Rethinking the Way You Do Missions with Teenagers

Have you ever taken your students to serve at a soup kitchen?* Try to imagine for a moment the details of an experience like that. Imagine the place… What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Imagine the people there… What do they look like? What expressions are on their faces? What are they doing? Now imagine your students there serving… 

What about a potluck? If you’re a part of a traditional denomination, especially in the southern United States, chances are you have experienced a potluck supper in the fellowship hall of your church! Now imagine that place… What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Imagine the people there… What do they look like? What expressions are on their faces? What are they doing?Now imagine your students being there and participating…

Both soup kitchens and potlucks have generally the same purpose – to feed people. But they have drastically different approaches to meet this goal. 

So, what do soup kitchens and potlucks have to do missions with teenagers? I’m glad you asked! Comparing the two can serve as an illustration to help inform the way we approach gospel-driven mission work. 

Before we continue with this illustration, let’s take a brief look at the life of Jesus and how he ministered to the world. When we look at the life of Jesus we see that:

Place matters. Jesus came to earth – a specific place, at a specific point in time – to dwell among us (John 1:14). 

Proximity changes everything. Jesus didn’t minister from a distance. He got close to people, touched people, allowed people to touch him. He connected with people relationally, even with (especially with!) those who were marginalized (Matthew 26:6-13). 

Posture speaks louder than words. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Though he was the creator and sustainer of the universe, he lived a life of humility (Philippians 2:5-8). And that humility made him accessible, approachable. Sinners and outcasts felt comfortable coming to him (Mark 5:21-34). 

If we look to Jesus not only as our savior but also as our example of how to engage the world with his message of hope and love, then we must consider how place, proximity, and posture are a part of our strategy. 

Now, back to soup kitchens and potlucks…

Why do you show up to a soup kitchen? If you are reading this, chances are you come to a soup kitchen with your students or family to volunteer to serve food to the poor. 

And why do you show up to a potluck? Again, if you are reading this, you most likely come to a potluck both to offer a dish that you have prepared AND with a big appetite to enjoy the spoils of all that everyone has brought to share. 

Both seem like good things. And, in general, there are very good things about both soup kitchens and potlucks. But, let’s take a closer look at them through the lens of place, proximity, and posture.

Even with good intentions, soup kitchens naturally create separate groups – those serving and those being served. That separation makes it difficult to be genuinely proximate to others and develop relationships. And that separation affects the posture of those who show up to serve. It can create an “us and them” dynamic. It can make it difficult for those serving to see their own needs. Because of sin, we all experience brokenness in our lives and have needs, even if those needs are not outwardly obvious like lacking food or clothing.   

On the other hand, a potluck is designed to bring people together in a specific place and encourages genuine relationships through proximity. There are no distinctions between people because everyone shows up with the same posture – both to serve and to be served; both bringing a dish to share (something to offer) and an appetite, ready to eat (a need to be met). 

Now – the big point – imagine if we approached our mission work with students as if we were attending a potluck and not a soup kitchen? 

First of all – what place would we serve? Would we travel far and wide to places that would be labeled “poor” or “needy?” Or would we look around us to see how all corners of this world are affected by the brokenness of sin? Would we invest our lives and relationships over the long haul in a specific place? 

Would we seek out opportunities that keep our relationships at a distance? Or would we  choose to be proximate to others so that we might learn their stories, understand them more, and develop genuine relationships with them?

And what would our posture be? Would we show up only expecting to give? Or would we be open to having our own needs met by others (even those we seek to serve)? Would we see those we seek to serve as needy and lacking or would we see them as people made in the image of God with gifts and assets that they have to offer us? Would we let them serve us, meet our needs?

The beautiful thing about this “potluck approach” to missions – is that it applies to more than just short term mission trips. Rather, it is a beautiful metaphor for what it looks like to live as citizens in the Kingdom of God. Our worldview is no longer us and them, Christians and non-Christians, rich and poor… rather we show up every day in God’s beautiful Kingdom and see all people, ourselves included, as fellow image-bearers having both gifts to share and needs to be met. And when we do that, we get to experience all the riches, flavors, and joys of this beautiful potluck we call the Kingdom of God! 

Purchase the audio from Philip’s workshop and the other Rooted 2021 conference content here.


*The “Soup Kitchen vs. Potluck” illustration was first introduced to me through my friend Michael Rhodes who also uses this illustration in his book Practicing The King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give.

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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