Think about the teenagers in your church who you believe love God the most, the ones that would be most likely to serve in your congregation. Can you see them in your mind yet? These are the “good” kids, right? At least these are on the correct path, right?
Don’t be too sure.
These are the exact type of teens who go on mission trips with my team each year. More than 72,000 of them have shown up over the years ready to explore South American jungles, trek through Himalayan mountains and journey inside cultures unlike their own, all for the chance to tell people about Jesus. At least that’s what I thought, until I made a shocking discovery.
One summer, when we were training missionaries on our campus to head out to the ends of the earth, we asked them to write letters to God. We told them to ask Him for what they wanted while on the field. They brought their letters to the front of the room and left them anonymously at the foot of a wooden cross.
The collection and reading of those letters was a game-changer for me. I was surprised. I was stunned. I began to rethink everything. Thousands of prayers written down and left for God to read …
“Dear God, Lately I’ve been dealing with cutting my wrists every time I screw up. I think I deserve to bleed. I feel worthless, but You already know that. I just want to be loved.”
“I’m dealing with porn, tobacco, alcohol, rebelling, cursing … I really need You.”
“Dear God, I watched those videos I wasn’t supposed to watch. … [Now] I want to feel Your fire, God. I want to feel a passion for You. Please help me, but only if You want.”
I wish I could tell you these types of petitions were the exception, but reality is showing us we have a generation of “good Christian kids” desperate to validate their faith. They want to have a powerful encounter with their God, and they’re going on excursions to remote places around the world to get it.
The truth is, I believe these hungry students have the right idea. A mission trip is exactly what our kids need to establish their beliefs and grow closer to God in a non-traditional and life-changing way. Even teens who’ve grown up in the church are haunted by the question, “What do I believe?” They have a sense of their faith, but the way to explain it to others eludes them. There is no better way to get them motivated to become knowledgeable about their commitment to Christ than to put them in a place where they know they will need to give a reason for the hope they have.
When a teenager gets extracted from their routine environment, becomes a part of modern-day miracles and has a chance to lead people to put their trust in Christ, something incredible happens! They become bold. They become courageous. They become brave like the apostle Paul, who said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
These adventures become their proof of God as they realize He can use them to ignite fire in others. When a missionary looks into the eyes of a Buddhist, a Muslim, an atheist or anyone else who hasn’t yet understood the Good News, and sees the light of the one true God come on, that teen is never the same.
The euphoria of what it feels like to partner with God in ministry is addicting and only one of many benefits teens enjoy on the mission field. A biblical understanding of personal destiny and a more holistic perspective of the world are others.
I remember my own moment of discovery when I first got a glimpse of how God saw the world and what that meant for me. I was 18 years old and on my first overseas mission trip in Botswana, Africa. On our first day, we walked past mud huts and stopped at a home doubling as the community’s brewery, where we shared the gospel with some adults. Our conversations quickly revealed that none of them had ever heard about Christ in a relevant way. I couldn’t believe it! I’d heard more, “come-to-Jesus altar calls” than I could count, yet here was a group of real people who’d never had that opportunity.
Every day of that trip, I was pushed to put others first and prioritize people over my own wants and comforts. Slowly, “missions” lost previously existing taboos in my mind and became “normal.” It became the right answer for social injustice and spiritual darkness. It was no longer only a short trip I was on, but the way I wanted to live forever, no matter where I found myself.
I had an epiphany on my adventure in Africa that I doubt my high school education could ever have given me. I recognized that the world was truly bigger than the four walls of my own existence, and I began to believe my life could make a difference. That’s what missions did for me and has done and is doing for thousands of others.
What happens once a teen has helped rebuild a school in Haiti and served people who have lost everything? What happens once they’ve experienced the caste systems and poverty in India? What happens once they’ve met hundreds of kids in Zambia orphaned by war, AIDs and abandonment?
Compassion happens, that’s what.
Teens once focused on having the latest fashions become more thankful, more considerate and more generous to others. Selfishness shrinks back.
When we encourage our teens to do something to change the life of someone else, often they’re the ones most transformed in the process. As our kids participate in the process of an outreach expedition, they face opportunities to grow into the young men and women for which we’re praying. They’re confronted with the need to become more responsible, as it takes hard work and dedication to fundraise for a mission trip. Teens are required to take ownership over their time management and schedules.
Once on the field, they must rise to the challenge of leading peers and following through on commitments. As they meet new people, they must learn how to work together on projects, cooperate with translators and partner with the leadership of other churches. Removed from the technology, social media and messaging that usually surrounds them, they’re able to form a habit of daily time with God. Amid the guidelines and expectations intrinsic to mission trip programs, they can practice making right choices consistently. All these opportunities develop life skills in our kids and form habits of godliness we hope they’ll continue to crave in their lives.
As leaders and ministers, we must respond to the needs of our teens in order to secure the legacy of our Christian heritage. I believe missions are an inherent component in doing this.
It’s time to get excited about all the possibilities! Getting locked into missions is actually much easier than most people assume. There are more opportunities to take and send our youth on safe, quality mission trips than ever before. If you think your students might not be willing, guess again! Teens love adventure, they thrive on new undertakings and this generation already has a proven track record of engaging in all kinds of social work through volunteerism.
The need has never been greater. Our commission is unchanged. Therefore, God will equip us for every good work as we lead His kids on an expedition to change the world.
A graduate of Teen Mania, Emmie Harper joined the minstry’s staff in 2002 and has served as the director of global expeditions for three years.
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