“What if our whole family came along? This sounds like a great experience for all of us!”
It wasn’t that Marcos was pushy, overbearing or ultra-protective. He genuinely wanted to serve.
For the first time, Erin found herself revisiting her mental model of how a youth group mission trip could look.
Maybe you’ve faced the same kind of question, or maybe you have another kind of parent: the kind of parent who is more than happy to sign up their kids for a week away, have you take care of the details, and try to hide a smirk as he or she says, “Have fun!” as you pile into vans with kids (who balk at taking out the trash and hardly consider working eight hours a day on a service trip).
Similar to Erin, perhaps you have considered bringing along a parent or two as adult leaders for a mission trip or local service project. The thought of taking an entire family out of town, however, feels like an entirely different game—because it is. However, our work at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) reveals that this different game of involving parents and teenagers in serving together is one worth playing.
The Surprising Power of Family Service
At FYI, we get to explore what helps young people stick with faith long after high school, research we’ve called Sticky Faith.1 Outside of work, each of us has a spouse and three kids. We also believe in serving others in the name of Jesus, inside and outside the church. Yet we’ve noticed something striking: When our families of five serve, we usually serve in separate rooms or on separate trips. For the Griffins and the Powells, all five family members are serving in various ways, but we often don’t serve at the same time through the same experience.
We’ve also led a lot of youth ministry service trips, so believe us when we say there’s value in 16-year-olds side by side hammering nails or teaching the Bible to children. We wouldn’t be writing this if we didn’t think that was true.
However, it turns out that families who serve together grow in a host of other ways in their faith, too. According to research by Diana Garland with more than 7,000 Christians, families who serve together also “pray, read their Bibles, attend worship services, share their faith with others, promote justice, and give more financially than those not serving.” Serving “is the most significant and powerful contributor to faith for teenage and adult Christians.”2 In other words, the more serving becomes part of a family’s DNA, the more likely the whole family is to grow in all areas of spiritual formation.
As one mom told us in an interview, “While I wish this wasn’t the case, when I talk with my boys about how I hope they are willing to serve the Lord, they sometimes roll their eyes. When we actually serve the Lord together as a family, they never roll their eyes.”3In our own families, serving together sparks all kinds of great conversations that may never have emerged otherwise. For example, serving recently in an evening outreach program sponsored by my (Brad’s) church to local immigrant families helped open our kids’ eyes not only to the needs around them but also to their own privilege and access to resources they take for granted. Being there as a parent to be part of those experiences and insights (that frankly I’ve often had with other people’s kids) was priceless.
What’s more, when we interviewed 50 families from across the country about how they nurture Sticky Faith, we found that families who serve together tend to have churches that catalyze that service. Your church’s gateway to family engagement may be one of the most important ways you support parents.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to lead a family trip. In fact, you may be discouraged by failed experiments in this area in the past. That’s why we partnered with YouthWorks, a short-term mission organization committed to building Sticky Faith, to help create a family trip model that has been tested and refined in the past few years.4 From what we have learned, we offer the following tips as you consider developing your own trip to get families out of town together.
Before: Framing the Trip and Framing Roles
Similar to a typical mission or service trip, you will want to host a couple of parent meetings beforehand to cover critical details about where you’re going, what you’re doing, and to garner the necessary support from parents to make it happen. In addition to those parent meetings, you will want to communicate a few extra guidelines when families serve together. If possible, these meetings should include all family members who will be going on the trip, not adults only.
1. Create clear expectations about time and work.
Parents often care about the details of your daily plans, including how long you will be working and logistics related to meals and housing. You will save time and diminish failed expectations if you make an effort to communicate these logistics ahead of time and at the start of each day. If you are opening the trip to entire families and including younger children, think carefully through the schedule implications for that shift (including shorter work hours, flexible afternoons for naps, and earlier bedtime options).
