When I first began my role in youth ministry, I didn’t understand why our church wasn’t following the traditional mission trip model. Instead of one large trip for the entire youth group each summer, kids could choose from several trips based on their age and experience. At first I advocated strongly for a single trip that would bring everyone together for a joint experience. Four years later, I’m eating my words. I’ve seen the tremendous value of the system I initially wanted to scrap. Offering trips to several locations allows us to maximize ministry and learning for all students. It also reduces the average price per student, as many trips are close to home. Here are six things I’ve learned as we’ve developed our program.

1. An application process communicates trips are a privilege, not a right.

We ask students basic questions about their experiences on trips, why they want to participate, and whether their parents are supportive. Then we ask them to indicate their first and second choices. We’ll do whatever we can to make sure each student who wants to participate has a spot on a trip, but we don’t guarantee each will get his first choice. We’re committed to honoring the ministries and churches with which we partner and doing whatever we can to ensure the trip is positive for students and leaders alike. This approach means we sometimes need to redirect a student to a trip that will be a better fit.

2. Sharing funds across the board makes trips more accessible to everyone.

It may seem odd to expect a student and her family to pay for only a fraction of a trip’s cost, but we’ve found that sharing fundraising efforts creates a sense of community and support among all our teams. We determine a reasonable percentage for families to pay (this amount varies from trip to trip) and then we raise the rest through an annual golf classic and letter-writing campaign. Each student is expected to send 20 letters to family and friends asking for prayer and financial support, but the donations we receive go to the general fund to support all students on their trips. For those who can’t afford the family payment, we provide scholarships. Handling the finances this way helps to level the playing field for all students, diminishing any sense of entitlement.

3. Local trips are a productive way to introduce students to service at a low cost.

Currently we run two local trips, one for middle school and another for high school students. On both trips students work with our partner ministries in surrounding towns. We’ve found these trips open students’ eyes to the needs in our own community and set the tone that you don’t have to travel far to engage in ministry.

4. It’s not practical to take every student overseas.

In their book Raising Girls, Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff explain that underclassmen are often in a “narcissistic” phase of development in which they’re concerned with how the world affects them and with what others think. Meanwhile, upperclassmen are often in an “autonomous” phase in which they’re concerned with their big-picture purpose and how to affect the world around them. I can talk about sustainability and empowerment all week long, but I’ve found when I ask about a trip’s takeaway, students in the narcissistic phase tend to make remarks like, “I’m just so thankful I have electricity and running water!” Those in the autonomous stage, on the other hand, tend to see the need and examine how God is calling them to respond. They often say things like, “I’m blown away by the poverty we saw this week. What needs to change in my life in order to make a difference?” We celebrate these differences in the emotional and spiritual development of our students and seek to plan trips that accommodate both stages. Because of the emotional preparedness of older students to engage with deeper issues and apply what they experience, we devote the largest portion of our funds to two trips geared specifically to them. One of these is a regional trip to Joni and Friends Family Retreat, where our students care for children with special needs so that physically and emotionally drained families can enjoy a break. Many students who have participated in this trip continue to serve there even after graduating from high school, and a significant number are pursuing special education degrees as a result. The other is our one international trip to Nassau, Bahamas, where our students engage a community of Haitians mired in abject poverty.

5. Students need to know it’s not all about them.

On the Nassau trip, I regularly remind students they’re not Great White Saviors. We’re trying to develop a meaningful partnership, not contribute to an unequal power dynamic that perpetuates the poverty cycle. Because they’re mostly juniors and seniors, they can handle these sorts of conversations and usually become quite excited about encouraging local leadership. We talk regularly about how we can do more to empower our friends, help break the poverty cycle, and engage in increasingly sustainable ways. If students come away from a trip considering some of these factors, I feel confident they’ll continue to grow in their understanding of what it means to be part of the global church.

6. Never underestimate what students can do.

Participants at Joni and Friends are always amazed at our students’ ability to connect with kids who have special needs despite the fact they’re not formally trained. And in Nassau this year, I watched one of our students fearlessly facilitate reconciliation between a Haitian teenager and the pastor’s wife, the matriarch of the entire Haitian community. Another student administered first aid to an adult leader who got injured, pausing at a critical moment to pray for his recovery and peace. These are the kinds of things we should expect from students all the time. Unfortunately, our culture has prolonged adolescence, coddling students and continuing to lower expectations for their contributions in society and in the church. As we send them out to serve in concentrated ways, we’re reminded that we should be accustomed to seeing them join God in the impossible.