5 Most Impactful Youth Mission Trips

Many youth pastors and leaders have had a number of mission trip experiences either as a student or as a leader, so who better to ask about which ones have been the most impactful?

In this blog post, you’ll find:

  1. Local Mission Trips
  2. International Mission Trips
  3. Mission Work in a “Big City”
  4. Youth Summer Camp Missions
  5. Mission Trip to Alaska
  6. Bonus: Words of Advice

1. Local Mission Trips

Local Mission Trip
Local mission “trips” or service projects have recently increased in popularity due to travel restrictions and caution from COVID-19.

Many teens are eager to help where they can, and oftentimes they don’t have to go far. In fact, sometimes working with local communities can be the most impactful mission trip. Being able to see the impact the teens have made in a neighboring community on a day-to-day basis is unforgettable.

The coronavirus pandemic has also lead many churches to only consider domestic mission trips (service trips in their home country). In 2021, ThereforeGo Ministries is only offering domestic mission trips or at-home mission trip opportunities; even though normally, we provide mission trips for teens to destinations in both the USA and Canada.

Student Ministries Director Lucas Johnson from Pillar Church, finds his youth have been most impacted by this type of trip.

“I like to believe all the mission trips we do are impactful. However, two local trips stick out the most: a trip to Detroit, working with Youthworks and a Younglife trip to Timberwolf Lodge, babysitting for teen moms while they got training and time away. It was awesome to see the students making an impact in their own state and feeling led to serve.”

Find Mission Trip Locations for Youth Groups »
Get Help Planning Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip »

2. International Mission Trips

Sometimes it is all too easy to become comfortable in our daily lives, with everything at the tips of our fingers. Many other countries don’t have the same accessibility that we have. This makes international mission trips some of the most humbling experiences.

When it comes to an international trip, the possibilities are endless. So many countries can benefit from the spiritual guidance and efforts of members of the Christian community.

Student Ministries Pastor Chuck Zook from Summit Church, says his trips to build homes in Mexico are the ones that have left an everlasting impact.

International Mission Trip
Sometimes called “overseas mission trips”, the possibilities for these are endless.

“Some of the most impactful trips I have been a part of were with the group ‘Casas por Cristo.’ They are an organization based in Texas that builds homes for those who need them in several locations such as Juarez and Ciudad de Acuna, Mexico. I have been in both communities on a few different trips. Your group builds a home, from the foundation all the way up over four days.

“These trips were impactful for me (as a student and a leader) for a few reasons. First, Casas is efficient and their leaders lead by example – everyone is included in the building project. Second, during the week, you work directly alongside the family who is receiving the house. This last part is incredibly impactful. When you work alongside the family, you see how much this means to them, because they work their fingers to the bone. You also build a relationship with the person you are serving (despite language barriers). This often is overlooked on service/mission trips in my opinion. The emphasis is put on what ‘I’ learn, and what ‘our’ takeaway will be versus the people who need caring for. How can we pour ourselves out to fill up others and not worry about our ‘life change’ or what we are getting from the trip?

“Don’t get me wrong, the learning, perspective change and growth from these trips are important. I just think, if we aren’t careful, we put more emphasis on what’s in it for us then the people we’re serving.”

Find Mission Trip Locations for Youth Groups »
Get Help Planning Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip »

3. Mission Work in a “Big City”

City Mission Trip for Teens
City mission trips are popular for both domestic and international mission trips (or even just a service project within your local area).

Cities across the country are often laden with individuals and families who struggle to make ends meet – many who don’t even have a home. Taking part in a mission trip in a large city can be a real eye-opener and a great opportunity for spiritual growth.

There are tons of opportunities to be part of teen mission trips to cities, such as SERVE with ThereforeGo (formerly Youth Unlimited) or Revolution’s Big City.

Student Ministries Director, Aaron Damjanovich from Eagle Brook Church, says the youth from his church have been deeply impacted by the work they have done in cities over the last few years.

