I’d like to try an experiment. The first two posts on children and teens ministries are, I think, important. Really important. But Friday’s post on the Lutheran airline has gotten far more hits (it was pretty funny).
I think the approach to teen mission trips I suggest could be especially valuable. I’ll explain my thinking at the end.
Usually, I figure that if the ideas I write about are good enough, they’ll receive all the circulation they need. But these ideas need to get into the hands of youth ministers (and youth deacons and committees) to be of much value. And while I know some of the readers are in fact youth ministers, I figure most youth ministers aren’t reading my work
Therefore, if you’re not a youth minister but attend a church that has one, I ask that you send a link to the two articles (and this one) to your youth minister, just asking what he (or she) thinks.
Be careful not to come across as critical. Just ask the minister to read and comment.
For those readers who are youth ministers, if you disagree with me, post a comment. Like I said, I claim no expertise. But if you agree, forward links to your youth minister friends. Please.
(You might also send the links to whoever is over your missions work and even your elders.)
You see, for decades I’ve watched youth ministers — good, spiritual, hard-working people — struggle to accomplish the things I’ve talked about. Some are better at it than others, but few have had a well-articulated set of goals for their children and even fewer have seen the importance of structuring missions and good works as I’ve described.
This is not really a criticism at all. These ideas only came to me as I wrote the posts — and I’ve been thinking about this stuff for longer than most youth ministers have been alive!
And so I’d love to initiate a conversation with and within the youth ministry community about what we in the Churches of Christ are trying to do in teen ministry and how we’re going to try to do it.
Now regarding mission trips. Consider two trips. Both cost the same and take the same number of kids.
The first is almost entirely teenagers. The youth minister goes, along with a man who drives the bus and a couple of adult volunteers who are largely charged with keeping the kids out of trouble. They go to a poor village, paint some houses, mix with the locals a bit, and go to the motel at night and have very well-led devotionals regarding how the teens need to love each other and accept one another. When the week is over, they’ve seen some real poverty, they’ve painted some houses, and they’ve grown closer together.
The second is a trip to the Bahamas to teach Bible and construct needed improvements in an orphans home. The trip is organized by adults because they have a passion for this ministry. One of the leaders has worked with one orphan in particular for several years. This orphan has finally become an adult under Bahamian law and has moved to the US to live with this adult and his wife — who have several children already that they’ve put through school and married — and yet despite a large family, these empty nesters bring the young man into their home to feed, clothe, and educate him.
Another adult has fallen in love with a disabled Bahamian child and wants to adopt him, but the government won’t allow it. He goes every year and works hard to help out the orphanage and to be with the young man, because he knows he’s not treated well the 51 weeks when he’s not there to watch out after him.
Several teens are mixed in with the adults and they do what the adults do — side by side. At night, at devo time, the teen minister asks the adults to explain why they spend their own money and a week of their vacation time to help these kids. The minister encourages the adults share their passion for children of a different race, nationality, and lifestyle with the teens.
The adults and the kids then talk about how to live as Christians, and what it means to live for Jesus.
Which approach will have the bigger impact on the teens when they are 30? Which approach is most likely to cause the teens to actually live missional lives?
According to Kurt Ver Beek, professor of sociology and third-world development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, traditional STMs [short-term mission trips] don’t do much at all. …
But in his survey of 127 North American short-termers and 78 Hondurans for whom they built new homes after 1998’s devastating Hurricane Mitch, Ver Beek found that neither group had experienced notable life changes.
See also this article. Lots of studies have been done on the benefits of short-term missions. They often show dramatic impacts briefly after the trip, but they also show no measurable effect on how likely people are to give or support missions as adults when you compare the commitment of those who went on the trips with those who did not. Whatever impact there is on the Americans making the trip is too small to measure with any confidence. Ergo, we aren’t doing it right.
It’s not that the trips do no good. The houses really do get built or painted. It’s just that the natives could have painted or built many more houses themselves with the money spent on airfare, room, and board for the Americans. To do less good in the mission field with the same money by sending a bunch of teenagers over has to result in something else good enough to justify taking funds from more efficient uses.
When I first read and wrote about these studies, I wondered whether we should end or greatly reduce short-term missions. But now my thinking is not to kill short-term missions for teens, but to do them better. And that means doing them in the way God designed: adults training children in the adults’ values by example.
Therefore, I’m opposed to short-term trips where the adults are chaperones, drivers, and devo leaders rather than examples of Godly, missional living.The adults must be going on the trip for the benefit of the people being served, not for the sake of the kids.
Moreover, I’m opposed to trips where the teens don’t have a substantial investment before they go. I mean, why is it that the adults do all the packing and lesson preparation etc.? Shouldn’t the kids be involved in getting ready — even if they just cut out flannel graphs? You see, we’re supposed to be teaching the joy of service. That doesn’t happen when we coddle the kids. Put them to work.
A final example. This is from our campus ministry. The minister required students going on the short-term mission trip to spend hours in preparation, learning the local culture and learning how to teach Bible lessons. Training lasted for months, and it wasn’t optional. The adults going on the trip had to meet the same requirements.
When the college students arrived at the mission site, they and the adults spent the days studying the Bible with potential converts and baptizing those who were converted. Now many of those same students are or have been fulltime missionaries. That’s an effective short-term mission!
Therefore, I figure that requiring a major time investment in advance, training those going, and going with adults who set an example of passion for that particular mission — turns short-term missions from exotic vacations into truly life-changing experiences.