Mission Trips for Middle Schoolers: What and Where?

This post is one big question; what type of mission trip is best for junior high students and where do you go? (ok, it is really 2)

Late Elementary: I have been impressed with the growing trend of late elementary students who serve alongside their families. Many churches design these from scratch as good exposure to serving others and doing so in community. In general, they stay relatively close to home, go for 5 days or less and tend to be on the more economical side.

High School: Now on the other side of the middle school spectrum, high school students can handle a little bit more when it comes to cultural immersion, labor and social interaction with the homeless. Again, I am impressed with some of the missions groups who work hard at allowing High School students to do meaningful work, build relationships and grapple with a theological framework for the Gospel and justice.

Junior High/Middle School: From my experience, I’m not convinced we are knocking this one out of the park when it comes to meaningful missions trips and a 13-year-old. I have seen either too many dry lectures on caring for the poor or I’ve participated in too many trips where we left the work site worse than when we found it. This is such an interesting age because they are pulling away from parents but don’t quite have the skills to bless ministries like Habitat for Humanity etc.

I want our Junior High kids to see God in a new context, work their tails off in a meaningful way and have creative and energetic teaching to give them a theological framework for local, national and global missions. In a nutshell, I want a holistic trip that is age appropriate and transformative. Is this possible?

What is your answer to this conundrum?

What do you think


  1. i’m a big fan of missions trips with middle schoolers. however, the tensions you bring up are real; and these trips can be harmful to the people group being visited also. a handful of thoughts:
    1. family trips rocks. they’re not only for pre-teens. i think the best trips for middle schoolers have them serving alongside people of other ages. families are great. i really like how saddleback approaches missions these days — all of their trips are intergenerational. so a middle school kid could be serving alongside a high school and a college student and a 60 year old. so much good in that, i don’t have room for it all here.
    2. if you want to do middle-school only trips, i advise a couple thoughts:
    a. go urban and drive less than 12 hours. go with CSM or AIM or one of the many groups who know the city and live in the city and work with ministries in the city and will both protect your group and protect the ministries and people you’ll be serving.
    b. go cross-cultural, but still drive. unless it’s a multi-generational trip like i described in 1, i’m not a fan of putting middle schoolers on a plane for a missions trip. it adds an unnecessary distraction/allure, and i think it’s poor stewardship. find a cross-cultural experience closer to home.
    3. finally, prepare your group. don’t just have them sign up and go. have mandatory weekly training sessions for weeks leading up to the trip, with hurdles they have to clear. do cultural training. prepare stuff for the trip. use a curriculum like Deep Justice Journeys or the Missions Trip Prep Kit.

  2. I still feel like the best, most life changing thing we did with middle schoolers was take the incoming 8th grade class to Mexico to build a house with Casas por Cristo. The sense of accomplishment was amazing, the teamwork and unity shaped lifelong bonds, and the impact on the community, family, and Body of Christ was undeniable.

    This is all extremely complicated by the drug wars in border towns these days, but the things you can do with a group of 8th/9th graders in Mexico that you absolutely cannot do in the US are very compelling.

    Nothing I have done in the US with Youth Works or anything else even comes close to building houses in Mexico with 8th graders.

  3. Great thoughts here Nate. I think my perspective on middle schoolers involved in short term missions experiences is evolving. I’ve taken 3 trips now (I’m no expert) with middle school students and they have all been pretty different.
    My hesitations:
    1.) What will this mean? How will my students construct meaning on this trip? At the end of the trip will my students just be MORE thankful for their ipods and big houses? Or will the trip compel them to use their abundant resources more often to intervene in our local context .
    2.) What are we actually doing? In other words, is the organization we are partnering with a faithful presence in their city/community? I just returned from a trip in Denver and it was really bad. The organization we went with was not prepared for our students. At the end of the day, the students and I reflected that we hadn’t actually done anything.
    3.) Why are we leaving Dallas to go somewhere else? I like when the comedian Brian Reagan makes fun of two logging trucks passing each other on the highway going in opposite directions. Couldn’t one phone call save both trucks the gas and energy? Seems like if you have trees in Denver and I have trees in Dallas, we should just use our own resources. I know this doesn’t translate perfectly, but it makes me wonder why we don’t just call churches from Denver and ask them if they are loving their own city well. Then, we can focus our energy on our own city.

    What I love:
    1.) Every trip I have taken students on I have seen them “get it”. It’s pretty great to be able to experience that with kids. There is something transformational about leaving what is known and entering into what is unknown.
    2.) Watching students interact with and see the humanity of those they are serving/loving. Lots of our students have changed their perspective on homelessness/addiction/mental disabilities because of our trips (for this reason, I guess I would hesitate to call them mission trips and more like cultural transformational experiences because the trip is almost doing more for us than for the people we are with).

    Where we are right now:
    I doubt we’ll be taking a “middle school missions trip” next summer. I think we are going to continually look for ways to serve and love people in Dallas.

    Books I’ve been reading that have been shaping my thinking about this:
    Culture Makers – Andy Crouch
    To Change the World – James Davison Hunter

    Andy Root also wrote an article a few years ago that I really like as well. We used some of it this year in our training for our trip to Denver. I can pass it along if you’d like it.

  4. We’ve actually just had several conversations about Middle School appropriate missions trips after having a tough time with a very home repair skills heavy trip we just did this summer with our middle school students.

    A couple things that we decided to change if and when we do a trip like this again are to have more skilled adults with us. The leadership for most of our trips is our youth staff which consists mostly of twentysomethings who don’t have much experience fixing up a home or painting and college students who also lack experience. This made the leaders uneasy about giving directions and supervising kids and gave the kids too much freedom to goof around while the leaders tried to figure out what supplies were needed and what work needed to be done. Next time we go we will take a lot more parents and other congregation members who have this type of experience and can be our project managers while our younger staff and college students can work side by side with students and build relationships with them.

    The best group we’ve worked with is Mission Arlington in Arlington, TX. They are really an organic ministry that just started taking care of needs in Arlington and grew and grew into a fixture in the community. One of their many ministries is planting apartment churches in different lower income apartment complexes. They first go in and serve the apartment managers by cleaning up the area for them and doing other helpful things then they get permission to do what they call “Rainbow Express” (it’s kind of like a backyard VBS) in some area of the complex for the kids. We brought a large group down of middle and high school students and were able to minister to about 7 different apartment complexes. Our kids led games, puppet shows, songs, even the message. It was a great way for them to get a chance to lead and have responsibility as well as build relationships with kids and get a glimpse at apartment-living poverty.

    • I recently just went on a mission trip to Arlintgton, Texas. It was a wonderful and meaningful experience! We also participated in Mission Arlington and Rainbow express. It was such a blessing to see the kids’ faces wherever we went. I am so thankful for the oppertunity and I am now looking for somewhere else to try to go to. I am trying to find somewhere outside of the USA. S if anyone has any suggestions, please tell me. My email is

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