2. Frame the parents’ roles as companions and fellow travelers.
In order for service to stick in the hearts and minds of their kids, parents need to assume a different posture than they probably do at home. As companions and fellow travelers, parents don’t need to be experts. They simply need to share the experience alongside their kids, remaining open to how they might grow through it. Giving families opportunities to process together during the trip (see below) will help facilitate this.
During: Notice, Talk, Relax
1. Help parents learn to notice, talk and relax.
These three skills will help parents navigate a shared service trip with style. We encourage you to teach this as a mantra that parents say to one another: “Notice, talk, relax. Notice, talk, relax”—especially when they start to become anxious. Here’s language to give them:
Notice. One of the best ways to get the most out of a family trip is to pay attention. Remind yourself throughout each day to pay attention to what’s going on with your kids—their emotions, energy and reactions—and to what God might be doing in your midst.
Talk. Take advantage of the moment, any moment, when you have a window to ask a question, point out something, or notice God together. Be sure to share your own reflections and not just to interrogate your kids in these moments. A few good questions include: What was the best part of today? What was the worst part of today? Where did you notice God today? How are you being stretched? How can I pray for you?
Relax. You are not Super-Christian Parent. You’re probably going to blow it in some way on this trip, and so will your kids. Let Jesus work through the real you and your real kids, and don’t sweat a little failure on either side.
2. Give parents and kids space to work together and apart. Few teenagers want to spend the entire day—or week—side by side with their parents. Depending on the duration and nature of your trip, consider mixing up work teams, tasks and meal arrangements so parents and kids (and siblings!) have a balance of together time and time with other adults and students.
3. Create fun, memorable experiences.
Part of the memory-making for parents and kids might include a pickup soccer game after the workday is done, late-night card competitions, or relaxing somewhere at the end of the trip. Look for easy wins and fun connections.
After: Keep up the Conversation
1. Immediately after the trip, encourage parents and students to ask questions of each other.
This is critical for the kind of processing that helps leverage what happens on a family trip to catalyze stickier service and mission every day. Here are a few questions to give parents and students immediately after and as a follow-up a week later:• What was one highlight from the trip—an experience, relationship or something that made you feel alive?• What was a lowlight for you—something that was frustrating, disappointing or not what you expected?• What’s something new you learned about God?• What did you learn about yourself?• What did you learn about our family? Did anything surprise you, make you laugh, embarrass you, or make you feel proud of our family?• What did you learn from people in the community or someone else on the trip?• What ideas do you have for how our family can serve together back at home?
2. Invite parents to one or more meetings after the trip in which you process the above kinds of questions together with the whole group.
Ask students and parents to share stories from the trip with the congregation and in their respective regular groups throughout the congregation (e.g., youth group, kids’ ministry, adult small groups, leadership teams).
3. Consider holding a separate debriefing with parents a month or so after the trip.
Gather parents’ impressions of what went well, what surprises they encountered, and what to consider for the next time. Get their input on planning the next family trip, and consider asking a parent or two to spearhead that planning for you. Repeat this process with students.
4. Plan opportunities to serve locally within a couple of months after the trip, and strongly encourage trip participants to join one of those opportunities.
Half-day or 1- to 2-hour service projects can reignite energy and conversation that wane in the face of the daily family grind. Research shows that these kinds of ongoing reminders foster long-term change in the lives of those who serve. Our bias is that this kind of personal transformation can lead to greater change in local communities and across the globe.If you’re not yet sold on the value of family trips, consider gathering a few parents to explore their thoughts about some potential first steps toward family service. Maybe the next time you find yourself in a sticky conversation such as the one Erin had, you’ll view it as an opportunity to help kids and families alike develop faith that sticks.
for more information about researches and resources to help nurture lasting faith in young people.
Based on surveys from 7,300 church members. Diana Garland, Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together
(Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2010), 42.
See Kara Powell, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 186.
If you are looking for predesigned trips whole families can experience together, YouthWorks has a host of options (see YouthWorks.com/Family
Portions of this article were adapted from Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, The Sticky Faith Service Guide: Moving Students from Mission Trips to Missional Living (Zondervan, 2016). Adapted by permission.