It takes a lot of courage for a teenager to travel over a thousand miles away to share the Gospel with others, to teach a stranger’s child about Jesus, and to represent Christ in an unfamiliar place. It takes a lot of courage for an adult to take a bunch of teenagers over a thousand miles away to do this work. It takes a great God to open doors and create opportunities so that young people can learn what it means to be a missionary.
We sent out three teams this year. A team went to Raleigh, NC and reached out to the community door to door to open spiritual conversations and to connect a small congregation to its community. A team went to Bradenton, FL to help a tiny church run a VBS for over a hundred children (more kids than the congregation has members). A team went to Red Deer, Alberta to help run a soccer camp for the smallest congregation of the three we worked with, and helped 105 children to know that they are loved by God and others.
I consider it a strength of our program that we are able to work in relationship with small congregations in the US and Canada. Foreign mission trips to third world countries are exciting and certainly cause a lot of growth, and maybe some day we will take on. But there is something special about giving a small congregation a shot in the arm. I also believe it is important to remember that there are so many people who need Jesus right here in our country and culture. Our teens see how many of their fellow citizens are hungry for the Gospel, sometimes without knowing it.
I personally was able to go with two of our three teams. I’m always amazed at the growth I see in our teens as they work. I had a member say to me just a couple days ago that he can’t imagine doing the kind of work we have the teens do. Isn’t that incredible? Our teens are stepping forward to do things some adults – very involved and faithful adults – aren’t sure they could do.
Our teens had face to face conversations about faith with atheists. They taught Bible stories to large groups of children. They gave some adolescent foster children their first experience hearing about Jesus. They reached out to parents and invited them to get connected to the Word.
I was with one of our teens when he spent forty minutes standing in an atheist’s driveway debating the existence of God. That teen raised points and asked questions that challenged this man’s viewpoint and even elicited a slightly tongue in cheek that he would concede to being a very skeptical agnostic. Afterwards, that young man was so fired up about sharing his faith he could hardly talk straight.
A young lady on one of our teams found the fellowship with her fellow teammates to be one of the best parts of the trip. We end every devotion time together in a group hug while we pray, and after saying “amen” everyone gives hugs to each other. This particular girl so looked forward to these devotions and embraces, she was constantly asking when we have devotion each day, and was sad when the trip ended. She always made sure to hug each person each time.
One of our teams was made up of such a disparate group of teens, most of whom didn’t really know each other prior to the beginning of the week, that you would think there was no way they could work together. Yet, that team managed 42 hours in a van round trip, along with the whole week spent together, and bonded so deeply and had so much fun together you could not help but see the hand of God. That team was also able to experience together the wonder of God’s creation in the Canadian Rockies (and an exciting encounter with a grizzly bear).
Our Florida team made a memento of their time together – handmade bracelets, which their chaperone taught them how to make. I noticed that as recently as this past Sunday some of those girls were still wearing their bracelets.
I read a lot about best practices in youth ministry, and there’s plenty out there that says short term mission trips aren’t beneficial. Or that they are, but only if you go foreign. Or only if you don’t go foreign. And so on an so forth. Here’s what I know – I have seen teens growing in their faith, in maturity, in relation with each other and with me. I have seen people responding to the Gospel that our teens share. I have seen our teens come back fired up for ministry and eager to make it a full time career. God is good, and this is worth doing.