Speaking of Missions Trips…
This truly is one of the crazier ideas in all of youth ministry-dom. Who in their right mind would take teens to labor on the mission field? The answer is simple. No one. No sane person would even consider doing something like that. Which only serves as further proof that one must be at least a bit off their rocker to work in youth ministry. Insane. Coo-Coo. Half-baked. Hair-brained. Demented. Looney.
A few casseroles short of a Baptist potluck.
And I’m okay with that. In a weird way, the only way to stay somewhat sane as a long-term youth minister is to be nuts. It’s that nuttiness that’ll take you into the realm of missions trips, which, if done right, will be the most rewarding and memorable events you undertake. So how is a missions trip done right? Okay, my two cents….
1. Bring the right young people. I try to get the whole youth group to go to camp. But when forming a missions team, I try to weed out as many young people as possible. I don’t want to take any “bad” kids. It would be ideal to not even take any “okay” kids, but if your good kids are influential enough, they’ll be fine. Our teens must complete a seven-eight month challenge to earn a spot on a missions team. They are accountable for daily Bible reading, verse memorization, greeting visitors and service in the various ministries of the church. The length of the challenge serves two purposes: first, those that make it have been at it so long that they’ve formed some valuable habits; second, it shows me that the young people really, really want to join me in such an important endeavor. This is no guarantee, however, that your missions team will be spiritual, motivated, and ambitious. There was probably one year that I shouldn’t have taken a missions trip. I’ve talked about the mountains and valleys of youth ministry, and I had a pretty bad spell in the valley (pretty sure it was the valley of the shadow of death). One particular nameless year, a group made it through the challenge (“Basic Training”), but I got the sense that most of them were definitely just in it for the fun. They weren’t terribly motivated to reach out to the community we were in and I ended up doing most of the work to promote the event we were holding. It was a frustrating, exhausting week for me, and the only missions trip I’ve been on that felt long. These weren’t bad kids. They were mostly “okay”, with a couple goods ones who were still growing.
But God has been really good. Out of eleven teen missions trips that I’ve taken, only one was less than stellar. All of the others were profitable and enjoyable. The kids were a blessing to me and the ministries we assisted. I took my first trip to Alaska with a very small, but very mature group. The youngest team member was an awesome young lady who was going into her senior year and all the others had just graduated. They were mature, low maintenance and required virtually no supervision. When does a youth leader ever say that? They served cheerfully, fellowshipped nicely with the missionary family and we just had an all around great time together. The second Alaska team was just plain nuts. And I loved every minute of it! Plus I had a couple preacher boys who helped take some of the pressure and work load from me for the Vacation Bible School we held. The girls were fun and outgoing and really reached out to the village children. For your own mental health and spiritual well-being, make sure you bring the right kids.
2. Make sure the teens get a positive look at the mission field. My desire is to give my young people a greater burden for missions. That doesn’t mean they need to see all the gory details of the possible ugly realities of the ministry. Don’t forget that they’re just kids. I know of youth groups that go to spiritually calloused European countries where Americans are despised and Christianity mocked. They have a great time sight-seeing, but they don’t see people get saved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they can serve in other ways and provide encouraging fellowship to missionary families, but I have a different focus. I want to do more than sing a song in French and pass out a few tracts. I want my kids to really catch a fire and excitement about God’s work. There’s just something to seeing buses and vans come to the church rowdy and full. Being a part of a VBS quadrupling in size in just days and energizing and inspiring a church. Then there’s the precious moments when one of my kids tell me that they’ve led their first soul to Christ … wow, words can’t describe that!
3. Be clear on your accommodations. Okay, sometimes you learn from the school of hard knocks. Since you’re reading, you don’t have an excuse. Know before you go! Our very first missions trip was to the Apache Nation in northwest New Mexico. On the way there, we stopped for a night’s rest in a church in Arizona. No biggie, except there were no showers. I’m just not cool with that and neither are most girls (the boys didn’t seem to freak out). Skipping one day of bathing wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I’ve never made that mistake again. I was smart enough to make sure that we had a shower available to us in NM. The operative word here is shower. No “s” at the end. Singular. As in one stinkin’ shower for about 30 of us to share (turned out there was another youth group there, but that’s another story for another point)! Took forever (though not quite as long as Alaska Team II–wow, you chicks drove me nuts!), kept running out of hot water, and the lone shower happened to be in the missionary family’s house. Which was awesome for their teenaged boys. When you were 16 or so, wouldn’t you have loved having all these California girls coming through your house? To take a shower?? Yeah, that caused a bit of a controversy that, twelve years later, still gets to me. But I’ll spare you.
We slept in the church, which was great. The girls were up in the auditorium (My BBQ Honey was about eight months pregnant at the time; she actually started having pretty serious contractions one night; BBQ Boy II was almost born on the rez!), and the dudes were downstairs in a small Sunday School room. Back in my youthful glory days, a cold, hard tile floor was no problem. Now I need an air mattress, a memory foam topper, at least three pillows, Pooh Bear and a binky. The church had a kitchen that we used to prepare our meals. We eventually got really tired of waiting so long for showers that we constructed an outdoor shower for the guys. It was made out of PVC pipe and was right outside of the kitchen window (we connected a hose to the kitchen sink). Someone had to be inside to get the water just right for the poor sucker taking a shower. Plus one or two people had to be right outside of the shower to attempt to keep the curtain from blowing all over the place (it gets rather windy in the high desert). So, yeah, showers were an adventure. I wish someone had taken a picture of that marvel of missionary engineering. It was cuh-razy! But those are such precious memories that still get us crackin’ up today.
**Whew, long post! We’ll continue next week with: 4. Don’t share the missionary; 5. Make it unique and memorable; 6. Find balance in fundraising.
Read part 2 here.
I’ve pondered posting a “Fave Fives: Missions Trips” list, but there are a couple stumbling blocks in my way. First, I don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way or have any hard feelings. As I said, all but one were awesome. Second, after the top one, you can just kinda jumble them around, they all had their really special moments. It would be hard to rank them. So it would be most accurately said that I have a #1, a few #2s, and a whole bunch of #3s. Something like that. But, yeah, the #1 missions trip of all time is easy….
The Apache Nation (Dulce, NM). Red-hot tent revival preaching with great music. Putting up the tent for the revival. Road trippin’ with no energy drinks and car CD players. The practical joke. Wendy’s. Non-stop classic moments. The Petrified Forest. Indian nicknames. Freak thunderstorm at the river. Plus, My BBQ Honey was able to go back in the day. Life’s more complicated now. Anyhizzle, special trip with some special kids! Wait you’re all adults now, older than I was at the time of this trip. But you’re still special to us. Thanks for the memories!