A Different Way to Do Teen Ministry Campus Ministry Church, Short-term missions?

https://i1.wp.com/www.unitydanville.org/skedlogo.gifTheory, Part 3 — Or how teen mission trip reports can be about someone other than the teens

Two short-term mission trips.

Trip 1. The adults bought plane tickets and hired a bus so the kids can go to Central America to paint a house. The youth ministers spent six months getting enough adult volunteers, because it takes a lot of adults to chaperone the kids. They’ve planned one day of snorkeling at the end to reward everyone for their hard work and sacrifice.

Result: Kids see deep poverty and are touched. They bond with each other and some of the adults. Trip is fun. Lots of pictures taken. And they learn that short-term missions are for teens. Adults either send money or chaperone. The adults have a passion for the teens but not for the Central Americans, not really.

Trip 2. The adults are planning a trip to visit an orphanage in the Bahamas. They ask the missions committee for support, but they’ll go even if they don’t get support. They are passionate about those kids and that part of the world. They plan to spend 16-hour days working and teaching and playing and bonding with the orphans — who are desperate for adult affection and affirmation. Many of the adults would adopt some of the kids if the goverment would let them.

There are plenty of good projects that the teens can help with, because the program is about teaching Bible to the Bahamian children through a VBS and helping to improve their ramshackle orphanage. Men come prepared to build and repair, and teens would be good help.

Several teens sign up to go, they work hard, and they all decide to give up their day at the beach to spend one more day playing with the children at the orphanage. They’d rather give the kids one more day of joy — the orphanage is more fun than the beach.

The kids come home exhausted and they’ve learned valuable life lessons. They’ve learned that the adults in their church have a passion for children of another race and nationality, just because those kids need them. They learn that adults give up vacation and pay their own way to serve because it’s the high point of their year. They learn that the adults are desperate for these kids to learn about Jesus. And the kids form great relationships, but not just with each other. They bond with adults because they worked hard together because they now share a passion. The American kids befriend the Bahamian children and look for ways to correspond on Facebook — but find themselves forced to use snail mail.

The mission isn’t at all about the American teens, but they actually get to do more work of genuine value and build deeper and more meaningful relationships because the mission is for and about others. They bond with the adults more deeply even though the adults weren’t there to form relationships with the teens — because shared ministry bonds people particularly well when shared ministry becomes a shared passion.

The teens learn that they can make a difference, because their service really mattered — they genuinely helped. And they see adults doing things that the teens aren’t yet ready to do, but which they’d like to learn to do. The adults teach and show the teens how to prepare and teach great VBS lessons, how to do repairs and build improvements, and how to minister to people in need. The adults mentor the kids by modeling excellent Christian behavior.

Now, the problem with the Central American trip isn’t that it’s a house painting trip. The problem is that it’s conceived as being for the benefit of the American kids, and those planning it will measure its success based on its effect on the American kids. The Bahamas trip, however, is for the Bahamian kids, and its success will be measured based on the impact on the Bahamian kids. It’s a huge difference.

And in one of those ironies that so fill Christianity, the American kids will actually learn more and form deeper relationships in the Bahamas than Central America — because Christianity is best taught through example. Any time the adults are there mainly for the American kids, the experience will be inferior to a trip where the adults are there mainly for the mission — because there’s no other way for the American kids to see an example of adults on mission.

A note on mentoring

I’m a mentor. I’ve been mentoring since before I learned what a mentor is. You see, that’s how lawyers train lawyers. But it’s not much like mentoring in church. Mentoring in law involves working alongside someone with less experience and helping them master the practice of law.

I assign an easy task to a young associate, the associate messes up, and I make her do it again. And again. Then I assign a harder task. But I’m there and available to answer questions and will always point out mistakes (more or less nicely) soon after they happen. I explain why it’s this way and not that way. And often I don’t wait for her to ask because she doesn’t know enough to know she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

In fact, I don’t like mentoring someone not in an office next to mine, because I want to be able to walk in unexpectedly and see what he’s doing. And I want to be able to take a few minutes to discourse on a thought that popped in my mind in the hallway. I’m bad to discourse on all sorts of things.

Mentoring in the workplace is about continuous feedback and instruction — and sometimes we mentors have to be pretty tough to break bad habits that might keep the associate from being successful. The best mentors are often the meanest ones — but only if you’re mean to make certain the associate masters the profession.

In church, what they call “mentoring” is occasional lunches to talk, and these are good things and sometimes extremely helpful. I’m all for them. They just aren’t true mentorships. True mentorships are like this —

“I’m sorry this project is taking longer than we expected. But the kids are counting on it, so we just have to stay up until we’re done.” “Be sure you hug the children you’re with because some receive no physical affection for the 51 weeks we aren’t here.” “Don’t be surprised if the kids are slow to trust you because many have had bad experiences with adults and other children. Always keep your word to them so they’ll trust you — so don’t make promises you can’t keep.” “If you don’t get up on time, we’ll leave you because we’re not taking 30 minutes from these orphans just so you can sleep in. Sleep on the plane on the way home.”

Valuable life lessons taught while serving beside a more experienced servant are the best kind of mentorships. It’s not either-or. It’s more like both-and. But if you can only do one, do the serving-beside kind.

