by Paul Borthwick
As a new Christian, 17 years old, teaching Bible school in southeastern Kentucky changed my life. Working with the children of poor families changed my perspective on the world and my role in it.
As a new Christian, 17 years old, teaching Bible school in southeastern Kentucky changed my life. Working with the children of poor families changed my perspective on the world and my role in it. So, naturally, I pursued short-term missions teams when I became head of our church’s youth ministry in 1977. We started the next year and sent teams to Colombia, rural Vermont, and inner-city Newark.
Our church became fully committed to short-term teams when people saw the changes in our students, their influence on our church, and the work they had done on the field. Now, after sending more than 50 youth teams from Grace Chapel, we’re still at it. These teams are vital to our church’s commitment to cross-cultural ministry. We dedicate about 7 percent of our missions budget to short-term youth teams.
TAKING A HARD LOOK
As I look at what our church has done, and how this idea has exploded in many churches, Christian colleges, and mission agencies, I see both good and bad news. The good news is that cross-cultural opportunities for youth are more available than ever. Short-term service develops global citizens and world Christians. The bad news is that sponsoring short-term youth teams has become a fad. They’ve become a part of the church’s youth program like retreats and lock-ins. Some of the projects are little more than summer camping programs. The trips become almost like taking the youth group to Disneyworld. We need to take a hard look at short-term youth teams because of how much they cost the sending church, how much they cost the missionaries on the field, and because they can easily degenerate into “adventure vacations for Jesus.”
Nevertheless, I am convinced that short-term youth teams are an essential part of the church’s role in producing global- and missions-minded Christians. However, before the church sends another team, the leaders need to read the fine print where it says “special restrictions apply.”
Over the years I have noted five restrictions that make the difference. In fact, youth mission trips must be planned and executed under these five constraints or they will fail.
1. Training sets the foundation. A church leader or youth group coordinator calls me in June and asks, “Can you help us plan a short-term missions trip for our youth?”
“For next summer?” I ask hopefully.
“No, we’re thinking about July.”
Such scary calls reflect the idea that cross-cultural mission trips can be thrown together at the last minute. Willingness to go seems to be the only requirement.
Over the years we have found that training yields better preparation, greater teamwork, and a more lasting impact. At our church, we required a testimony and a $50 deposit at the beginning. We have added to and modified our training every year. Now we ask our students to start praying at least eight months before the trip. All of our teams go out in the summer. We present the projects in March and start accepting applications in April. Each applicant must submit a testimony, make a deposit, gain parental permission, and promise to meet team requirements.
Upon acceptance, each team member is required to memorize Scripture, write a report on the area or culture of the project site, attend a three-day “boot camp” training retreat and at least four team meetings, appear before our church missions committee, raise funds, read a missions book, participate in the team’s commissioning service, complete assignments in the team’s training manual, and promise to report after the trip is over.
We also ask our youth to recruit their prayer supporters and to attend seminars we give on various kinds of manual labor, such as painting.
We have been amazed to see our program grow, even though we have made it much harder to make the team. Zeal seems to directly relate to the severity of our demands. If youth face tough requirements, they will value the project much more.
On the other hand, lack of preparation means youth will miss the chance for a life-changing experience. If theentrance barriers are low, we cannot screen the kids looking for a thrill or a vacation. After we intensified our training, we found that we could even help students who applied for the wrong reasons to mature spiritually and become good cross-cultural workers.
2. Leaders set the pace. The key to the youth team’s success will be the leaders. Youth will either imitate servanthood, sacrifice, and compassion for the lost, or they will imitate materialism, paternalism, and exploitation. When team projects are done poorly, or are led by ill-equipped leaders, the results can be disastrous. Therefore, we take only the best leaders. We look at four things:
- Administrative ability. At least one team leader must be a detail person. If the thousands of details are not handled properly, the team will function poorly and its ministry will be hindered.
- Rapport with teenagers. The age of the leader is not the primary factor, because age guarantees neither success nor failure. The key is the ability to listen to, understand, and enjoy teenagers.
- Spirituality. All leaders must be well-established spiritually. We look for consistency in personal devotions, understanding of Christian doctrine, commitment to building disciples, and leadership by example.
- Adventure. Leaders must show a desire to take some risks in cross-cultural living. For example, a gifted spiritual leader may not fare well in the tropics if he or she panics at the sight of a tarantula. If leaders accept new experiences as a gift from God, team members will, also. But if leaders are timid, the team may stumble.
At Grace Chapel our best leaders have worked with teenagers throughout the year. They have built solid relationships that enable them to develop the team’s full spiritual potential. We recruit leaders who love teenagers and who know how to disciple them.
