About a month or two after returning from a summer mission trip, I typically hear mission trip participants say these things:

“I don’t feel God here like I did there.”

“I’m forgetting things.”

“It’s starting to fade.”

These comments reveal the desire of students to remember their mission trips, experience God and serve here like they did there. They also reveal a trace of defeat—the recognition that despite their best intentions, in the midst of students’ everyday lives, remembering, reflecting and living out their mission trip experiences at home is hard. Maybe it’s even unrealistic.

Why should we expect it to be realistic for students to live out their mission trip experiences at home when in so many ways mission trips are artificial? We take students away from their homes, friends and families and put them in an environment where everyone serves and worships all the time. That’s simply not how real life is.

As a result, bridging the disconnect between life on the mission trip and life at home requires ongoing, intentional efforts long after the final payment has been made, the vans have been cleaned and the pictures have been posted on Facebook.

To help bridge this gap, continue processing the trip not just on the way home but months after you’ve returned. Reunite your team two to four months after returning from your trip. Share pictures, tell stories and continue reflecting on these key questions:

• When you think about the trip, whose face do you see?
• What has been difficult about returning home from our trip?
• How has your experience on the mission trip influenced how you see life at home?
• What did God teach you through the trip?
• What passion did God ignite in you on the trip?
• How do you want to live differently now as a result of the trip?

Once you’ve processed as a group, process individually with those students particularly impacted by the trip, as well as with those struggling with re-entry. Let students know that even as others get tired of hearing about their trip, you will not. Affirm that students can talk to you as long and as often as they need to about their experience.

To further connect the mission trip with real life at home, involve parents. Have students blog throughout your trip so parents have a window into the experience their kids are having. If a blog is not possible, within a week after returning home, send a letter to parents. Tell parents about what you did, how God moved and what the team learned. Doing either (or both) of these things will help parents understand and relate to their kids’ experience. Providing parents with details they might not otherwise have also sets them up for good conversations with their kids. Then facilitate a night of reflection between parents and students. Give students the opportunity to share mission trip stories with parents. Challenge them to dream together about how they might serve as a family.

Finally, help students live out their mission trip experience at home by incorporating ongoing service into your youth ministry calendar. This makes serving a lifestyle rather than a week-long event, especially when you involve entire families. To connect local service projects to your mission trip and further fuel the passions that students discovered while on the trip, find ways to serve at home that resemble how you served on your mission trip. If students served the elderly on your trip, set up a weekly or monthly time to visit or lead a regular program at a local nursing home. If students learned about the homeless population, serve at a local food pantry or soup kitchen. If students repaired homes or painted, connect with a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity or work with your pastor to identify families within your congregation who might be open to having youth assist them with basic repairs. If students did kids ministry, assess your own community. Identify needs and find ways to meet them. Consider how your church might partner with community schools to provide tutoring or a weekly after-school program for local children.

Through processing, connecting with parents and incorporating regular service events into your ministry calendar, your post-mission conversations will change. Rather than be consumed with preserving mission trip memories, students will become consumed with the desire to serve. Instead of hearing students despair, “I don’t feel God here like I did there,” you’ll hear them celebrate how God is continuing to move in and through them in their own communities.

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About The Author

Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.