I just recently returned from a church mission trip to the Gulf Coast and (though I can't believe I'm saying this) I'm happy to be back in the heat and humidity of Missouri. It's nothing compared to that of Louisiana! This year we made our first attempt at an "all-church" rather than "youth-only" mission trip and we learned a few new things along the way, as well as being reminded of some things we already held to be true about what NOT to do on a mission trip:
1) Don't allow Ipods and MP3 players - You can't imagine the difference it makes when you are driving those long highway hours if you make people put away their personal listening devices and actually spend time talking to each other, singing, playing car games, and enjoying the passing sights. This doesn't mean you have to ban the electronics altogether. Just restrict them to rest and sleep times when it makes sense for everyone to be off in their own little worlds.
2) Don't forget that it's about the Work -- It's so tempting to pepper the workdays with evenings out at the local mall or amusement parks or movie theaters, or promises of some big fun day at the end of the week if everyone just keeps working. I have found that when you dangle a "fun day" at the end of the work week, the youth have a tendency to lose focus on the true ministry and purpose of the trip. Don't be afraid to make the work itself what it's all about. Help your youth see that work, particularly in the service of others, can be fun and should be enticement enough, without the promise of a Disneyland or Six Flags. Plus, there are plenty of small ways to make the week fun and to build fellowship. Share in meals together, go out for ice cream, take in a free local historical spot as the setting for your evening devotion, play games. And if you have time on the way home for an impromptu fun stop, Great! (My group took a quick detour to take photos in front of Graceland!) Just don't make it a big part of the draw of going on the trip.
3) Don't forget the most important word: Flexibility! After 20 years of mission-tripping, I can tell you that these things never come off the way you plan. You can go over every last detail in advance, spend months getting organized, and then find out that the rental company doesn't have your vans ready on time, or the mission site has booked too many groups for the week, or the adult you expected to be the biggest help turns out to have a grumpy-streak a mile wide. One thing I learned on this year's trip: youth are much more able to deal with diversity and last minute changes than adults are! The best thing you can do in advance is prepare everyone to expect the unexpected, to go with the flow, and to regularly repeat this word like it was a sacred mantra: "Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility!"
4) Don't neglect to meet God in those you are helping -- This goes without saying, I suppose, but it's such an important lesson. We go to serve and to bring God's love to others, and so often we find we are met by an even deeper and more profound faith in those we are helping. We had planned on our worksite for a week of PB&J lunches, only to discover that the woman whose mobile home we were rehabbing was treating us to homecooked Cajun food everyday! These lunches together gave us an opportunity to really get to know our host and for her to witness to us about her faith in the face of the trials she experienced during and after hurricane Rita. As you go out to bring God to others, don't forget that God is already out there waiting to greet you.
5) Don't let the day end or begin without prayer -- Keeping in mind #2 above, sometimes the group can get so caught up in the work that they forget to center themselves. On our recent trip, a few in the group were so anxious to get to the worksites in the morning that they took off without joining the rest of us for prayers and devotion time. And some of the group were so heck-bent on buying material supplies for the next day's work, they opted for an evening trip to Home Depot and skipped out on the evening devotions. It's crucial to begin and end the day with a focus on God and path of Christ that calls one to mission in the first place. It's a way, during the hectic schedule of the week of work, to remind us WHO we are and WHOSE we are.
5.5) Don't think it's all about YOU! God was at work in that mission site before your group got there and God will be at work there long after you leave. Don't burden yourself (or fool yourself) with thinking that if you don't get the work done, no one will! Bring along a good dose of humility, do what you can, and trust that God's ways of love and peace will continue in that place even after you return home.