By: Jann Treadwell

All of us want to make a difference in the lives of others. This can occur as we follow Christ’s mandate to serve those in need. That said, youth leaders hope service projects also will make a difference in the faith and lives of our own youth, not just the recipients. Short-term youth mission trips have the potential to accomplish both, but several factors are important to consider.

Before the trip, be intentional to dispel the notion that “WE” are going there to help “THEM.” This is a prevalent impression among those in our more privileged world. Ministry is to be a partnership between us and the recipients, a concept that can be explored in the Lazarus story in Luke 11 when Jesus tells the people to “unbind him and let him go.” We can unbind those in need in multiple ways, but the reverse is true as well. On each of my 29 trips, I have been the one who has been unbound to the greater degree by those we came to serve.

Each morning of the trip, invite the youth to pay attention to times when God is at work. Reinforce this at the end of each day by soliciting stories about the impact that the local people or their friends had on them. Trip leaders should be alert to the moments they might verbalize faith awareness and moments when they need to step back and let the Holy Spirit work. Plan for youth-led devotions to start the day and Bible study or worship in the evenings to remind them why we do what we are doing. It also gives them opportunities to share their own insights on faith and life.

To my mind, there are two factors that raise the comfort level of the youth so they are more open to the Spirit’s work and so they feel free to share their struggles and observations: a sense of community, and adults who have no agenda other than caring about the youth. Sponsors help set the tone of openness and acceptance, so hand-pick them with care rather than offer an open invitation to the congregation for volunteers.

Building community takes many forms. Affirmation cards can be taken home to read over and over, an important boost to often fragile egos. Draw names for secret prayer during the week, then at closing worship, reveal who you had and what you observed about that person. To handle chores and meal prep and cleanup at the facility where you are staying, assign duties by pairing up those who do not know each other well. Play games at the end of the day. Schedule a day or afternoon off to do something fun: rafting, visiting a civil rights museum, hiking to a waterfall, watching the parade of ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Create memories from that location.

Another concern is to make sure your accommodations have a gathering space for your community building. Staying in a motel with no place to gather and play games and talk about the day can limit the group building.

Each of these ideas are described in detail in my book, Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips, along with other group building activities, pitfalls to watch for, a calendar for planning what to do when, and stories from past participants as to how the trips impacted their lives and their faith. In addition, there is a resource section that offers such things as:

  • Two sample Bible study/worship booklets
  • Budget worksheet
  • Sample medical release form
  • Outline for an orientation meeting with youth, parents, and sponsors
  • Generic grocery list, a supply list, etc.

Finally, the book contains a password that allows web access to all of the above items as Word documents, so you can make them your own.

To purchase the book or see reviews, simply go to the website:

At the end of the day, my hope is that your mission trips will enable your youth to be touched by God’s Spirit, to be strengthened in their faith and their desire to serve in Christ’s name, and to broaden their world view through relationships built with the local recipients. Transformation can indeed happen on such trips.

Jann Treadwell is a retired certified educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and author of Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips. She lives in Dallas, TX, and you can contact her at