for re-entry, especially if you are out of the country, particularly if it is a poverty stricken area.

I recently discussed this with Jason Pfingston, founder and COO of Thirst Missions, and he reiterated the importance of preparation for re-entry. I’d suggest planning about one day for debrief activities combined simply with resting with the team (a special dinner perhaps would be great) as you prepare for the significant transition back to “normal” life.

Curious what y’all think, please leave comments below, Stu

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