“Every summer for the past five years, we’ve taken around 200 high school students on a mission trip called, “Big City.” We work closely with Rich Gibbs from Cutting Edge Ministries to locate a city and work with the local churches to find how we can best serve them – whether that be VBS or work projects. Every day each group of about 20 students gets sent out to a different site to work, and in the evenings we gather as a large group for worship and a message. This past summer we served in St. Louis. Like every trip, students grow very close in relationships with each other and we see significant impact, spiritual growth and life change.”

Student Pastor, Ty Hogue from Overisel Reformed Church, said he is always driven back to ministry work in Chicago because the opportunities in a big city are endless.

“I started going to Chicago in the summer of 1999 and have gone all but two summers since. We have worked with day camps, community gardens, thrift stores, lunch and dinner ministries and food banks and have assisted in upholstery, yard work, basement clean-ups, roofing, plumbing, painting, carpeting and so much more throughout the neighborhood and at several of the ministry buildings. Most of the impact comes from the relationships within our group, with their church and in the community. There has also been the satisfaction of working hard and getting things accomplished, but there’s nothing like relationship building and seeing a more diverse and unique expression of God’s creativity amongst his creation.”

Find Mission Trip Locations for Youth Groups »
Get Help Planning Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip »

4. Youth Summer Camp Missions

Youth Summer Camp
Youth summer camp service projects can be in your own community, elsewhere in your home country, or international.

Every teen looks forward to the summertime and the freedom to break out of their normal routine. This makes summer the perfect time for them to experience the impact of a mission trip – or more specifically, a youth summer camp.

Youth summer mission camps tend to be short-term, one to two weeks long, and teens can make the most of their time by serving those in a new community in a variety of ways.

Paul Galbraith, Pastor of Missions & Student Ministry from Brandywine Church, says of the youth camp his team attends every year:

“We take our youth to Mountain T.O.P. every summer to their Youth Summer Mission Camps. Our kids connect with Christ through service, worship and time away from daily routine. It increases their awareness of needs around them and challenges them to sacrifice for others daily.”

5. Mission Trips To Alaska

Alaska Mission Trip
The culture and landscape of Alaska will make you feel like you’re in another country.

Alaska is a place unto its own, and it is often overlooked. Life is different there – it’s slower, tougher and more unforgiving. For those who have reservations or concerns about international mission trips, Alaska can be a great alternative. The culture and landscape of Alaska will make you feel like you’re in another country, without needing a passport (for US citizens). Alaska is also a popular destination for neighboring Canada.

Youth Pastor Kurtis Ritsema from Graafschap CRC, believes visiting Alaska with his youth team has been the most impactful trip.

“Our trip to Alaska with Eaglecrest Alaska Missions to the community of Sutton has been the most impacting. The work primarily consisted of log splitting (wood as a heat source for winter), basic home repair and landscaping projects. The work was good, but what made this trip most impactful was the location, the weather, the time of year (land of the midnight sun) and the youth group time around an evening campfire each night.”

Words of Advice

Teen mission trip groups
It’s important to remember to keep your mission trip focused on relationships.

Many youth pastors and leaders believe there are two things that are key to having a successful and impactful youth mission trip:

  1. A Relationship Focus
  2. Preparation

Keep Your Trip Relationship Focused

Mission trips are only as valuable as the relationships that are formed and lives that are changed through discipleship. This may be either with the individuals in a community or members of a team.

Student Ministries Pastor Brad Bullock of Pathway Community Church, says:

“Our teams have strong bonds and are well equipped before the trip through mandatory team meetings and a two-night team retreat. And our partners are strategic so we can experience a win-win – ministry that advances the work of the local mission and also advances our students down the road to becoming disciples who make disciples.”

You Can Never Over-Prepare

Preparing for mission trip for teens
7 Things to Do When Planning a Mission Trip for Teens

The destination of your trip is not nearly as important as the time put in prior to leaving. It is necessary to prepare your hearts, minds and even physically prepare. Whatever you will need on an upcoming mission trip, there is no way to over prepare.

