If you’re like me then you are already looking to June and July. Yes, the calendar says April, but in the world of youth ministry we are all looking to the summer. The summer is my favorite time in youth ministry. Not only do students have more time to have fun and spend time together but we also get to load up the church bus and van to head off on a mission trip. This summer I will be leading two trips―one for middle school students and another for high school students.
These trips are great, especially our middle school trip. It is organized and facilitated by a local mission organization that really knows middle school students. The home repair projects we are assigned are just hard enough to challenge students but easy enough that even the least handy of adult chaperones can complete any given task. The staff of college students really take time to connect with my students and make sure that each one of them is having a great week. Students are excited to go also. They can play games, go fishing, and reconnect with friends from last year. Each night there is a worship service that is “theologically safe.” I don’t have to worry about some rogue youth pastor going off the rails and then having to clean it up. Every year our students have a great time on these trips.
Instead of reaching out and inviting students into the church we are going out and inviting the community to participate in the life of Christ. This is exactly what Christ did. He didn’t wait for people to come to Him but instead he went to those who were in need of God’s love.
I often wonder how much we weigh down our mission trips with fun and at the expense of mission. I know if I ask too much upfront from students or require one to many pre-trip gatherings where we talk about the “why” of the trip, I risk pushing kids away. On the other hand, I know there are students who are sent on this trip for purpose of being taught a lesson or to just see “how good they have it.” Summer mission trips are a balancing act that I am afraid are tipping too far away from mission and too closely resembling summer camp. And more and more mission organizations seem to be erring on the “summer camp” side of this balance.
You can’t blame mission organizations entirely. They need to ensure churches attend, and if the camps look too much like a Siberian work camp it can be hard to attract churches to attend. Churches push for more amenities to ensure chaperones are comfortable and that students are not pushed out of their comfort zones too much. People like me have outsourced the job of educating students in our ministries about missional theology to organizations who are not equipped to do so. We expect a 19 year old college student employed by a mission organization to do our job of teaching students about mission. All too often we expect our students to “get it” after one week at a work camp while the other 51 weeks in the year we gloss over missional theology.
I think we are doing a disservice to our students and to the church. We are cheapening what it means to serve in Christian mission. We have a generation in the church who believes that mission work is something we load up on the bus to do for one week instead of a lifestyle that the entire congregation should be adopting.
Christian mission is something youth ministries need to be doing more than one week a year or during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mission work can happen in the backyard of your church. For example, our community is making a middle school our mission field. By doing so, we (adults) are able to not only serve the students of the community but the students are now serving one another. This opens the door for us to begin a conversation about why this work is done. We aren’t doing it for school credit or Instagram posts. We are serving our community as a response to the grace we have received from God. Work in the community invited a conversation to happen.
This sort of mission work is not as sexy as silly games, trips to the beach, or even concerts, but teenagers are passionate people. Don’t believe me, go ask one what they care about. If you can get beyond the “I dunno” or “nothing” responses you will find that this group of acne plagued and misunderstood adolescents will rally around something if it matters to them. Utilize that.
Instead of reaching out and inviting students into the church we are going out and inviting the community to participate in the life of Christ. This is exactly what Christ did. He didn’t wait for people to come to Him but instead he went to those who were in need of God’s love. Don’t let this summer be the only mission work your students are exposed to. Use missional theology as an invitation to your students to follow Christ and then take them on a trip―even if it’s just to your church’s backyard.
Teer Hardy is husband, father, and brewery theologian. He is married to a beautiful, talented artist named Allison and the father of an adorable, rowdy son named Camden. He currently lives in Chesapeake, VA, serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at Great Bridge United Methodist Church, and is an aspiring writer.