Some trips should just be for fun and relationship building, while others should focus on discipleship, evangelism or service. Fun trips, retreats and mission trips are the three most common types of youth trips, and while each type has an inherent purpose, it must fit into an overall plan that leverages all three types of trips and their potential outcomes.
Each trip you take will build on the previous one, and it all starts with fun, recreational-type trips. Whether it’s a water park, paintballing or the world-famous ice cream shack two hours away, day trips are the building blocks of relationships.
“The overall purpose is for the students to have a positive experience around the group,” said Rob Chagdes, campus pastor at Jupiter (Fla.) Christian School and a former youth pastor of 17 years. “In those activities, that is usually the catalyst for the relationships that people form in their youth group.”
And what would a youth group be without relationships? Given its purpose, when picking what to do on a fun trip, avoid ordinary activities and ones that limit talking amongst the group.
“You want to find something that people actually want to go to,” Chagdes said. “And if you want them to have fun, you want them to have fun together. You want them to have a shared experience.”
For this reason, movies and shows should be counted out, unless the particular showing serves a purpose in your ministry. Amusement and water parks are common choices, and often times have attractive group rates. Fun centers may be more local and offer a variety of experiences, and things like laser-tag, paintball or other recreational activities are also popular. Opportunities will differ based on region, but as long as it accomplishes its purpose and the students are excited about it, feel free to be creative.
You will want to let the youth group and parents know of an upcoming trip at least a month in advance, so give yourself some time before then to flesh out the big details. From there, it’s time to promote the trip.
“Over communicate to parents,” Chagdes said. “Let them know what is going on and what the deadlines are. If you get a couple of key students invested and they know about it and are going to go, they are going to tell people about it.”
During the school year, try to have at least one fun trip every two months. Plan more if you are able to, but at most you should average one a month. While fun trips are essential to a healthy youth group, they must be kept in perspective.
“You just don’t want it to be the centerpiece of your ministry,” Chagdes said. “Because if the fun things are the centerpiece, people won’t want to come to the meaningful stuff, and you become a recreation director.”
In today’s world of youth ministry, most of the retreats taken are designated as “winter retreats” and involve snow-related activities. While there is nothing wrong with classifying a retreat this way, it has unfortunately made retreats an increasingly regional thing. Areas that lack a snowy winter may pass up on retreats altogether. But while the weather can play a part in the weekend’s activities, it should never dissuade a youth pastor from planning a weekend away.
“The real value that I see in retreats is that you have a group of students that need each other at the end of the retreat because they have had true fellowship,” said John Gunden, senior pastor of The River’s Edge Church in Caseville, Mich. and president and founder of R U Red E? Ministries.
Many youth groups do two retreats each year, one each high school semester, with one focused on discipling the group and the other aimed at evangelizing to the group and the friends that they bring along. Discipleship retreats serve as a good reality check, so consider planning one to land a month after your group goes back to school in the fall when they may need to refocus on their relationship with Christ.
“If you’re going to do a discipleship retreat, then you want to think outside the box because comfort is the opposite of growth,” Chagdes said. “You want your students to be uncomfortable a little bit. Whether that’s setting up prayer stations or worship stations or making it so they can’t talk the whole morning until the session, that’s where it starts.”
You’ll want to plan fun activities to balance out your sessions, but the focus should be on discipling your group. When January or February rolls around, have an evangelism-based retreat that revolves around something fun that your group will want to bring their friends too. Whether that is skiing, other snow-related activities, paintball, water sports or anything you may come up with, encourage your group to bring people, and then making your sessions pointed and meaningful. You may be surprised at the outcome.
Camps are the most popular places to take retreats, as they offer a change of pace and plenty of activities. Wherever you choose to take a retreat, it should be a place where your students won’t have trouble being present.
“You want a place that minimizes distractions,” Chagdes said. “The whole idea of a retreat is that you are retreating, pulling back from something. I really think that camps work the best because you go somewhere where there is nature, and it’s a different environment from the one they normally live in. There’s no TV, they’re not on the internet and so forth and you have the chance to do things outdoors. It should be a place that your students would never go to otherwise.”
You will want to give students and parents at least three months warning of an upcoming retreat. Cost can range from $100-200 based on your location and activities, so telling your group far in advance is important. Advertise the retreat as you would other events, and depending on the retreat’s purpose, encourage your group to invite their friends.
Mission trips are the most daunting trip to pull together, but they often can be the most rewarding. If planned correctly, your trip will leave a lasting impact on the community you serve, but it also will have a strong effect on your group.
“The sad truth is that students don’t always connect with Christ while they are at church growing up,” said Nick Cocalis, director of Next Step Ministries, an organization that arranges one-week mission trips for junior high and high school students. “When you get out in the mission field and you are serving and working on projects and looking outward for things to do, those are the times you are acting most like Christ and those are the times when you are most around what God is up to.”
In planning a mission trip, it’s often hard to know where to start. Where to go? What to do? Why? First, start by finding a parent organization to partner with. There are many organizations already established in communities around the globe that work with youth pastors on planning effective mission trips.
“It’s not a one-week handout that these communities need,” Cocalis said. “They need long-term investment and they need people building up their leaders and who will be there after you are gone. A one-week mission trip is not going to save a community. But if you can get involved with an organization that can take your one week and put it in a plan and a process of being there week after week and year after year, then you can really see the fruit of your labor.”
These organizations will also help you to keep the cost of your trip down and figure out all the logistics of getting there and getting things done. Safety is always a concern of parents when their child goes on a mission trip, and being connected to organization makes the trip much safer for all involved.
“Always connect with a parent organization that can keep you in the loop and keep you safe,” said Dr. Sandy Friesen, coordinator of service opportunities and intercultural studies at Evangel University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the effect of short-term missions. “You need to have a contact on the ground.”
When you have found an organization that you trust and that aligns with your group’s values and purposes, look into the trips that they have available. You will want to choose a location that your students can get excited about going to and the work to be done, and a place that is fundamentally different from where they live. If you pastor an inner-city youth group, don’t take an inner-city mission trip. Give your students a new experience that will take them out of their comfort zone and allow them to be used by God.
If it’s your first time planning a mission trip, give yourself at least a full year to pull everything together. You will want to let your group and parents know the details at least nine months out from the trip. They will need to get the week on their calendars and have time to fundraise, as mission trips can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on how far you choose to go.
Have students write support letters to raise money for the trip, and help them fundraise by planning several group fundraising activities. It can be as simple as a car wash or a bake sale, but feel free to get creative. In the months leading up to the trip, it is also crucial to spend time training your group.
“You have to sit down with your team and help them understand the place they’re going to,” Gunden said. “The demographics. The nature of the people. If it’s an international trip, they need to know the sensibilities that the people might have to Americans and our culture. Remind the team that they are guests. All those simple things.”
While it is easy to get caught up in the work you are doing, don’t forget that evangelism is at the heart of all missions. Train your group on how to share their faith with those they will encounter, and the trip could become infinitely more meaningful than planned.
“What good is it if you give a person a glass of water, but you don’t give them the living water?” Gunden said. “What good is it if you give them a piece of bread, if you don’t give them the bread of life? What good is it if you build them a house, but you don’t introduce them to Christ who is preparing them a mansion forever?”