The early part of my summer constitutes both the best and worst time of year for youth ministry. It’s mission trip season, which means a constant vacillation between the fringes of misery and the footsteps of glory.
Missions season means thin mattresses, pools of sweat, manual labor, stressful decisions, limited personal space, inevitable injuries, endless drives, processed food, stress eating and community showers. At the same time, seeing students step up to challenges, bond as a group, share their faith, live out the Gospel, and articulate what God is doing in their life makes the draining, uncomfortable season completely worthwhile. Some of my most vivid pictures of the Kingdom come during these mission trips.
On the closing days of most trips, I wrestle with the question, “Is this really making any difference in the lives of my students?”
The kids often leave with a passion for serving the poor, and we hope to channel that enthusiasm into meaningful, committed service in our local community. For some students, these trips are the birthplace of their eventual call into the mission field. With all kids, we talk about the principles of honoring Christ by laying down our lives in the service of others in their homes, schools, teams, etc.
On my way home from our latest mission trip to Memphis, Tenn., where we annually serve with Service Over Self Ministries, a new and vital application came to mind. As I listened to the stories of students in the car, I crudely labeled this application as the “love is really stinkin’ hard” principle.
During this trip, our students encountered myriad frightening, awkward and uncomfortable situations as they worked in the seething, Southern heat. On one afternoon, an individual down the block from where our students were working unloaded a dozen rounds from a pistol. Our leaders had to call the police and wait behind the locked doors of the house. Our kids left the neighborhood for the day. We prayed, talked with the parents and discussed the situation with the police. After much discussion, all parties (police, parents, kids and leaders) deemed the situation safe for return the next day. Even with the assurances of the local police and neighborhood leaders, our kids and leaders had to confront intense fear in returning to the work site.
Another work group served a 90-year-old woman with no family in town. She admitted early during the week that she rarely received a visit from anyone and that loneliness pervaded her life. The mission for several of our young people involved sitting in the house for hours, often times with long periods of awkward silence. They felt uncomfortable in those moments but knew that serving Christ meant offering companionship to this sweet, elderly lady.
A third set of students replaced the roof for a homeowner on the brink of deep, financial hardship. The wife would likely lose her government benefits that helped with her treatments for Type 1 diabetes. Her medicine now would cost her more than $1,500 per month. The family barely brought in that much money in total each month. She lamented to one of our older students about her fears of not affording these critical medications. Sharing the love of God meant that this student listened to the woman’s distressing concerns and prayed with her every day. It meant shouldering heavy burden.
Aside from the challenges of serving the poor, simply loving your neighbor in the spirit of the Gospel involves incredible struggle and discomfort. The difficulty only will increase for young people as they mature.
Caring for young children requires extraordinary endurance. Confronting a wayward friend is extremely awkward. Going to the trauma and burn unit of a hospital or visiting someone in prison is scary. Nurturing an aging parent or grandparent with dementia is not glamorous. Resolving a conflict with your spouse takes humility and fortitude. Visiting a family’s house after a funeral takes guts. Standing by your child with long-term addiction problems requires much faith and prayer in the face of despair.
The love of The Bachelor and romantic comedies looks pretty. The love of Jesus involves the awkward, nasty work of washing feet smeared with mud, refuse and animal feces. That sounds disgusting, but that is exactly what Jesus encountered when he cleansed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper. Foot washing looks like a trip to the spa compared to the excruciating, courageous walk Jesus made to the cross out of love for sinners.
Students must engage in the dirty work of love if they are going to develop into the disciples of Jesus that we are hoping they will become in their vocations, families, churches and friendships. Mission trips provide a supreme training ground for students to love people in this self-sacrificing way.
Going forward, I am releasing myself from the trap of measuring mission trip success based on the number of students who become foreign missionaries or committed volunteers. I intend to portray a realistic picture of the messiness of loving our neighbors in a biblical Christian manner. I will let the students get their hands dirty in preparation for the awkward, difficult and still glorious work of serving others in the courageous way that Christ did.