Why I'm Tired of Thankful Teenagers

I know, I know… The immediate question some of you might ask is, “What’s a thankful teenager?!” It is a rare blessing when after youth group a student sticks around to say, “Hey, thanks for giving a great talk tonight!” or when a student says to his parents, “I really appreciate all the time and gas it takes to haul me around!” But I have never seen more thankful teenagers than I do on paper at the end of each mission trip week, and frankly I’m a little tired of it. Let me explain why… 

It’s Friday on YouthWorks sites. Church vans are crisscrossing the nation on their way home after a week of loving and learning from incredible communities. And at every YouthWorks site, staff teams will pass youth evaluations around a circle and read them together. The third question we ask students is, “What did you learn from this community?” And among some really incredible answers (and some not-so-incredible answers) is some variation of this very common response:

“I learned to be much more thankful for what I have.”

A great phenomenon of mission trips is that participants start to recognize that there are people in this world who go without some of the things we might take for granted every day – job opportunities, solid education, food in the fridge, a fridge, a home, a support system, consistent care, encouragement… and the list goes on. Somehow some of us never thought about the reality of going without these things, and when that reality is brought before our eyes, it can be shocking. And we respond with kneejerk gratitude for the good things in life – as we should.

But when I read a response like the one above, I tend to think, “Great! … And?”

You see, I am concerned that some teenagers leave these incredibly rich service-learning experiences with the idea that thankfulness is their grand finale, when it is merely meant to be the opening act.

God tells his followers again and again in Scripture to be thankful:

“Devote yourself to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Col. 4:2)

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Col. 3:15)

“…give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thes. 5:18)

And again and again these directives to be thankful are couched in the context of instructions to do something! (Just go read the surrounding verses for the above passages.) We are to be thankful not as an end, but because gratitude takes us down the path toward authentic worship, humble service and deeper love.


But thankfulness on its own is like…

…fresh produce that grows moldy on the shelf.

…marveling at  beautiful wings but never jumping from the nest.

…that pack of Mentos that is just sitting there next to a dormant bottle of Diet Coke.


Thankfulness that doesn’t energize expires.

Thankfulness that merely preoccupies misses its true purpose.

Thankfulness that isn’t synthesized into our latent lives is wasted just within reach of something explosively wonderful.


As students move from their mission trip back home, from back home to back-to-school, from back-to-school to into the hum of everyday life – my hope is that they will move beyond gratitude to gracious action. That they will not only consider what they are thankful for but think about how that gratitude will change them. I am tired of teenagers who are only thankful, because I know that there is incredible potential boiling just beneath the surface – a world of opportunity when teenagers’ appreciation evolves into action.


Sam Townsend loves wooded trails on warm summer days, full conversations over half-price apps and puns that could make a grown man groan. He is a writer, a third-generation footlong hotdog salesman and the Senior High Ministry Pastor at Calvary Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s also a big fan of YouthWorks, where he contributes to theme material creation and blog production.

4 Ways to Maximize Your Trip After It’s Over

At YouthWorks, we talk a lot about “life-changing mission trips,” and for good reason! Every year we see teenagers whose eyes have been opened to a deeper definition of faith, to an understanding of God’s purpose for their life and to issues of poverty, justice and servanthood. We see the beginning of life-change!

But by definition, life-change can’t only begin. It has to continue! So, while it may be easy to simply put this trip in the books and move on to what’s next, we hope you will join us in believing that the most important part of the mission trip is still ahead.

As you continue to love and serve your teenagers this coming school year, consider these four practical applications to help your youth maximize their mission trip after it’s over.


Imagine buying a book and only looking at the pictures. It’s a lot easier than reading, but you don’t really get what the plot is all about. The same is true with your teenagers’ mission trip. If they don’t take time to “read into it” – or think through it – they’ll miss a lot. Help them process by writing, praying or talking about the experiences they had. A month or two – or three! – after the trip, take them out for coffee and ask them how the trip looks in hindsight. Help them see the bigger story of what God is doing in their lives.


Sharing the good things God has done is one great way to worship. It’s why we love sharing Yea God’s at YouthWorks! Plus, people want to hear what students did on their mission trip.

You can help students continue to process their trip by giving them opportunities to share meaningful moments. Help your students find creative outlets for their stories. Spend time sharing as a group, get some students in front of the congregation on Sunday morning or have students write a couple paragraphs about what was most meaningful on their trip. As a new school year approaches, consider with students how they can share their story with this new audience – perhaps through something as simple as thinking through how to share a meaningful 30-second story about their mission trip.

Sharing the good news of what Jesus is doing is a powerful expression that you can invite your teenagers into.


One of the great dangers of missions is that students will think their service, love and impact is a one-week event that happens somewhere far from home. Don’t let your students buy into this misconception. Instead, remind them that those hands that hugged children, swept a paintbrush across the side of a house or sorted clothing were their hands! And (we hope) they brought those hands home with them!

As their youth leader, you can help students realize that their service and love for others can happen in their everyday life. Talk about it with your group. Plan service initiatives in your home community. Draw connections between service in a distant community and service at home.


You know what’s crazy? The God of the entire universe – the one who rules every hurricane and every housefly – has a purpose and plan for each of your students’ lives. During their mission trip, students were challenged with the idea that they are part of something bigger than them called the Kingdom – a movement that Jesus started nearly two millennia ago! Your teenagers had time each day to spend alone with God, to sing together, to recognize some “Yea God” moments and to think deeply about Jesus.

As you plan this upcoming year, consider how a holistic message of faith connected with action can be encouraged in your students’ lives. Connect the messages and practices from the mission trip with their lives at home. Help students deepen their service with a strong, ongoing relationship with Jesus.


As you consider how to follow up with students, don’t overlook what you need after a mission trip. It’s likely that you experienced the trip a little differently than your students, but these same steps might be helpful for your post-mission trip experience as well. As you keep serving and loving your students, don’t miss the opportunity to process, share, continue and deepen the incredible things God is doing in your own life.