Youth Pastor Fig VanderMolen of Messiah CRC, says:

“I think the best advice I could give any leader planning a trip is to not skimp on the prep. No matter where your group is going, no matter what the length, meeting ahead as a team helps with everything from attitude on the trip, knowledge of the work or service, understanding of the people you are going to be working with and so much more.

“We’ve used some material from the book Deep Justice Journeys by Kara Powell and some other team building or strategic planning type activities. I also ask all of our students and adults to attend all fundraisers, even if they have raised enough money for their trip on their own. It helps us get used to working with one another! I’m not sure that specific places matter as much. I think that with good prep and a good group, you can have success at any site.” 

Are you planning a youth mission trip?

Get a FREE copy of the Complete Guide to Planning a Youth Mission Trip. This complete guide will help make you plan your youth mission trip from beginning to end!

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Two key pieces of advice:

  1. Keep a Relationship Focus
  2. Prepare

They certainly can! Here’s just some of the ways mission trips within your own country can be impactful.

ThereforeGo (formerly “YouthUnlimited”) provides opportunities for youth group mission trips in the USA and Canada.

This means we provide both domestic and international youth mission trips (because of COVID-19, all 2021 trips require groups to stay in their own country – learn more).

Specific destinations (we call them “SERVE sites“) include everything from larger cities to smaller towns in rural areas. And in 2021, we even have a mission opportunity for serving your own local community (called SERVE@Home).

Explore trip locations »

Go Do Good – Do It

by Angie Klooster

SERVE 2019 was one of the most influential weeks of my life. Seeing the broken state some people live in is one thing but having the opportunity to help them and change their way of life is entirely different. We made a difference, even if all we did was weed a few rows of a community garden or paint the walls of a non-profit organization. And making a difference made a difference in me.

I was cautious to go on this trip. It was very out of my comfort zone. Then, when I found out no one from my church was in my SERVE small group, I was even more discouraged. However, as soon as I met my small group and spent one day with them, I knew I was here for a reason. The people I worked with and got to know were some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I quickly realized God sent me on SERVE to do good.

God sent me to a small church in Muskegon, Michigan both to help people and to grow, myself. I learned more about myself in those seven days than I have in my entire life. I learned to not take things for granted. I learned that God works miracles in the strangest of ways. I learned to get out of my comfort zone and talk to people. And I learned to make friends, even if it’s just for a week and I might never see them again.

With each service project – every time we handed out yogurt at the church or cleaned a lot – we made a difference, and I was so encouraged. It might not have been much, but it was something, and it was hopefully enough to encourage others to follow our footsteps, too.

One little nudge can make a change in someone’s life, like the way my life changed at Muskegon SERVE. If the people of Muskegon saw us planting a garden and growing food, it shows them that it’s possible. If the kids at Muskegon Heights High School saw that people were willing to help them, it shows them they can help people, too.

Muskegon SERVE was just one week, but the people I worked with have been doing this for years. They have dedicated their lives to helping their community and are very passionate about what they do. They work so hard with so little. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to see, and talk to, and help these people. It’s changed who I am, and I hope everyone gets a chance to have a similar experience. If you ever get the opportunity to go do good, do it. It will be beyond worth it.  

[This is an excerpt from the Fall 2019 Magazine. To read more stories CLICK HERE]

How to Plan a Mission Trip

7 Things to Do When Planning a Mission Trip for Teens

How to plan a mission trip with youthIf you’re planning a mission trip for a youth group, it can seem overwhelming. Based on our experience, here are things to consider when planning a mission trip for youth:

  • Check dates with parents early in the process.

Even before October 1 of the year before the summer mission trip, begin asking parents if they have a family vacation planned or know of camps/activities in the summer you should plan around. Don’t just ask the students to ask their parents. Go to the parents directly. This gives you a good contact with them and avoids miscommunication.

  • Consider distance and destination.

How far do you want to travel? Will a long road trip build your group unity for the rest of the year? Does it fit the budget? How does the host church/community fit into the progression or rhythm of your mission strategy? Are you looking to move your students outside their typical environment (rural, urban, suburban, ethnicity, etc.) or teach them how others in a very similar environment love their community? Check out this list of mission trip locations for teens in the US and Canada or this list of 5 different types of impactful teen mission trips.

  • Budget carefully.

Budget for a mission trip to help everyone enjoy their timeIf you do not have a budget worksheet for your mission trips, ask your church treasurer to help you create one or call a youth ministry veteran. This is essential to your planning and fundraising. Raising funds is an important work of missions. Here’s some fundraising ideas for youth mission trips.

  • Raise prayer support.

Every summer there are over 1,500 students and youth leaders who go on SERVE, and we estimate there are more than 5,000 adults who support them in prayer. You might even put your vision, the intended outcomes and a bit about your team and your Host Church in your church bulletin before and after your trip.

  • Plan your post-trip process in three parts:

Debrief, follow up and follow through. This will help students understand what they think and how they feel about the trip and also help them integrate what they learned during the trip into their everyday life. See the SERVE Post-Trip Plan in the Resource Box for this process.

Check into it before you even start promoting. There is a planning timeline, a parents’ letter, pastors’ letter and promotional items to help you cast the vision.

Find Mission Trip Locations for Youth Groups
Get Help Planning Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip

  • Most importantly, change the thought from “Where should we go?” to “Let’s make disciples!”

When thinking about mission trips for teens, don’t get caught in the short-sited thinking of just planning a trip. Start with your heart to disciple your students in missional living that lasts a lifetime. Add to that your desire to serve and submit to the host church or ministry, and consider the 7 standards of excellence.

Youth Group Mission Trip PlanningWhether you’re looking to start a mission trip for teens or organize a service trip for them, as you ponder the mission trip being one aspect of discipleship, consider the following:

A progression:

  • How can your students plug into the existing community outreach of your church or help advance it?
  • What experiences will teach your students how to minister in their own back yard?
  • How can they see the strengths and needs of your own community?

Consider planning a mission trip this summer that will help expand their understanding of how God works through churches to reach a community.

Local Mission TripThen, build toward that trip with some late winter and spring service projects in your own backyard.

Plan to go back to those service projects in August – October to follow up relationally, and perhaps continue through the rest of the school year.

For more help on planning a specific trip, contact us or feel free to call our office (1-616-241-5616).

A rhythm:

You might consider a very local mission trip for your students in middle school, then a regional one for grades 9 and 10, and a longer distance trip for your older students. Or, keep them all together and go local, regional and long distance progressively.

You do not have to leave the country to learn about another culture!

No matter where you live in the United States or Canada, you can find first/second generation immigrants (or possibly first nation people groups) to learn from and serve with. In fact, Youth Unlimited has some customizable mission trip locations in the US and Canada that include cross-cultural learning.

Find Mission Trip Locations for Youth Groups
Get Help Planning Your Youth Group’s Mission Trip

Your teaching:

Preparation for a mission trip begins with teachingYour mission trip and service projects are like fence posts. They won’t do much good without the rails of ongoing mentoring relationships (in missional living) and solid week-to-week Bible teaching.

Add into your curriculum Bible content on missions, missional living and stories of those who live life on mission. The Youth Unlimited Resource Box has suggested pre- and post-trip teaching sessions. Talk about, or even bring in and interview, the business leader who sees their career as missions,\ or the pregnancy center director or the prayer warrior for your missionaries, etc.

Are you planning a youth mission trip?

Get a FREE copy of the Complete Guide to Planning a Youth Mission Trip. This complete guide will help make you plan your youth mission trip from beginning to end!

Get the FREE eBook


For help on planning a specific trip, contact us or feel free to call our office (1-616-241-5616).

SlideShare Version

This post is an edited excerpt from the Youth Unlimited Magazine (Fall 2015).


We believe that whether mission trips help or not depends on the type of mission trip you have. Real lasting impact is never accomplished in a week. This is why we partner with local churches to provide our SERVE mission trips! All our sites are run by volunteers who live and work in these communities all year long.

