For the past 50 years, thousands of Christian teens and adults from all denominations have volunteered for short term mission trips. Short term mission trips, ranging anywhere from a week to a year, are relatively recent in the history of global missions. At one time, missionaries had to receive extensive training before going to share their faith in areas where Christianity was not practiced. They departed to live abroad for years at a time, recognizing they might not ever be coming back.
But since the 1970s, church groups and parachurch organizations have increasingly mobilized young people for these ventures, harnessing their natural energy and enthusiasm. Parents or other responsible adults organize and accompany the teams. Teen Missions International pioneered the idea of short-term missions experience for teens. Since 1971, tens of thousands of youth have participated in TMI’s evangelistic and building projects in over 110 countries! Typical project time for teens is four to five weeks, allowing many work teams to complete significant projects.
An opportunity to serve those who are clearly less fortunate is a powerful incentive to join these expeditions. Teams from Teen Missions International, for example, have built hundreds of buildings, churches, schools, and orphanages. They’ve cleared jungle airstrips, built a hospital, and drilled fresh water wells that have changed the lives thousands. But in addition to providing valuable assistance to others, the members of a TMI mission team benefit personally. Opportunities to share their faith while living among other people groups will impact teens for a lifetime, resulting in an ongoing passion to support outreach worldwide.
Teen Missions is an interdenominational organization. The staff comes from a variety of backgrounds and has worked with hundreds of mission boards and church denominations. Projects and locations are diverse – travel can take place via mission planes, horseback, backpacking on foot, dirt bikes, boats, and more. TMI’s summer team projects are diverse and located on nearly every continent. Teens are able to choose from widely assorted areas of interest and skill levels, from evangelism teams sharing Christ using film, music, puppets, drama, and clowning, to work teams building airstrips, orphanages, or churches.
Volunteers are always eager to go despite the fact that most have to raise their own funds, and trust God for provision, in order to participate. Incorporated into each team member’s support cost is a portion for two donations: to buy needed building materials, and to help sponsor a national teen in an overseas Boot Camp. There’s fun, camaraderie, and adventure, but there’s also much hard work. Teen Missions’ 200+ acre training facility, The Lord’s Boot Camp, is not a vacation spot. It’s a place for teens to be stretched and learn before being be sent out to do projects in their various locations.
Teamwork is emphasized through participation in the Obstacle Course and other training activities. There’s required training in basic construction, evangelism, music, drama, and spiritual and practical survival skills. Even beyond these areas, there may be special teams who receive more focused training – including but not limited to Teaching English as a Second Language(TESL), film teams, motorcycle training, sports and medical missions. Some will receive additional cultural training for travel to sensitive countries or cultures. The training period ends with a special candlelight commissioning service, before the departure to their specific projects and locations. As a result of training and disciplining, teens will experience growth not only as individuals, but also as valued members of a team. Debriefing at the end of each trip leads youth to put what they’ve learned into practice when they’re back home.
Mission trips benefit teens as individuals:
Almost invariably, short term missions reframe a participant’s perspective on life. As teens leave western culture behind, an often overwhelming realization is how much comfort and excess is enjoyed by those of us from prosperous nations compared to the unpredictable way in which the rest of the world is forced to live.
It’s easy to forget that we’re incredibly well off by the world’s standards. Youth often remark that leaving behind normal routines to be immersed in another culture caused them to stop taking home, parents, and belongings for granted. They quit complaining about small inconveniences, better appreciating all they’ve been given.
Witnessing firsthand that happiness isn’t the same as joy
A second discovery that impacts teens is observing people living in less than desirable conditions who still experience an abundance of joy – an inward trait not dependent on external circumstances or fleeting emotions.
Happiness comes and goes as circumstances change, but joy is consistent. It’s a valuable life lesson to stay among individuals who recognize that a fulfilling life isn’t based on what they own or how easily their needs are met.
Opportunities to focus on God
In the midst of a busy mission schedule and physical exertion, there’s a sense of moment-by-moment dependence on God that isn’t required for the routines of life back home. Challenges overflow. Endurance is required. Food is unfamiliar. Lack of sleep is common because of full agendas, unfamiliar surroundings, and temperature fluctuations.
Teens and adults find they pray differently, pray more often, and pray desperately on these trips. Conditions or the workload can be rugged. Expect to be stretched. Expect dirt and cultural differences you hadn’t anticipated. It’s understandable to be nervous when sharing your faith and feel a great desire for divine help.
Needs are many and illness is common, especially in third world countries. Prayer may be needed on the spot for unusual situations, or for wisdom to know what to say. A simple “Help, Lord” is very appropriate at times! Impressions from the Holy Spirit can contribute to making wise decisions.
Probably not surprisingly, a large number of TMI’s mission trip alumni have ended up in full-time Christian ministry serving in a variety of countries as missionaries, pastors, teachers, or authors.
Multiple other life lessons abound
Teens learn boldness and leadership skills as they step out to meet diverse needs. Time management is essential to fit in all that’s been planned. Learning to be flexible and give thanks in all circumstances is required frequently.