3. The main agenda is life change. When we started sending our short-term youth teams, people asked us, “Couldn’t the work be done better by local people? Why not just send the money?” We get the same question every year. The question assumes that the reason we send our youth is to work: build, paint, dig, or whatever, and run some Christian programs. If our goal is to accomplish certain tasks, then probably it would be better to send money (if you can raise it without sending your own kids).
Of course, our teams work hard, and they present the gospel, but these are not our long-range goals. Our objectives are to change the world views and shape the futures of our youth. We make this clear to teenagers, parents, and our missionary hosts.
We don’t expect every team member to become a professional missionary; in fact, 5 to 7 percent of them do. We also look for other long-term outcomes.
We look for our high school graduates to help their college Christian groups become globally aware and prayerful for missionaries.
We want them to become cross-cultural witnesses in their own backyards.
We hope they will serve as team leaders, and possibly on our church’s missions committee.
We want them to keep in touch with their missionary hosts, develop more missionary friendships, and begin to pray for and support missionaries.
4. Follow-up sets the future. Follow-up makes the difference between a life-changing experience and a “been there; done that” trip. We ask, “How will your life be different because of what you’ve learned, seen, and experienced?” We want our youth to integrate their experiences with life at home, school, and church, and in their youth group.
Over the years we have added many ideas to our basic design for follow-up. We debrief a team immediately after its return. All members tell about their most profound experiences, and how they want to apply them. We ask for a written evaluation of their trip and how it relates to their lives. We ask them to report to the youth group and the church, along the lines of, “Here’s how we’d like to encourage you in your faith by sharing what we learned.”
Our long-term follow-up program includes: (a)a missions reading program; (b) weekly discipleship groups focusing on outreach; (c) exposure to visiting missionaries; (d) prayer for the people they got to know on the field; (e) a reunion after six months, to tell how their lives have changed. Whatever elements are pursued, the main objective should be to encourage youth to grow as a result of their short-term mission trip.
5. Family attitudes. All church youth ministry complements and supplements family upbringing. Over time, youth adopt both positive and negative attitudes from their parents. We see both kinds when our teams return.
On the one hand, some parents say, “We’ll do everything we can to help you pursue a career in cross-cultural missions. We gave you to the Lord when you were born, and now we’ll do our best to help you find and follow God’s will.”
However, others (I include Christian parents here) communicate—perhaps unconsciously—“Now that you’ve had your missions experience, we want you to pursue our dreams for you.” Of course, they don’t always say it so bluntly, but more often than not their message clearly is: “Well, you don’t need to go to another culture to serve Christ. You can stay here, earn money, and support missionaries.”
We have tried to influence parents by recruiting their support for our teams. We encourage them to release their children to the Lord—not only for a short-term missions trip, but also for career missionary service. One outcome of our team projects over the years has been the change in parents as they face the implications of Christ’s lordship in their own lives.
What shall we make of this phenomenon in world missions that has sent hundreds of thousands of youth around the world? I believe in the long-term values of short-term missions trips for youth. But I also believe they are no panacea for the larger problems we face in world evangelization. Significant challenges remain for us to mobilize youth to become the next generation’s missionary force.
How To Plan, Develop, and Lead A Youth Missionary Team and the Missions Training Manual (Grace Chapel, 3 Militia Drive, Lexington, Mass. 02173; available for $3 and $25, respectively) describe in detail the steps needed for planning and training the type of youth teams mentioned in this article.
Youth and Missions: Expanding Your Students’ World View (Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press, 1988) discusses these missions teams as a part of an overall philosophy of involving students in outreach and missions.
The “Missions” issue of Youthworker Journal (published Fall, 1989, by Youth Specialties, 1224 Greenfield Drive, El Cajon, Calif. 92021) contains an excellent series of articles on this topic.
The Short-Term Missions Boom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) contains a compendium of articles on the why and how of short-term missions. It also contains an expansive list of organizations hosting short-term missions.
The Short-Term Mission Handbook (Evanston, Ill.: Berry Publishing) contains the most comprehensive list of organizations hosting mission outreaches as well as groups that cater to high school ministries.
The Complete Student Missions Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/ Youth Specialties, 1990) by Ridge Burns and Noel Becchetti specifically addresses the how-to’s of mission trips for junior and senior highers.
Vacations With a Purpose (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991) includes instructions on training mission outreach teams, although it is primarily dedicated to young adult ministry possibilities .
Stepping Out: A Guide To Short Term Missions (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1992) features the insights of the Short-Term Missions Leaders Fellowship.
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