A few years ago we were having a discussion about the summer trips for our high school ministry. We had a long history of going to a conference, but many wondered whether our students were missing out by not having a variety of experiences. Mission trips had fallen by the wayside some years ago, though no one was quite sure why. Our leadership team found itself debating the relative merits of tradition and change, and we seemed to be at an impasse. Then, someone wondered aloud, “What if we just did a mission trip this year?” All heads turned to me. It was my first year there, and everyone knew I had a lot of experience leading youth mission trips. “We’re not sure where to start.”
Summer trips are considered to be a vital part of many youth ministries— sometimes even more so than dodge ball and pizza. But unless you take the time to consider the purpose for these trips, you may find yourself having this same conversation year after year: How do we decide what to do and where to go? I was all for mission trips, but I knew that the best thing we could do was to find a way to avoid coming back to this same question every year. We needed structure.
When we think about missions, there’s no better place for guidance than the Acts of the Apostles. Right at the beginning, before His ascension, Jesus commissioned His followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Here, we have the thesis statement for all of Acts. This verse lays out the whole structure of the book; it also helps us establish more of the purpose behind how and why we do mission trips.
Thesis Statement of Acts
The power underlying this commissioning statement is found in how it foreshadows the rest of the book of Acts. First, the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and are given the power to witness to Christ, speaking in the languages of all those gathered for the festival (2:5-13). The rest of the book follows the early church as it witnesses to Jerusalem (chapters 2-5), Judea (6-8), Samaria (8-12) and the end of the earth (13-28).
The task was initially small in scope and then expanded outward. For the apostles, this was not only a geographical assignment, but a cultural one as well. Jerusalem was filled with people like themselves; Judea was a place with people who were similar but lived life differently than those around the main city; Samaria, though nearby, was filled with people who were quite culturally different; and the End of the Earth was an assignment of great cultural challenge. Again, the greater purpose here was to speak and act as witnesses of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Mission in Our Context: A Rotation
We applied this to a youth ministry context by developing a rotation system that parallels the different touchstones Jesus gave His apostles: there are four locales, one for each year a student is a part of the high school ministry. You can also expand this rotation to include the middle school students, if that works for your context. The beauty lies in its flexibility: this structure is not dictated by geography but is instead focused on culture.
A Jerusalem Trip involves serving people who have essentially the same culture as you do, be it in urban centers, rural poverty, or perhaps those recovering from a natural disaster. A Judea Trip aims to serve those who have a similar culture, but perhaps live it in a different context. For example, our church’s Jerusalem trip took us to Long Island to serve middle class families recovering from Hurricane Sandy, and for our Judea trip, we served alongside urban ministries in Milwaukee. A Samaria Trip takes you to serve those who have a different culture than you do, though they live close, like a Native American Reservation. Finally, an Ends of the Earth Trip takes you out of the country to interact with, learn from, and serve those in another place. This is the most challenging (and expensive) type of trip to prepare for, but also has the potential to have the most impact—if the foundation is properly laid.
One of the great benefits of a rotation system is that it provides students with the opportunity to see that God really is a God of all the earth and that He is moving in a variety of ways and contexts. This isn’t to discount the importance of serving somewhere consistently, or returning to a beloved location for a youth conference—both of which we hope to do in the future.
The Who of Missions
This type of structure, while helpful, can seem a bit daunting. It is important to remember, however, that before Jesus even gave His apostles this commission, He told them how they were going to be able to accomplish this task: God was going to orchestrate the structure, and they were going to receive power from the Holy Spirit. God’s grace is such that we are not going out on our own. We are being swept up in the story He is telling, and He is using us to tell it.
Why do we do mission trips? Surely we have a sense that we do so to obey the Great Commandments, to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). But why must we go to do this? Acts 1:8 tells us: “you will be my witnesses.” In everything we do, we must keep in mind that we go so that people might know Jesus; it’s not merely about our experience or teaching our students a lesson about gratitude. It’s about our students, the people we are privileged to serve with and for—and us—knowing Jesus better.
*Recommended reading: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself