The most important training your teenagers need before their next youth mission trip

Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Feb 28, 2024

In ministry, I was once asked to make a youth group summer mission trip happen with less than a month’s notice.

Fueled with a vision for my teenagers to gain the meaningful experience of serving others, I got to work immediately, flexing my organizational skills and solving problems faster than a middle-schooler with a Robux gift card.

Location… ✅

Transportation… ✅

Students who hadn’t yet made summer plans… ✅

Permission slips, student and parent orientation, insurance… ✅

Frantic plea to the congregation for donations… ✅

By most criteria, the trip was a success. Teenagers encountered God, learned about a need in the world, and helped make a difference. Everyone was safely accommodated and fed, only a few minor injuries occurred, and the church van reliably got us there and back. After our customary post-mission trip testimony service, faithful church members and parents patted me on the back for my effective leadership.

That particular mission trip holds a unique place in my heart. Partly because pulling it off felt a bit like trying to feed the 5,000 with a few loaves of bread and two fish. But the other part was because the trip forever changed the way I disciple and equip teenagers to serve.

Because, while a lot of great moments happened, here are a few other realities about that week:

Some students felt guilted into attending and didn’t want to be there. Others struggled socially and felt left out or judged by the group.

One leader frequently made insensitive comments and declined to apologize. Another rolled their eyes at requests for bathroom breaks or trips to the store for forgotten hygiene supplies, leaving students feeling uncomfortable and undervalued.

I’m sad to say we prioritized the project over people and, as a result, students finished the week exhausted, dehydrated, and sunburnt. And while our mission team accomplished what we set out to do, I don’t think any of us could say that our relationships deepened or we made much of a difference for those we were there to serve. We’d forgotten the most important criteria: compassion.

Compassion: the one ingredient you can’t have a successful mission trip without.

On that youth mission trip, I learned that compassion doesn’t just show up (in our teenagers or in ourselves as leaders) the moment we step off the church bus and into the communities we serve. Compassion is something that must be taught before we begin the journey, and nurtured every step of the way.

As it turns out, psychologists come to the same conclusion. What’s more, the latest research into compassion formation shows it’s an inward work before it’s an outward one. As humans our capacity for compassion develops naturally to a small degree as we experience the compassionate support of parents and loved ones in our vulnerable early years. Likewise, as Christians our first steps in compassion formation are powered by experiences of receiving God’s compassionate, unconditional love. But deeper, authentic compassion that infuses our lives and relationships comes when we examine those experiences and their impact on us, practice awareness of our emotional responses to suffering and vulnerability in the world around us, learn how to listen with empathy, and actively invite God to transform our inward responses into faithful interaction.

So before we can expect teenagers to live out Christlike compassion when we give them chances to serve, we need to help them notice the transformation God’s compassion is making within their own lives.

A simple exercise to try at your next mission trip training meeting

At FYI, we know that compassion is already in the DNA of your ministry model. In our conversations with youth leaders across the country, we’ve heard countless stories about how you are actively inviting students to serve others—whether inside the church, in their own community, or across the world. Yet sometimes in the bustle and energy that comes with making a difference, it can be easy for all of us to focus on action and forget that compassion calls our students to interaction—an encounter with another person who’s created and loved by God, just like they are. 

Before you take your youth group on its next mission trip, here’s a quick practice you can lead with your team to guide their growth in compassion.


Compassion calls us to sit with people and come to understand their pain. This task isn’t always easy! But every time we take time to listen to another person’s unique experiences, we stretch and strengthen our compassion “muscles.”


Can you think of a time when someone walked with you through a really tough situation, even though they may not have fully understood or experienced what you were going through? What did they say or do that was helpful?

Sometimes receiving compassion can make us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable—even when the person is authentic in their care and kindness. Why do you think that is?


Can you think of anyone you know who is in physical or emotional pain right now? Ask yourself:

  • What do I know about their struggle?
  • When I think about the person’s situation, what do I wonder about?
  • Do any ideas come to mind about how I might learn or come to understand more about the challenges this person is facing?
  • Can I think of any steps I could take to simply be present and caring with this person?


Have a conversation with God about this person you care about. If you’re not sure what to say, try praying through your answers to the questions above. Finish by asking God to show you how you can sit with them in their pain in the days and weeks ahead.

Excerpted from Compassion from the Inside Out, a 4-week Faith Beyond Youth Group curriculum.

Since that memorable week, I’ve learned that nurturing compassion in teenagers takes time and intentionality. But with steady, intentional steps, we can set them up for a life filled with Christlike compassion. And here’s some great news…FYI has created a ministry tool that can set your mission trip team training up for success! This practice is just one of many found in our latest youth ministry curriculum, Compassion from the Inside Out.

Tweet this: Before we can expect teenagers to live out Christlike compassion when we give them chances to serve, we need to help them notice the transformation God’s compassion is making within their own lives.

Equip your teens for lifelong compassion


Our team at FYI set out to learn how leaders can disciple their teens for Christlike character. Through this research we found that God created the human heart and mind to build compassion the same way we build muscles: through steady, intentional exercise.

So we created Compassion from the Inside Out, a 4-week youth ministry curriculum that provides your students all sorts of opportunities to practice compassion one step at a time.

Together you’ll look at how Jesus modeled a life lived with compassion, share your own stories, and grow closer as a prayer-filled, caring community while your teenagers (and leaders!) practice:

  • Paying attention to the people around them.
  • Sitting with the people in their lives and seeking to understand their pain.
  • Regularly checking in with God and with themselves.
  • Serving others with their heads, hearts, hands, and feet.

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Rachel Dodd Image
Rachel Dodd

Rachel Dodd is a spiritual director, writer, and Managing Editor at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has a BA in Church Music and Youth Ministry from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation and Direction. Having served students and families in the UK and US for over 20 years, Rachel loves writing to share stories and equip those following their own calling in ministry. She and her husband, Carl, now live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and have two daughters. Connect with Rachel at

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