Deeper heart lessons are learned too. Placing others’ needs before your own requires putting selfishness to death. Visiting the poor and sick eases teens out of their comfort zone. Missions trips provide opportunities to practice empathy and compassion – helping those less fortunate for the sheer joy of it.
Preaching or teaching forces teens to trust God to overcome fear and insecurity and stop focusing on themselves. Part of the journey to adulthood is recognizing that mistakes, failure, and even rejection, are inevitable, but learning from negative experiences is just as valuable as success.
The gospel transcends culture and social status, and it’s not going to be defeated by mistakes that teens make!
Missions trips teach teens valuable team skills
Team building is essential for successful missions trips
These trips allow kids to work and fellowship with believers from around the world. Perhaps for the first time, they’ll be living openly as a Christian, realizing the weight of each person modeling their faith for the good of others.
Team building, a crucial part of TMI’s approach, can be implemented even before a missions trip for those teens who are already connected through a particular church or youth group. Part of the missions team adventure is the sheer enjoyment of being with friends in a new environment.
If possible, meeting a few times before the trip helps everyone to focus on specific goals. Those times together will be a good foundation for the further intensive training that Teen Missions provides. Participation in TMI’s team building approach make excellent use of the natural energy young people have.
Team preparation serves everyone
Activities completed beforehand, and/or during the first days of the trip, help to forge stronger bonds and the ability to work well together. Team building pulls in those who are tempted to stay on the fringe of involvement and allows adults to get to know the young people they’ll be working with.
In unfamiliar countries, it’s even more important to have everyone working as a team. Looking out for each other’s welfare is crucial. Cross-cultural education is a must to avoid offense or misunderstandings. Discussions about possible obstacles and role-playing what to do or say in various scenarios can feel a bit awkward at first but will help participants to set out feeling more prepared.
Team building activities and games to implement
Well ahead of time, it’s helpful to reproduce some of the things teens may be expected to do on the trip. Cook meals together, including clean up. Plan activities for reaching young children. Take turns sharing meaningful scriptures or sharing personal testimonies before the group. Pray together. Have teens prepare and share a 3 to 5-minute talk on a topic related to faith.
Games are great team builders, too, and should involve everyone. Keep these fun, fast-moving and interactive. Google “easy blindfold games for team building”, and you’ll have loads to choose from! Playing name games can ensure everyone is on a first name basis.
Team building creates trust and better communication
Quite a bit of time and effort goes into team building for missions, but it yields results which make the endeavor worthwhile. Time spent preparing equals fewer potential problems. Team members get to know each other’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses ahead of time rather than wasting time during the trip to reach joint collaboration.
Creativity is fostered when the entire group contributes to planning and execution, and each person has many opportunities to use their skills and God-given gifts. Friendships grow and many are forged that will last for a lifetime.
Understanding the realities and limitations of mission trips
The reality teens must grasp is that they are guests visiting for a prescribed amount of time.
It’s natural to join a mission team with lofty goals – to radically change people’s lives, introduce them to Jesus, to seek and save the lost.
But if “sharing the gospel” is the only focus, results could be short-lived. The team members are also there to plants seeds that may result in locals accepting Christ at some point in the future. Practical projects plus generous deeds help to plant seeds that can yield long-term results!
It’s becoming clearer that the most effective short-term mission teams are those that arrive to support a local group of believers reaching out to their own people. The more support that’s given to believers who live there year-round, the more likely it is that lasting fruit will be borne. Teen Missions International supports local ministries and training, which helps to ensure the impact is long-term.
Working with local church leaders will open unforeseen opportunities for future trips and could lead to lifelong relationships. It’s very moving for teens to experience the miracle of belonging to a worldwide fellowship of believers – it’s a glimpse of what heaven will be like!
Should my teen participate at this time?
Sending a son or daughter out of the country is uncharted territory for many parents. A parent should believe the timing and location are right for their teen so they can be at peace about sending them. (You could always volunteer to go as a leader, too!)
Make sure you’ve considered important questions before committing your teen. Don’t be shy if you feel you need additional information. TMI has well-trained, vetted leaders on their staff and heading up all of their trips. You’ll want to know:
- Who’s leading, and who will the team be partnering within this location?
- Have safety measures been taken into consideration both for travel and the time spent there?
- What communication will be possible during the trip?
- What exactly will the teens be doing?
With Teen Missions International, each team member truly makes a difference – through work projects, through personal or team evangelism, and through providing financial support for local ministries and training. But even if teens aren’t able to go on a mission trip to another country right now, they can learn to approach everyday life as a mission God has given them.
The people living right in their hometown need to be changed for eternity too. Who knows what could be accomplished by teens who’ve learned to live for the glory of God instead of themselves?
The aim of Teen Missions International is spelled out clearly: “The goal of Teen Missions is to awaken teenagers to the needs in missions, acquaint them with the reality of life on the mission field and give them an opportunity to serve the Lord through work projects and evangelism.” For more information on specific trips go here.