Cell phones on mission trips?

phones on mission trips

So I made the above post to my Facebook on the way back from our mission trip to Nicaragua this past summer … and was totally caught off guard by the response to it! It created a lot of conversation, so I’ve been meaning to write out my actual thoughts on our policy of banning devices on trips. But first …

As some noted, I was Facebooking about my frustration about people Facebooking! Caught in the act! I actually lived with the rule I required of the students; during the mission trip I only updated our student Facebook page with mission team updates, and was the only team member with internet access so I could keep parents in the loop on what was happening. And then I broke; when we touched down in Houston, it looked like for a couple hours that we would miss our connecting flight. Customs was completely overwhelmed and understaffed with a room with countless travelers waiting in an eternal line to get through … just so we could get to a similar sized line for rechecking our luggage, and then another similar sized line for security. All I kept thinking was ‘how in the world am I going to rebook 23 flights and get these kids back home to their parents???’ My frustration level was HIGH. I was irritable. Tired from an amazing, but exhausting mission trip. And really, I just wanted to get home to my wife and kids and I was starting to be convinced it wasn’t going to happen as soon as I had expected. In the end, we made the flight, literally with only a few seconds to spare – they were shutting the doors as we ran up to them!

So in the midst of all that chaos, in my irritated state, I was looking around at all these other mission teams (they had matching shirts to prove it) with every member of their teams staring at their phones, iPods, iPads, game devices, etc., and honestly, I was a little shocked – I couldn’t imagine going through all the work to prep a mission trip and then allowing the devices along! They’re such a distraction! And that’s when I broke my own rule and posted my self righteous, snarky update.

Here’s why we do it, though:

We have a two fold purpose to our mission trips; the first is to accomplish a meaningful and valuable service/outreach. The second, which is equally important, is to challenge our group to deeper spiritual growth. Towards that end we intentionally schedule the trip to allow for study, reflection, and group debriefing of the scriptures we’re working through. We also intentionally get rid of any unnecessary distractions. When young people (really anyone) unplug from their normal routine and life they become much more open to growth, development, change – you name it. Something about stepping out of our normal life just creates opportunities for self reflection and life change – it’s why youth ministries across the nation love service trips, mission trips, retreats, camps, etc.

But when someone still has their device, when they’re still in constant contact with the life back home, when they’re getting texts every few minutes, Facebook notifications, Instagram alerts, Twitter updates, Snapchat photos, and more … it’s very easy to spend their whole time away thinking about what’s going on back home and interacting with their friends there instead of being fully present on this trip that we have spent half a year preparing for, raised tens of thousands of dollars to pull off, and will remember for the rest of our lives. Ultimately, those devices do significant damage to that second purpose behind our mission trips … so we don’t allow them.

Does that mean we won’t let a child call home? Absolutely not. We constantly remind kids to ask a leader if they want to call home, if a parent messages us that they need to call their child – for whatever reason – we will get them on the phone as soon as we can.

The amazing thing is, over the years I’ve heard so many teens – who were mortified at the thought of giving up their phone for ten days – come home from the trip and say they were glad it wasn’t there. That it was good for them to just ‘be’ with the group and not be distracted.

3 thoughts on “Cell phones on mission trips?

  1. So…you tell everyone, “We are not bringing cell phones.”

    What do you do with the student who takes their phone anyway?

    What about the parent that ENCOURAGES their teen to bring their phone so that THEY, the parents, can contact them or the child can contact them?

    What about parents that may be worried that their child may be in an emergency situation, by themselves, and need their phone?

    Questions from the trenches, my man.


  2. Ha! Lived through those …

    The mission trips are the only things we don’t allow cell phones on, so it makes it a little easier that we’re only debating the issue the one time a year. I totally confiscate phones if I know about them, but it’s been a loooooooong time. Thankfully, most people buy into it, or live with it.

    And even if they brought the phone, the places we go usually don’t have reception.

    We do give parents the leaders cell numbers so they can call their kids that way, and it’s clear to kids that they can borrow a phone to call home at any time (incredibly rare that it actually happens!).

    And a kid would be seriously breaking the rules to be in an emergency situation without one of our adults! We usually have a pretty high ratio of leaders to kids and unless they’re sneaking off, they’re never away from the leaders.


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