The grand finale of Jesus’ life on earth is recorded in Acts 1:7. Just before Jesus is “taken up” into Heaven, He tells His followers that the Holy Spirit would empower them to tell the entire world about Him.
Today, about 2,000 years later, the Church is still working towards that divine commissioning. For the last few decades, Jesus’ command has been increasingly taken up by one of its most fearless, energetic, passionate groups – youth ministry.
It’s no accident that short-term mission trips are nearly synonymous with teenage Christian life. How to lead a group of teenagers into the mission field, however, can be a mystery to even the most experienced youth minister. Veteran mission trip leaders agreed that preparation and effective missions experiences go hand-in-hand. This extra work is worth it since the difference a trip makes – whether across town or across the world – is often noticeable in the lives of the teen missionaries themselves.
“It changes my student ministry for the better,” Mobile, Ala., youth pastor John Bodine said. “From the spiritual depth they gain... they come back even stronger leaders. It completely influences your student ministry.”
Because the Great Commission says “go,” Bodine said he takes his students at West Mobile Baptist Church into their own city to participate in service projects, across the country to a homeless ministry in Fort Worth, Texas and to Radooga Youth Camp in Ukraine with Servant Life. He said mission opportunities are all around students, but before he sends them out to do ministry, he makes sure they are living out their faith in their own lives.
“I challenge my students to realize they walk into a mission field every day, but it has to begin at home,” he said. “How are they representing Christ? What are their conversations? What are their actions? That’s the biggest thing besides the service projects that they can do.”
Randy Rainwater has a similar goal with his student ministry at Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville, Ga. The nearby town of Clarkston is home to a large diverse population of refugees, many of whom are from Muslim backgrounds or nations. Rainwater takes 100-150 high school students to meet and serve the community every week.
In addition to being involved regularly in a local ministry, he said an influential prep tool for his mission trip teams is to use repetitive learning cycles. In his youth ministry, high school students lead middle school small groups. The middle school students are then challenged to serve as well, leading Bible studies on their own campuses. In these times, the teens are taught much of the same material they will need to teach others and apply in their missions work.
“We want to make sure we have a very clear purpose in mind,” he said. “We want to make sure they get those firm principles and build off those principles instead of starting on the periphery and building in. We want to build from the center of what Truth is.”
Rainwater said a crucial part of their multi-cultural mission work, both locally and abroad, is removing any assumptions or arrogance. “You want to be careful to not assume that the way Jesus works here is the way that He works there,” he said. “You can go into any culture and figure out how to bring the light of Jesus into those cultures with the Holy Spirit if you have a humble learners’ mentality. It’s not so much informational as attitudinal.”
Organizations with a long-term team in the field can ensure youth ministries make a healthy and lasting impact on the places they travel. A staff member from one of these organizations, E3 Partners, agreed to speak with MORF anonymously because he works in the Middle East among countries that actively persecute Christians. He encouraged youth groups to learn about their destination’s culture, worship and traditions, then practice sharing their message and serving in ways that respect that culture.
“I think one of the things that is paramount for us as foreigners going into another culture is to support the work that is happening long-term in the country,” he said.
When engaging communities in other cultures, even a team’s unity can be a way to communicate the Gospel.
“If people can’t understand your language, they watch your body, the way you interact with one another. The way we act toward one another says a lot about the message of Jesus Christ and it’s the thing that Christ prayed for in John 17 – that we would be one as He and the Father are One. The ultimate goal for that was that the world would know that Jesus is the Son of God and that we would have life in Him.”
As a full-time missionary and former youth pastor, he said he has seen students transformed by their experiences and begin to apply the same concepts at home, sharing their testimony and the Gospel with new boldness.
“They got a fire for it when they realized they could do it. So when they came home, they were like ‘This is incredible! I could do this here and I didn’t even know,’” he said. “We’ve seen people who were on the fringe of youth group and it was the point that God used to get them involved in what He was doing, not just abroad, but at home as well.”
The debriefing process can be as important as the preparation, he emphasized. While short-term mission trips provide a catalyst for spiritual growth, they also can leave students struggling to adjust back to their normal lives at home. He suggests organizing small groups where students are able to process their experiences and continue the same type of ministry in their local community.
“As a youth minister you have a real key opportunity to disciple students through that process,” he said. “I think one of the most dangerous things we do for students is get them charged up and make them realize ‘I really can impact this world’ but then not prepare them for the reality of what exists. We have the opportunity to tell students, ‘You can do everything that you have been doing at home and abroad. It doesn’t have to be a one-week experience. It can be a pattern of your life.’”
Rainwater agrees, emphasizing that teens often see the Holy Spirit working on a mission trip because they are intentionally pursuing holiness within biblical community.
“If they will be that on mission when they are at home, they will also see the Holy Spirit doing incredible things.”
He said the true lasting effect of a mission trip on teens, however, isn’t always the results seen on the outside or what tasks a group has accomplished at the end of the journey.
“It’s not how much we do on a trip. It’s how much is done in us that ultimately makes a big difference. When you put yourself in a place where God can use you, incredible things happen,” he said. “He uses these trips to build their faith. It’s expensive and hard, but they are life-changing.”
What’s the most important thing a youth leader can do to spiritually prepare students for a mission trip?
“No matter what you do in Christian ministry, a lot of it boils down to some key essentials: sharing your testimony, discipling believers, spending time with God in His Word and spending time in prayer. So much of the Christian life flows from some of those foundational things: growing in love for God and people. No matter what your students are doing, whether it be mission trips or just being a witness to their classmates, those key foundational things will propel them in anything they seek to do.”
– E3 Partners staff member
“You can prepare them for culture shock but if they aren’t spiritually ready and they don’t get out of their world, when they enter into a country where they can’t understand anything anybody is saying, they go from controlling everything to not being able to control everything. They are going to want to trust in themselves and not rely on God... We cannot sell students short. We have to take them deeper into the Word. In the end, it comes back to what Scripture says.”
– John Bodine, youth pastor at West Mobile Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala.
“They are going to have their faith challenged. They are going to have to take what they believe and put that in to another culture and environment. Make sure their faith is grounded. Being in the Word and in prayer consistently on the trip is a big part of what we do. When you get together and study the Word together, it’s amazing how many ridiculous and petty things go away.”
– Randy Rainwater, Pastor of Students at Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville, Ga.