Should you encourage your teen to travel internationally on a church mission trip? Absolutely! Better question yet, why don’t you join them?
I grew up going on at least one mission trip to Mexico every summer of my high school youth group years, and even joined a medical mission trip to Honduras during college. These experiences were truly the highlight of my teen years and provided some of my favorite memories and friendships. Then I didn’t go until my own teen was in the youth group. That’s twenty years of not prioritizing because of job, family, and real life. If for no other reason, let your kids go while they have the time and the ability. Once you’re officially “adult”, life just gets in the way.
Through international travel, I learned to love other cultures, to immerse myself in Spanish, and to see the benefit of travel. I want my children to grow up with the same experiences. Raising kids isn’t all about GPA and travel sports and how many college hours they complete in high school. If I send out my high schooler to be self-centered, afraid of the new, and tethered to Mommy’s cell phone, have I really prepared them to be a God-honoring, self-serving young adult? The big picture needs to be the focus.
Do Mission Trips Make Mom Nervous?
Releasing our kids to the world is scary. I get it. If it’s too scary, go with them and have your own eyes opened.
Twenty years ago, before the days of ever-present cell phone contact, none of my youth group was lost or maimed… or there wouldn’t have been more trips. The mission trips of my youth group didn’t have statistics to research and extensive facts posted on the computer. We couldn’t read about their safety rankings or the list of countries on the do-not-travel list. I do think that while important, as I said, to research. These also give us fodder to all kinds of unrealistic risks.
Yes, be cautious. Yes, discuss risks with your children. Yes, stay in groups when you go to the bathroom, and keep your luggage closely guarded. Do the research. Don’t take unreasonable risks… but be reasonable. Their risk of serious life-altering injury or kidnapping or disaster is so much smaller than the benefit.
What are the Benefits of Mission Trips?
As parents, especially parents of teens, it’s easy to focus on the dangers and risks. However, this mom is learning her lessons. These hard experiences are the true growth – both spiritually and mentally – that our kids need to prepare them for the world.
They’ve been learning about geography and cultures – now they need to visit it.
They’ve been struggling to see why they need to learn a foreign language – let them experience it.
They’ve been molded into lifelong learners – push them to see what they need to know.
Mission trips are an amazing opportunity for so much growth. How much better to let them experience another country than in a controlled, large-group environment?
- Risk of personal growth – 100%
- Risk of seeing Jesus and the church differently – 100%
- Risk of forming lifelong bonds with church friends – 100%
- Risk of wanting to go on another international trip – 100%
They will serve, be served, have their eyes opened, appreciate home more… They may meet Montezuma’s revenge or have translation issues. They may learn to appreciate air conditioning and get dehydrated. They might have their bus break down on the side of a Honduran highway, but things like that happen even at home.
Should Every Kid Go on a Mission Trip?
Your kid needs to know that you trust and believe in their ability to travel abroad without them. However, if you don’t trust and believe in them, they shouldn’t be allowed to go. Not every kid is emotionally or spiritually ready to participate in a mission trip or international travel. The adults and youth minister should not have to babysit them. If your kid doesn’t respect the authority or will bring mischief to the group, they are not ready.
Most of the time, it isn’t are they ready but are you ready. As parents, we have such a hard time thinking of our kids as “old enough,” but this may be the life event that makes them ever more independent.
But I Won’t Be Able to Talk to My Kids…
These days, your kid can get an international cell-phone plan, and you can hover micro-manage as much as you want. But you shouldn’t.
Even if you pay for international phone coverage, it doesn’t guarantee that they will be in a city that has good coverage. Even if there is an emergency, what are you going to be able to do about it other than worry and stress from afar. Are you going to hop onto an airplane and help them when they got separated from the group? Are they going to call you every time there’s a problem, or are they going to be forced to figure it out on their own? They will miss out on real things of the trip because now they have to go give you the run down on the day – you just can’t wait to hear about it. It’s a distraction not a help.
The leaders will have their cell phones for emergency. Ask them to send out a group text to the at-home parents letting everyone know that the group has safely arrived in country. Even if the leader for some reason doesn’t have a working cell phone, you can have the emergency contact for the group they are working with in country. Or their email or Facebook. In case of a real emergency, there will be someone you or your church will be able to contact.
Often times, I feel like if you wait a day or so to tell your kid of the at home “emergency,” you will realize it wasn’t that urgent. It’s not going to help your child in Uruguay to know that Granddad is back in the hospital for his kidneys or that the dog is lost. That just gives him something to worry about. Save the emergency phone calls for “You have to come home ASAP,” and otherwise, plan to see them in a week.
Remember too, if they have a phone with them, they will still have wi-fi access when available. They can use this to call you over apps or send you a quick text. If they do get separated for some reason, they can find a hotel with Wi-Fi, make a friend, and wait for the group. But do please talk to them about not using it. They’re on this trip for a reason – scrolling Instagram is not the reason.
What Can I Do to Prepare My Teen for International Missions?
Apart from just spouting scary statistics, you do need to prepare your kid. Ignorance of risks is not bliss- it’s just ignorance. On this last mission trip to Honduras in 2022, I felt a lot better after meeting the group and seeing the quality of people going. One person’s bad choices can put everyone else’s safety at risk. The weakest links need to be cut.
Make sure everyone understands the true purpose of the trip. This is not a travel adventure to see the world or to make a documentary or to learn how “the other half” lives. You should be going because God led you and not because you think it will be fun. When you keep that in perspective, all your nice stuff can stay at home. Minimize the risk.
- Talk them through passports and airport security if they’ve never flown internationally.
- Watch safety videos on how to avoid a kidnapping – drop to the ground and hold on to the attackers legs.
- Look up statistics of the country, language, native peoples, special foods, and customs.
- Learn about the currency and discuss exchange rates. How can they more easily remember how much it’s worth?
- Show them how to carry their bags over their chests instead of their back.
- Help them come up with safe places to hide money and discuss the need to put it in several different places.
- Discuss “blending in” as much as possible. Now is not the time for the latest purse and designer sunglasses. Leave the rings at home.
- Consider taking clothes and shoes that you will leave there to donate. That’s a great use of space to make you more appreciative.
- Buddy up with a travel partner and talk about why they need to stay with others at all times. Now is the time for girls to potty in groups.
- Hand out emergency contact phone numbers and addresses in country just in case they are separated.
- Register your group with the embassy in that country. Get the phone number for emergency contact and keep it nearby just in case.
Another Note About International Phones
Despite the lack of need, I was hesitant to take my iPhone. The husband wanted me to take an older phone – I wanted my podcasts and better camera and sound machine… and I might be a bit stubborn. Once I won that battle, I planned to “keep it hidden” it in my bag unless it was being used. My forty-year-old self was recalling travel as a twenty year old when no one at all would have had a cell phone. I remember the kid on my college mission trip who had this new thing called a “digital camera.” Remember the internet cafes that felt so fancy at the time?
However, this is now 2022. Everyone in the Honduran small towns had out their own cell phones. In my view, having one no longer makes you a target. Yes, be safe and see what kind of travel coverage you have just in case you drop it in a river or it flies out of your hand going down the road. But I personally wouldn’t hesitate to keep the phone with you for safety reasons specifically.
I hope this makes you feel a little better about international mission travel. With some preparation, it truly can be one of the best things your teen does in their young life. If none of this makes you feel better, I’m sure your group would love another involved adult to support and help on the trip. You might just come back better for it – and be ready to go back soon.