A few weeks ago, we loaded up a van with 5 teenagers and headed out to New York City to do service projects for various ministries around the city. New York City is only about 4 ½ hours from us, which means that it’s a drive that won’t take us all day but it’s far enough away to get us out of our comfort zones. We weren’t exactly sure how we would be serving, but we encouraged the teens to be flexible and to be ready to do whatever was asked of us.
Even be a clown.
As circumstances turned out, we did end up dressing up like clowns. We were suited up with bright wigs to oversized shoes and given a crash course in how to make balloon animals. For a few hours one afternoon, our goal was to show some children and their parents, who happened to be living in a homeless shelter, the love of Jesus. That day the love of Jesus looked a lot like face painting, bracelet making, and balloon animal giving.
As youth leaders it’s easy to get caught up in our weekly events-- our Sunday mornings and our midweek evenings that it’s easy to feel like we can’t add another thing to our calendar. I can hear the faint whispers now, “Please don’t ask us to do one more thing.” And I get it. I really do. So, I’m not going to ask you to do one more thing, but I am going to share with you some of the perks I’ve experienced when going on a service project trip with some of the kids in our youth group.
Trips give you extended (parent-free) time with your teens. We took our teens on the trip over a long weekend from school-- a quick Friday through Monday. This worked out great for us. With it only being a few hours in the car each way it meant that we could spend a nice chunk of time serving. Plus, driving time doesn’t need to be wasted time. This can be a chance for bonding over radio karaoke and bulk candy. It’s in those moments that you can get to know your teens better and learn things you never knew about them (or wished you never knew about them).
Trips are a practical way to teach your teens about living a life of faith. Like I mentioned earlier, we weren’t exactly sure of everything we would be doing when we got to New York City. And even when we thought we knew what we’d be doing plans changed and we needed to be flexible. In life, we can plan and prepare all we want but there will always be moments that don’t go the way we expected at all. In those moments, we can choose to trust God and follow His lead or we can have a little tantrum. What better way to teach teens than to show them how to respond in those moments?
Trips teach us things about ourselves and about others. In asking our teens some of the things God showed them during our trip, almost all of them in one way or another shared about having their eyes opened. They saw how fortunate they were to have the life they had and they realized it through serving others. I could tell someone until I’m blue in the face that they’ve got it good, but they really won’t understand until they see if for themselves. And when they do, it will change them. I’ve seen it first-hand.
As much as we learn about ourselves though, I’ve found that these types of trips show us how to love others better. We have to learn to love those we are serving with in new ways because sometimes we are hot, tired, and hungry after a long day of serving. In those moments we can choose to give grace when a team member asks their hundredth question, or respond with a side eyed glance and sass.
In a whole though, I think it just helps us love people in general. We begin to notice that everyone has a story and that some chapters of that story have been heart breaking. It’s easy to pass judgement, but when we take the time to get to know someone and serve them it shows us they aren’t much different from us.
Since returning from our trip, I have been reminded daily about the impact it has made on ME. Sure, take your teens on a service project trip to teach them things and in order to bless others, but also take the trip because it will change you. You’ll see your teens in a way you’ve never seen before-- like strengths and skills you never knew they had. Your heart will break, again, for the lost. Your faith will increase when you see God moving in you and through you (and in and through your teens).
So, how about it? Gas up the youth van and tell the teens to pack light. Find a place to serve for the weekend, and know that God will use (all of) you to bring hope and light to dark places. It’ll change the atmosphere, your teens and most certainly you.