So it’s been forever since I’ve blogged about anything of substance – primarily because my kids are more interesting than my blog. But lately I’ve found myself thinking more and more “I should blog about this….” So here goes….
I’ve been leading youth mission trips now for five years – I’ve done 6 Sr. High trips and 5 Jr. High trips since I started my time at Hampton so I’ve got some experience when talking about this subject. I’ve been in some circles where it is popular to talk down about short-term mission trips and some of this critique is fair. Namely, youth mission trips cost a ton of money, a week is inadequate amount of time to develop cross cultural connections, etc. I’ve even been around people who have gone so far as to say “We shouldn’t do short-term mission trips with youth.” Well, I agree that short term mission trips are fraught with challenges but as a counter argument I present the following:
- “This was one of the best weeks of my life”
- “Now that I’ve gone on one mission trip I’m going to go every summer”
- “Thank you so much for bringing me on this trip – there’s been a lot of points where I’ve doubted whether God really existed but after this trip I feel so much more faithful”
- “After this trip I really understand how fortunate I am”
- “I used to have an idea of what homeless people were like but this trip showed me that I was wrong”
- Choose non-profit organizations to go with. I’ve learned that there are two types of organizations that sponsor youth mission trips. Some are part of for profit companies where at the end of the day they’re trying to make money off of you. Others, are non-profit organizations that are focused first on their mission. In our case, we’ve found two organizations that we’ve developed a good work relationship with. The Pittsburgh Project is a local non-profit organization that has been sponsoring youth mission trips for years and is – bar none – the best at it. They’re a permanent organization that develops relationships with homeowners throughout the year as well as during the summer. Their camps are well staffed by experience professionals and young college students. I really can’t say enough good things about them. The other organization we stumbled upon a few years ago when we were looking for someone to go to New Orleans with: TEAMeffort. TEAMeffort is a non-profit national organization that sponsors trips throughout the country. For our group (and for my preference) they are a great fit. I think what I appreciate the most about TEAMeffort is that they keep their camps small. I’ve never been at a team effort site where there were more than 50 or so people and they always have four staff people. What this means is that they can prioritize your group and provide support. Most notably, I’ve never been left on a job site without a TEAMeffort staff person there working beside us or at least in the very close area. This is a great help in making your time on the job site effective.
- Work with organizations that partner with other organizations in the community – The first mission trip I went on we did a VBS by ourself – no connection to any community church, and that bothered me. We didn’t help build up any lasting connection so largely our work was in vain. TEAMeffort is great at this. This summer when we were in DC we did homeless ministry but it wasn’t random. We met up with an representatives from an organization that works with Washington’s homeless population year around. We were supporting on-going ministries rather than starting from scratch and I think for short-term mission trips this is essential. In the same way we worked at a VBS program sponsored by a local church and the goal was to build connections between members of the community and this church. The Pittsburgh Project is an community organization in and of itself.
- Theologically narrate the experience – one of the things I am steadfast about is every evening on both my Jr. and Sr. High trips we meet as a group and talk about what we are experiencing and learning. The main reason for this is to keep focused on Christ and what he has called us to do.
- Keep the focus on Christ – One of the things that happens on mission trip is they become about personal stuff rather than Christian service. Whether it be pranks, flirting, fun and games, etc. Now I can’t say my kids are perfect in this department – but I try my best not to encourage that type of behavior and to deal with it quickly when it occurs. As an example, last year I had a few individuals make some poor choices on a mission trip. Those individuals were not allowed to come this year and most likely will never go on another mission trip again. While that statement may sound harsh (and it is) when participants make choices that demonstrate that they are going on a trip for the wrong reasons they must be removed and not allowed to participate again until they demonstrate that they understand their mistakes and have earned another chance.
- One clarifier – I am not saying that mission trips shouldn’t be fun or that kids shouldn’t be allowed to have fun. In the Bahamas, we spent two days on the beach once our work was done. In New Orleans we visited the French Quarter and went dancing. In DC we visited the monuments and museums. And yes – I let me kids play four square, cards, go swimming, etc. on all my trips. My point is that these things aren’t the point.
- These trips are more a communal pilgrimage than a “mission trip”. Part of the problem here is that definition of a mission trip is a moving target in and of itself, but these type of youth mission trips in many ways are more about the individuals who go. That might sound selfish but let’s be honest – if we took the money we raise and spend to go on these trips and (1) gave it to trained contractors (2) send it directly to the organizations more “work” would get done. But there’s a value in these trips for the individuals and the group.
- For the individuals, mission trips offer a different perspective and different opportunities than they normally have. For a week, they live life differently than they do the rest of the time and this gives them a chance to learn and in my experience – be attentive to the Spirit in ways they aren’t normally. I think this is really important, especially for suburban kids who develop stereotypes about everyone who doesn’t look and live just like them.
