Youth mission trips just might be our best discipleship tool

In the late 1990’s I struggled to get our high school kids to go on a week long summer mission trip.  All of my pleading, and various other manipulative techniques failed.  Then, Heather Bedard, a high school junior traveled with her aunt to Mexico for a week long short term mission trip.  Her aunts church, based in Florida, had a history of mission trips.  Heather came back so enthusiastic about her experience, that she alone was responsible for recruiting more than half of our youth for a domestic mission trip to West Virginia.  That was all it took.  The power of one person to change a congregation.

Since the summer of 2000, we’ve had an annual week long summer Mission Camp for high school youth.  The concept is quite simple.  We have worked through and register to attend one of their work camps.  This year is my thirteenth, and final one as pastor of St. Andrew, though hopefully not my final one in general.  In brief, we travel to a location and join up with about 400 high school youth for a week of service.  The projects range from home painting to roof repairs to wheelchair ramps.  We sleep in a middle school building, often in classrooms, and we eat in a school cafeteria.

Let me be clear these are not easy weeks for me.  I find them physically and emotionally exhausting.  The work is hard and almost always in very hot and humid conditions.  The challenge of balancing a relaxed leadership position, that allows kids to flourish against the need to be the adult in the room when things get a little too edgy, is not easy.  I have often returned from these weeks wondering why I ever put myself in this position.

But the rewards are so significant.  Over the years, I’ve seen our youth grow and change, connect with one another, speak of God’s relationship with them, hear them pour out stories of pain and hurt – indeed the full range of human incarnational spirituality.  This year I engaged in two particularly significant conversation with our high school students.  One young person talked to me about their lifelong doubts about the very existence of God.  This person had had no experience or knowledge that would convince her of even the possibility of God.  I had baptized her, confirmed her, known her family for nearly 20 years.  Had I failed as a Pastor?  Has our church failed at communicating the core tenets of our faith?  After we talked, I had concluded that in this case, I was engaging with someone who was genuinely struggling to discover God.  She was not going to go along and simply accept prevailing opinion nor 5,000 years of biblical and historical literature.  We ended our conversation on the understanding that it is the search that is most important, the journey as opposed to the destination.  This is the new post-modern mindset at work, and we in the church would do well to come to terms with this ambiguity and spirit of wonder.  It is the new reality.  

Youth Mission trips create opportunities that engage the full range of senses – can you imagine how Jesus worked with his disciples as they lived and breathed a three year mission trip.  He did not sit down and have designated bible studies or graduated level seminars.  His methodology was to engage in a practicum of gospel engagement followed by a debriefing session.  In the emerging new world order, we would do well to not only follow the content of Jesus teaching, but also his method.  The now 2,000 year old Christian church sprang from 12 unlikely followers, so I gotta believe he had something goin’ right.


Our 2012 Group