This is not scientific in any way. It is not proven through social science. It cannot be graphed on a chart (yet anyway). It just happens EVERY time I take a youth group anywhere for a week. You may call it something else but I suspect you will recognize it for the real phenomena that it is. I call it “The Flow.”
Day 1– Everyone arrives a church excited to hit the road. The parking lot is filled with parents, youth and luggage, pillows, and sleeping bags. You circle up and pray and everyone shouts in unison “Amen”. Good feelings and adrenaline are skyrocketing. Hugs and high fives and laughter ensue. If you are on a road trip THIS is the day that you need to drive the longest. This is the day the group will be at their best. Hit the road and don’t look back. If your destination is less than 8 hours you can likely make it (switching drivers of course). You will arrive late but the energy will still be high. Everyone will settle in without much drama. It will be a fun day. Enjoy it (while you can).
Day 2– This day everyone learns their new routine. Energy is still relatively high, but cautiously so. If you are on a mission trip or it is the first day of camp your kids will be learning new routines, visiting mission sites or meeting new people. This is a bit of drain (especially for introverts) but when the group reassembles for the evening for dinner and devotions or group check-in spirits are still high as the group relates their new experiences.
Day 3– This day is an interesting one. In terms of group dynamics it is a pivotal day. Routines have been established and sometimes your participants will begin to realize they aren’t big fans of the routine. Sometimes the mission work won’t be fun or it will be hot or maybe personalities in their small group or worksite are challenging. Whatever the case, day three concludes without much drama BUT the undercurrents are building (insert the background music for the movie Jaws here).
Day 4– Youth are dragging out of bed. Many are cranky at best. There is now a clear division in your group between those who still WANT to be here and those who are enduring the rest of the week. Often these youth are in the same small group or work team. Trouble begins to brew this day. The “Energy Vampire” will make an appearance (More on them in Day 5) and will demand you or your chaperone’s time and attention to the detriment of the group. In most cases, tempers will flare and words will be exchanged and feeling will be hurt. If words are not spoken face-to-face you can bet they are being said behind one-another’s back. Your team will form alliances much like Survivor and evening check-in or devotions will include odd or strange unspoken glares. The students who previously enjoyed the trip may assume a “Let’s get this over with” mentality. Close in prayer and move on. It’s ok.
Day 5– This is a bit of a “resurfacing” day. The group has endured and they can see the ride home in their immediate future. The escape hatch is opening and the relational “relief” to come can create openness to God and others that can be pretty amazing. If students argued, they will likely make up or will at least be open to you coaching them to that conclusion. The youth I refer to as the “energy vampire” that sucked attention from the group and leaders will chill out (for the most part). Evening check-in and devotions will likely be incredible. Students may cry or relate to the group at a depth they rarely have before. Day 5 can be a special night for your group. This is the day that you and your leaders have waited for. This day can create an emotional and spiritual momentum that can be built on in the future. Be prepared to do something to celebrate growth and decisions this night.
Day 6– The ride home can resemble day 1 in part. There are still likely good feelings and warmth of friendship but the kids are tired. Many will sleep most of the way home. Protect the sleepers from those who would bug them about sleeping. Get everyone home and give the kids back to their parents. Then, you go home and take a nap. You will see the youth again soon at Sunday school or youth group!
Youth workers are not helpless slaves to “The Flow”. If you recognize in your group the flow as I do you must think about how you can defuse the tension-filled day 4. Think “fun” and find something that everyone enjoys that evening. Go out for ice cream or a movie or go to a theme park. Cool air conditioning in a darkened theater or the zip of a go-cart around a track can go a long way in helping your group through the “terrible 4’s”. Again, this is not science, it just “is”.
Hopefully our awareness of potential group dynamics can help us finish our weeks strong and provide opportunities for God to grow spiritual and emotional maturity in our students and in our groups.
Youth ministry trips can be a major catalyst of growth in our youth and they are worth the effort. As good shepherds we must plan smart, pray often, and be aware of ongoing group dynamics.