- For the group, these trips allow them to do “life together” which is so crucial for adolescents in gaining a sense of belonging within the Christian community. As an example – there is a girl in my group whose parents make church a priority. She and her brother are there every Sunday and faithfully attend Sunday school. But, she definitely did not feel a sense of belonging. Then she went on last year’s mission trip. This year – a totally different story as she attended youth group every week, went on retreats and special events, etc. That trip enabled her to develop the connections to other individuals in the group that she needed in order to feel like she belongs.
- Mission trips allow students and adults to establish relationships. Non-parental adult relationships are crucial in adolescent faith development, in particular for establishing the sense of belonging that is so critical. Mission trips allow students and adults to spend time together and establish the trust between them that allow these relationships to build over time.
The slides, book list, and resources discussed at my “Transforming Youth Ministry: Creating Authentic Fun” seminar, as part of the Teacher Training Day at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on September 22nd, are now available at www.wallyandnay.net/TransformingYM
Our high school youth group is headed for Mexico this summer for a week to work with the Hebron Foundation and their effort to provide proper medical care for those in Southern Mexico as well as lead a Vacation Bible School for children in Chiapas, Mexico.
As part of our fundraising effort we are hosting Mex Fest: A Buffet and Silent Auction on February 24th. Tickets are only $15! We’re also looking for items to be donated for our silent auction. We’re expecting 250-300 people that night so this is a great way to get your name out!
Thrown into the middle of the early month craziness was a retreat with just our group to Camp Crestfield. It was our senior high group and I was really thankful – it was the type of group that because I really had to wing things (Doug’s announcement came earlier that same week). What I learned and haven noticed in the past, is when you don’t have any prep time and you’re forced to wing things, God will bless it and work through it ways more powerful that you ever expected. If you have the prep time and you choose not to use it, and then wing it God usually won’t bless that in the same way. Anyway, this retreat was luckily the first case, and God really did give me some super inspiration at just the right time. We talked about “Questions of Faith” and the theme for the weekend was “Doubts, Fears, and Questions are part of Faith”. What I’ve learned is that for kids who have grown up in the church there needs to be a period of “doubt”. Marko dealt with this topic a little while back and I guess I have come to prefer the word “transition” because this transition between childhood faith to adulthood faith is a transition period that is sometimes marked by what people would call doubt. I know my transition really occurred when I was seventeen, and it was doubt I guess, but when I found myself praying prayers like “God, I know you don’t exist, you can’t possibly exist” while I was praying I through the doubt and questions.
Anyway, the vast majority of the sr high students I work with can be described as “church kids”, despite varying levels of involvement. So, the goal of this retreat was to give them the space to ask the tough questions and recognize that they weren’t losing their faith – it was growing right along with them.
The retreat turned out to be a huge blessing to me, as for the first time ever I felt as though when I came back from a retreat I too had had a chance to refresh and reload. One of the reasons for this was what I did with the schedule. Breakfast @ Crestfield is at 8 am, which is early for both me and the group. So… after breakfast they had til 10am to do whatever they wanted – this also gave me time to do some last minute prep and relax. By the time 10 o’clock rolled around, everyone was a lot more awake and ready to go.
What was cool was that a lot of what I talked about was stuff I had learned about while I was at the National Youth Workers Convention. My first talk was one I had adjusted from our Jr. High retreat that dealt with how God speaks, through “shear silence” as Elijah found out. That led into a bible study of 1 Samuel 3, based on what Kenda Dean talked about at the NYWC, where I talked about the relationship between younger and older members of the community of faith, and how younger ones hear different things, but need their elder members of the community to help them discern whether they’re hearing God or if they’re hearing themselves. My second talk was centerd around John the Baptist sending messengers to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” this had two purposes (1) Validate the role of honest questioning within faith (2) Talk about the way to deal with these questions and doubts – to bring them to God. In the evening we did a variety of stations and a guided meditation for about 2 hours in the evening. All in all, despite the rush in the week leading up to it, I thought things went quite well.
From last night’s Jr. High Christmas Party:
Jr. High boy is trying to sing, but can’t keep a pitch because his voice is cracking. A few in the group begin to laugh
(Jr. High Boy): Ahhhh!!! Don’t laugh at me. I can’t help it that I’m going through puberty and I can’t sing!
Gotta love high schoolers…
Me: Okay, so if you went home this afternoon after worship and your parents sat you down and told you that you were going to have a new brother or sister, what would your reaction be?
Whole Group: Ewwww!!!!!
(High School Girl): I wouldn’t get anywhere close to their bed
Whole Group: Ah!!! TMI!!! TMI !!!
It was too funny not to share.