A note on fault

We shouldn’t be this way, I suppose, but every time there’s a plea for change, someone will see the plea as a criticism. Therefore, I think I need to be explicit in my criticisms so that no one tries to fill in the gaps, read between the lines, and find criticism where none in intended.

So whose fault is it that youth ministry isn’t where it should be — as I see it? Well, quite plainly, it’s my fault. I’m an elder and the father of four. I’ve been involved in youth ministry in some form or other since I was in my 20s. If anyone should have figured this out 15 years sooner, it should have been me. After all, I have four children, my youngest just graduated from youth ministry to campus ministry, and I’ve just figured this out precisely too late to do any of my own children any good. And that’s quite plainly my fault.

Most youth ministers are very young, and by the time they gain much perspective, they’ve moved into other ministry areas or left the ministry. I mean, no one fresh out of college should expect to have the kind of perspective needed to see institutional, macro issues such as these. So as far as I’m concerned, they get a pass. They’ve been doing what they were hired to do, in a culture that no one asked them to change.

Of course, the other ministers weren’t hired to oversee youth ministry, much less to evaluate the whole youth ministry culture and theory. So it’s hardly their fault.

The parents of the kids are people being ministered to. While we ask them to plan trips and help in the ministry, they’ve never been asked to set the philosophy of the ministry or to develop a theology of youth ministry.

No, it’s squarely my fault. I should have thought of this a long time ago. As I said at the beginning, I’ve been concerned about youth ministry for a long time — and only someone my age would have the experiences and perspective needed to see the problems that so concern me. But there’s nothing here I couldn’t have sorted through years ago. I really wish I had.

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9 Responses

  1. I have participated on Trip 2 on numerous occasions. At times, the teens were my helpers. My son went with me on my last trip. I know it had a profound positive affect on him.

    I also know some who were positively affected by Trip 1. I know groups like Latin American Missions organize both types. They can get teens to participate in Trip 1 easier than Trip 2. Trip 2 requires much more physical stamina. They send ten Trip 2 teams and one Trip 1 teams each year.

    The good news is that neither Trip style is wrong. We only need choose which has better outcomes.

    Concerning mentoring. We have given the pulpit minister instructions to mentor the new youth minister. Success depends on the talents and skills of the mentor.

  2. Rich,

    I agree that the choice is between the good and the better.

    You know, we have a family — husband is a doctor, wife is a nurse — who decided their kids were growing up with an entitlement mentality. So they went on a medical mission trip to Africa for a few weeks and brought their boys with them to help. Hard work. Horrible diseases. And two dramatically changed boys, one of whom wound up in fulltime ministry. They got to see their parents in a different light.

    The parents weren’t putting on. They’d done African medical missions before they had children, but they couldn’t pass the heart for missions down to their kids until they’d done one together.

  3. I agree to a large degree with the points you make in this post. However, I have a minor quibble with your description of the Bahamas as a Central American country when the islands are located in the northeast Caribbean 🙂

  4. Darrell,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The two trips are to difference places. I didn’t intend to use “Central America” as a reference to the Bahamas.

  5. I think the most important thing about the post is the strikethrough in the title.
    I think the fault here isn’t simply with our typical style of YM as it is in the default ways we do church. This post is a great example of how doing church in alternative ways is really the path towards refining our ministry to adolescents. Trying to solve the latter without rethinking the former seems extremely problematic.

  6. Thank you for this series. We are struggling to do a college ministry, and this series is helpful.

    Regarding “A Note on Fault,” I am surprised that the colleges that teach youth ministry didn’t recognize this situation years ago and change what they teach. Any thoughts on how that could have happened? I ask because I have never been associated with any of those schools and don’t understand what happens at them.

  7. Steven,

    Exactly. You can’t have the kids serve alongside adults who aren’t serving. They can’t participate in adult mission trips that aren’t taking place.

    There was a time when youth ministry was actually where much of the transformation of the church was taking place. Youth ministers were given permission to do things that the adults wouldn’t be allowed to do. The kids weren’t indoctrinated in 5 Acts of Worship and other man-made doctrines. In some churches, the adults actually left the traditional worship to go join the teens in contemporary worship. More dramatically — and less noticed — the teens grew up.

    And while the teens still have a better theology than the adults in many churches, this is no longer standard. Rather, the adults have caught up — thanks in part to the work of the adults’ teen ministers from years gone by. No longer is it necessary to segregate the teens from the adults to give the teens healthy theology and healthy ministry experiences — but old habits die hard. Patterns that evolved for reasons that no longer exist are still patterns — and so that’s what we know how to do. Doing anything else requires experimenting and the discomfort of the new.

    But I’ve never known a youth minister who didn’t enjoy trying out something new. Rather, it’s usually us older folk who struggle to change.

    Thus, the segregation that evolved partly in response to the backwards theology of the adults is increasingly unnecessary — but it’s hard to break old habits.

  8. Dwayne,

    I have no idea what the colleges are teaching in youth ministry. I do know what they’re teaching for future campus ministries — nothing. The last I heard, not a single Church-affiliate college had so much as a course on campus ministry.

    And the total number of ministries is in decline because so many were supported as a joint effort by several churches — which can no longer get along well enough to hire a single minister and can’t afford to hire multiple ministers.

  9. […] A Different Way to Do Teen Ministry Campus Ministry Church, Short-term missions? […]

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