3 Essential questions to help teens make meaning after your summer mission trip

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Jun 18, 2024

Your summer mission trip to Mexico is four weeks away.

Your Saturday breakfast for families who are homeless is four days away.

Your talk on the importance of serving others is four hours away.

If you’re like most youth leaders, you want your teenagers’ mission and justice work to leave a lasting impression, not to be erased away shortly after returning to “life as normal.” The key? Thinking intentionally now about how you’ll help them make meaning of the experience when they get home.

What’s the best way to increase the chances that your summer mission trip or service project will leave a permanent mark on your young people?

While all five points of our Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass are geared to increase the impact of any youth gathering, its fifth and final point—making meaning—is latent with untapped potential to help your students be changed by Christ to change our world.

What do we mean by “making meaning”?

Our friend and Fuller Seminary colleague Scott Cormode believes that one of the key roles of any type of pastor is to cultivate meaning with people. Cormode writes, “The Gardener acknowledges that he can only evoke growth, he can never produce it. The vocabulary that a minister plants in the congregation, the stories that she sows, and the theological categories that she cultivates, bear fruit when the people use those categories to make sense of the world around them.”[i]

Note the final phrase in Cormode’s sentence above: make sense of the world around them. The constant barrage of experiences in mission trips and justice work come so fast and furious that our teenagers often feel as if they’re sprinting through a museum, only barely viewing its masterpieces out of the corners of their eyes. 

As leaders, our job is to give time and space for both young people and adults to catch their breath and decipher the deep meaning behind their fresh observations, thoughts, and feelings.

What prevents us from helping students make meaning?

Despite the importance of processing summer missions with students, sometimes it often doesn’t happen like we expect—or at all. Here’s why:

1. We lack time and practice

If we’re honest, as leaders most of us feel busy and tired most of the time. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pace and demands of a mission trip or service project, which can quickly result in exhaustion and burnout. Plus, when we’re caught up in the details of collecting medical releases and getting lunch supplies to the right vans, we often miss the significant moments that can shape a teenager’s trajectory.

2. Teenagers aren’t there yet—or they’re distracted

Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to get a group of sophomore boys to take any conversation seriously.

Sometimes we plan out short-term service experiences as if they will only involve relatively serious, thoughtfully focused adults. We craft debrief questions and interactive response opportunities, anticipating profound connection and encounters with God.

Then our actual students show up. Some are tired, others distracted—by life or by their phones—and still others only came because their parents wanted them there. The students who are excited to attend might mostly want to talk to an old friend, flirt with a new friend, let off steam, or just get out of the house. 

Sure, a few of our students might be eager to connect with God, hear a life-altering message, or be mind-blown by Bible study. But these are secondary motivations (at best) for most. Who can blame them for being, well, teenagers?

So how can I help my students make meaning after our mission trip or service project this summer?

Here’s how it works: As young people are being purposefully stretched by their justice work, they’re constantly assigning internal meaning to those experiences. These inner conversations rarely stop as their brains work overtime to process the often-disjointed cross-cultural perspectives they tumble through each day.

As students are acting to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8), trusted adults are somewhat like stage managers, giving cues and offering encouragement in the ways we:

  • Maximize support channels, increasing the number of adults who scaffold students before, during, and after their experiences.
  • Create opportunities for risk, including the chance to stretch and even fail as part of the learning process.
  • Reflect back what we see, being specific about what character traits we notice underneath students’ behaviors and what we appreciate about who they are (not just what they do).
  • Level the playing field, equalizing power between leaders and students as much as possible, bringing teenagers into decision-making, and ensuring leaders and students alike share in the same kinds of basic labor.
  • Hold back on bailing students out, resisting the temptation to save them from hitting a challenging moment, a cultural wall, or the consequences of a poor decision.
  • Plan time for personal and group reflection and debriefing, both during the experience and when it’s over. This helps young people make long-term meaning from their in-the-moment responses and interpretations.

As you lead and listen with your students this summer, remember: asking what God is inviting us into does not mean jumping to a “God answer” for every situation—or anything that may sound trite or dismissive of the tough situations they are navigating. Well-intended but poorly timed meaning-making in the midst of the poverty and trauma they observe or feel during summer service can end up feeling like we’re dragging them down rather than coming alongside to buoy them up. So be ready to adapt your plan as you serve alongside and support your students.

What questions can I ask to help my students make meaning of their experience?

Meaning-making is done not by offering the right answers but by asking the right questions. Based on our Faith Beyond Youth Group research, three of our favorite meaning-making questions for service and justice work are:

1. What happened? Listen to students’ accounts of their justice work. Stay curious and ask follow-up questions rather than assuming you understand. Suspend judgment. Ask them to identify how they’re feeling.

2. What does it mean? Help them get curious as they interpret personal, local, or global events and experiences. Wonder with them about what their service experiences mean through the lens of their faith.

3. What might God be inviting you into? Encourage them to identify simple next steps to move forward with new meaning and a new connection to God and God’s people.

May your summer be filled with meaning-making moments as you empower your faithful young people to change our world.

Adapted with permission from Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship
by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin. Published by Baker Books, 2023.

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[i] Scott Cormode, “Multi-Layered Leadership: The Christian Leader as Builder, Shepherd, and Gardener,” Journal of Religious Leadership 1, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 71.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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