We believe that SERVE mission trips provide a two-fold impact:

  1. On the individual involved in SERVE. We hope that each student and adult:
    • Become doers of the Word and not hearers only
    • Become justice conscious, meeting needs while being introduced to the root causes and concerns
    • Grow in their personal faith
    • Continue serving others when they return to their home church and community
  2. On the relationship between the church and the community. We hope that the week of SERVE helps them to:
    • Identify community assets and needs
    • Provide an infusion of energy to their mission, vision, and outreach efforts
    • Help deepen personal relationships and partnerships within their local community. Our host sites are encouraged to partner with ministries that they have an existing relationship with and allow this group of teenagers to bring energy and excitement to the long-term partnership.

Keep It Safe: Make photocopies of your passport’s identification page and/or of your identification cards, and keep the copies separate from the original when you travel. For added security, leave a copy with a friend or relative at home.

Traveling with Minors: Any adult who is not a parent or guardian should have written permission to supervise the child from the parent or guardian, as well as the child’s identification, and carry it with them. A letter would also facilitate entry for any one parent traveling with their children. This permission letter should contain addresses and telephone numbers where the parent or guardian can be reached. (Example Consent to Travel Form – find more forms and resources hereIt is strongly recommended that the letter is notarized.

There are numerous resources for your church to use in the planning and preparation for your trip. Visit our online Resource Box!

The Year I Went To All The Canadian SERVE Sites

By: Ron deVries

The summer of 2017 will forever be etched in my hard drive (and human brain) as the year I thought it would be a cool idea to visit every Canadian SERVE site.

I knew it would be a lot of traveling and although some things prevented me (I am reminded of the two and half hour delay waiting somewhere in the seemingly far reaches of highway between 427 and 403) from spending more time with each of these incredible sites.

Here are a few highlights for me.

  • Watching our host teams in action made me swell up with Christian pride. I witnessed Kingdom people doing Kingdom work and truly reflecting Authentic Community.
  • Visiting various work sites and being inspired by the “Hands and Feet” of so many who GAVE UP a week of their summer to GIVE OF their hearts to God’s children. Amazing!
  • Worship leaders and speakers who ran with this year’s theme using a variety of voices and then collectively, shared a message of hope in all areas of this great land.
  • Finally, hearing stories of God’s sovereign nature and love for this world through students who will forever be changed by these faith forming experiences.

Thank you to all the host teams for a job well done.

God is good.

About Ron:

Ron is the Canadian SERVE Director. He lives in Alberta with his wife and enjoys sailing, motorcycling, hockey, and talking about youth ministry. To learn more about the Youth Unlimited staff click here.

About SERVE:

SERVE youth mission experiences are all-inclusive, five to seven-day trips for middle or high school age students. More than just a short trip, SERVE is a faith-forming experience where the communities, congregations, and students involved all experience lasting transformation. If you are interested in learning more about SERVE and signing up for SERVE 2018 click here.

Seeing Jesus In the Brokenness

by Laura, High River SERVE Participant, 2014

In the summer of 2014, a group of students from my church, Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, embarked on a SERVE mission trip to High River, Alberta. High River had been hit with a disastrous flood one summer earlier, and as a result, the entire city had to be evacuated for 10 days. Our mission on the SERVE trip was to assist the town in cleaning up any damage that had come from the flooding… and there was a lot of it!

We painted battered fences, rebuilt decks and houses, landscaped, built gardens, etc., but we did so much more than just the physical labour. We also listened. We listened to numerous accounts of disaster and strife, and we listened as locals cried when they recounted the emotional aspect of the flood.

One of the most amazing parts of the trip though, was when we were honoured with the opportunity to listen to the miraculous things that Jesus had done during the flood. Amidst houses being torn to pieces, and lives being turned upside down, it was beautiful to see that people were so aware of what God was showing them and what he was accomplishing in the storm.

A particular story that stuck out to me was told by the pastor of a local church. The church had been hit just as hard as every other building, so when Pastor Paul was allowed back into it, he expected to see everything in the basement in disarray. As predicted, everything in the room had been knocked down, forced into different places or broken, but the table that was holding the Bible was solidly standing where it belonged.

