New to Youth Ministry: Common Mistakes in Planning Mission Work for Students

So you’re relatively new to youth ministry, what are the first things you do?

  • Plan the Bible studies, check
  • Recruit youth volunteers, check
  • Try to keep the youth from destroying the furniture in the fellowship hall, check
  • Take the youth on a short term mission trip, check

With the long checklist of things you want to do as a new youth minister, mission work is often, at best, approached haphazardly and, at worse, avoided all together.

While there are challenges in providing mission opportunities for your students, mission opportunities foster servanthood, Christlikeness, and community among students as we take them out of their comfort zones to learn and grow. Missions help your students develop relationships with those who are different than them. And they are a crucial part of discipling students to be ambassadors for Christ.

However, if not approached thoughtfully, mission work can end up doing more harm than good to both those being served and your students. Below are some common myths about mission work in youth ministry and tips on how to avoid doing more harm than good.

Myth 1: In order for mission work to be most impactful, we must travel out of the country.
People often use Matthew 28:19 as justification that we must go to all nations to truly do mission work. The Greek word translated as “go” in this passage actually means “as you are going.” In other words, we are to be making disciples wherever we go. The emphasis is not necessarily that we travel to all nations, but rather that we make disciples wherever we go. While traveling can be fun for students and experiencing different cultures can be valuable, in almost every community, there are people who need the benefits of mission work; whether to hear the truth of the gospel, to have a warm meal, or to receive tutoring, opportunities abound for mission work. In fact, if the only mission work you do with your students is a one-week trip somewhere else, is that really the most effective way to disciple them in the importance of living a life on mission? So, don’t think that the only mission opportunities out there involve expensive trips traveling to far off places.

Myth 2: I’ve been on mission trips before, there’s no need to prepare beforehand.
Even if you, the youth pastor, have countless mission experiences, in order to maximize the experience for your students, training them before a trip or local mission opportunity is essential. In particular, you must train your students to remember the gospel, be sensitive to cultural differences, and be humble learners.

Remember the gospel. This is arguably the most important thing you can do to prepare your students for a mission opportunity. It can be easy for students to think they are going to change the world through a short term mission trip. And while they can do good, your students are not saviors. They are not the ones who “have it all together” coming to serve those who “need help.” Only Jesus can do that. Rather, your students, just like those they wish to serve, are poor and in need of a savior. They are simply coming alongside others in whom God is already at work, and they serve in response to what Jesus has already done for them through his death on the cross for their sins. Reminding your students of this before a trip is so crucial. Unless your students have been humbled by the gospel, they could approach short term trips with, at best, a well-intentioned but paternalistic attitude and, at worst, a judgmental, condemning attitude towards those they seek to serve.

Be sensitive to cultural differences. Most often, short term mission opportunities take us to a different culture, whether it’s across the world or across town. Just because someone has a different culture (set of preferences or practices) than you does not make them wrong or needy. Learning more about the people you are taking your students to serve can help avoid unintended offenses that could hinder the work of the gospel. We want our students to “be quick to listen and slow to speak,” (James 1:19) so they avoid comments like “Wow, it’s so clean here!” (which implies that it should be dirty because they’re poor, etc.). You should also caution your students to avoid flaunting wealth. Carelessly flashing iPhones or money can be a false advertisement for what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Be humble learners. We must also remind students, not only of their own need for Jesus, but of the dignity and value of those we seek to serve. We must avoid the assumption that people who are poor don’t know Jesus or don’t have anything to offer. In fact, some people who are experiencing material poverty might have an incredibly strong faith in Jesus because they know what it’s like to truly depend on him for everything. How valuable could it be for your students to learn from saints like this!? Your students will only experience that if they humble themselves to learn from those they serve, not just preach at them.

Myth 3: The focus of mission opportunities is on those being served, not the students.
While mission work is intended to bring the light of the gospel to others, it can also serve as an incredible discipleship opportunity for your students. Exposing them to the great needs in this world and providing opportunities for them to bring the light of the gospel to bear on those individuals and situations can be a powerful tool in the spiritual growth of students.

In addition, when students are taken out of their comfort zone, they are often much more willing to open up and share vulnerably. Some of the deepest conversations I had with students when I was a youth pastor took place while sitting on a bunk bed in a cabin in a rural community after a hard day’s work helping repair someone’s home.

So, don’t just look at mission work as something to add to your checklist as a youth pastor. Rather, consider the value it has in the overall discipleship of your students. And make sure that you expose your students to mission work both near and far, train and prepare your students beforehand, and look for discipleship opportunities along the way.

Philip has lived his entire adult life (almost 20 years) in low-income communities of color, first as a youth pastor in a small town in Mississippi and since 2007 in Memphis, TN, serving as the Executive Director of Service Over Self (SOS), a Christian ministry providing home repair and leadership development in three of Memphis's most underserved neighborhoods. He is a contributor to the 2016 book, Gospel Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide published by Crossway. Philip, his wife Kelsea and their three kids are residents of Binghampton, one of SOS's partner neighborhoods. He loves ice cream, running and riding his bike really early in the morning (so he can justify eating more ice cream), and he is an unashamed choir nerd.

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