By Brian Jewell
Are you looking for a way to build a bond among the young folks in your church’s youth group? Searching for an exciting event to attract new members or a spiritual experience to deepen your students’ faith? If so, travel may be just the ticket.
Group travel has been a staple in many church youth programs for years, and for great reason. Youth groups that travel together have unforgettable adventures, build lasting relationships and see positive growth in participants’ lives. And although most youth pastors aren’t travel professionals, a well-planned trip or two can be the highlight of a youth group’s year.
The idea of taking a busload of young people on a multiday trip can be daunting, but the path to youth group travel success is well paved. Most youth group trips fall into one of four types of experiences: adventure tours, camps and retreats, amusement park visits and mission trips. Whichever track you choose, experienced professionals can help ensure that your young travelers have the time of their lives.
With seemingly endless reserves of energy and an appetite for adrenaline, youth groups make the ideal candidates for adventure tours. Hundreds of sites around the country offer such pulse-pounding activities such as zip lines, rock climbing, ropes courses and white-water rafting. Many of these facilities specialize in youth and student excursions.
At Highside Adventure Tours and Good Times Rafting in Colorado, youth leaders can package a number of different adventure activities into multiday tours.
“We’ve had groups do everything from a 45-minute or half-day rafting trip to a five-day trip,” said the company’s John Cantamessa. “They do sports trips, where they raft for one or two days, bike one day, and do zip lines and a high-ropes course the next day.”
The company has various locations throughout the state, giving groups the opportunity to raft on the Colorado River or take downhill biking treks in the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, many youth groups also integrate time for devotions and other meaningful moments.
“We have churches go through half of a bike ride, then stop to do a church service or prayer session halfway down,” Cantamessa said. “On a full-day rafting trip, we stop for a hot barbecue lunch, and some groups will stay there longer to pray.”
Camps and Retreats
Camping and retreats have been fixtures of youth group travel for decades. A retreat in the woods or mountains, or at the beach or lake, gives youth group members an opportunity to connect with one another and with God in the midst of peaceful, beautiful surroundings. And since camps and retreats are more affordable than most full-blown vacations, they make an attractive option for church groups.
Pine Cove, an organization with numerous camps and retreat centers in Texas, offers youth groups the option of customizing their own retreat programs or joining groups from other congregations in prescheduled weekend events.
“They can join a big program that we’re already running for anywhere from three to 15 churches,” said senior marketing director Phil Baker. “We provide the worship band and the speaker. We have all of the camp activities available — things like zip lines, climbing walls and horse rides.”
Although physical activities provide a great diversion, the focus of most youth retreats falls squarely on spiritual matters. During weekend camps at Pine Cove, groups take part in two or three worship services that feature youth speakers, as well as have opportunities for more personal connections.
“There’s time for pastors to debrief and pray with their kids,” Baker said. “We make sure that it has a lot of spiritual meat, but we also make sure that it’s got a lot of fun.”
With dozens of amusement parks spread out around the country near major population centers, many youth leaders find that a visit to a theme park makes a great one-day or overnight trip for their groups. At the country’s most famous park complex, the Disney Youth Program offers numerous opportunities for church groups to learn, in addition to enjoying rides and shows.
“Folks come for your youth education series and get insights into the way that our attractions are built and the science behind it,” said youth program director Tim Hill. “Kids can come in before the park opens and ride Space Mountain with the lights on. They learn about gravity, friction or biology better because of something they saw here.”
Many youth bands and choirs make performances a part of their trips to Disney parks. At the resort in Florida, groups can attend large-scale faith-based events such as Night of Joy, a Christian music concert. The Disney staff can also help create custom events for youth groups.
“We can do private dance parties, where we bringing in a D J for them,” Hill said. “We can go so far as to have lighting and a theme.”
For many young people, the pinnacle of their youth group experience is a trip in which they have an opportunity to serve and share their faith alongside their friends. Many organizations and agencies offer international mission trips for students, and a great place to begin is with a service project somewhere in the United States.
One missions agency, Youth Works, focuses on trips within North America for middle and high school students.
“They are weeklong service mission trips,” said Louise Ward, the group’s vice president of marketing. “They go into a community that we have a relationship with, and they may work at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter or a building site. We find different levels of activities in each community.”
In urban destinations, groups often help with inner-city outreach. Trips to more rural areas or American Indian communities can include light home repairs or yard work. Along the way, young people also spend time serving each other and reflecting on what they’re learning in the process.
“We usually have an evening activity centered around something going on in the community,” Ward said. “We also have a club sharing time, and the churches break out into individual time every night.”