For me, this was an incredible and direct message from God. When you feel knocked down, like you’re in the wrong place, or when things in life seem broken, God is never failing. He doesn’t leave us when our lives overflow with sin or when we keep falling down. When I heard the story, and was reminded of this aspect of God, it made me feel so secure in my relationship with him, like I was seeing Jesus in a very direct way.

I look forward to hearing, experiencing and sharing many more miracles as I daily strive to live for Christ, and I’m so thankful that one of the places I could do that was on my SERVE trip to High River.

This is an excerpt from the Youth Unlimited Summer Magazine. To view the whole magazine, click here.

Satisfaction in Giving

Several years ago at Alamosa SERVE in Colorado, my work group was given the assignment of building a wheel chair ramp for a retired Air Force Veteran on limited resources who was caring for a disabled friend in his home. The project involved taking out steps and part of a front porch, and figuring out a way to adapt the ramp into the existing structure. On my first SERVE, back in 2001 in Michigan, I was assigned the same task, and I recalled the time it took and how overwhelming that assignment seemed.

Through lots of prayer and some outside assistance it was completed back then. This time, thanks to the learning experience and others like it on prior SERVE’s, plus being blessed with some very talented youth in my group, we were able to finish the basic structure in just one day. The rest of the week was spent putting on the finishing touches, applying a fresh coat of paint where needed, and constructing a staircase on the back side of the home.

In our experience, we saw that although Fred, the retired vet, didn’t have much in terms of possessions, he was willing to open up his home to help a friend in need. When we were given $200 to look for someone that week who we could bless the money with, our group chose to give it to Fred, because he had shown the sacrificial love for someone else just as our Lord did while on this earth.

Even though we didn’t meet that friend, since he was receiving treatment in Denver hundreds of miles away, we were able to experience his joy through the smiles of pride and tears of joy that flowed from Fred’s face when the project was completed. I will never forget the sense of satisfaction we all felt in giving back our time and talents for someone who had also served his country.  I don’t remember much about the first wheel chair ramp installed in Michigan, but I know even though it’s been years since then,  I had the same feeling and blessing, which is what SERVE is all about.

-Don Koops, Youth Unlimited Board Member

Mission Trip Self-Care

I have a confession; I am terrible at self-care. I have a suspicion that I’m not the only one. Too often female youth leaders are the worst offenders when it comes to neglecting rest. We care for our families and then turn around and care for the leaders and students in our churches and communities. There is always so much to do and too few hours in the day. And yet, God in his wisdom, requires us to rest, to Sabbath every week.

It’s often during our busiest times that we need to rest the most. And while every week is busy, the busiest week of the year, in my experience, is always the week of the Youth Group summer mission trip!

So, how does a person sneak in a little self-care during a week that demands so much and allows for zero alone time? I discovered a little trick, by accident at first, but it has now become a self-care mission trip habit!

Before leaving on the mission trip I make a quick visit to a store that sells my favorite soaps (LUSH), shampoos, conditioners and lotions (AVEDA). You know, the stuff you normally don’t buy because it requires a little more time and money. I only purchase the small travel size bars and bottles and immediately pack them into a suitcase. Since the only 5 minutes of alone time any adult gets on a mission trip are the 5 minutes spent in the shower, I turn those precious few minutes into a spa visit!

Come mid-afternoon, when it’s finally time to hit the showers, I eagerly pull out the special occasion spa products, take five minutes and deeply breathe in the natural aromas of calming lavender, invigorating mint and cleansing citrus! It’s just enough time to clear my mind and rejuvenate my soul… because usually the next task is dinner – and dinner with 75 teenagers is no joke!

Special shower products may seem like a trivial detail in the scope of the entire week, but I have found that this small act of self-care allows me to be more fully present during all the other minutes of each day. By filling up my own cup, I have something available to pour out and give to others.

Before you leave on your next youth group mission trip, think about ways that you can sneak a little self-care into the week and be intentional about making it happen. I am confident you will notice a difference, and so will everyone else!