In the summer of 1886, one of the most notable Christian student-sending movements began as a group of college students gathered to grow in the study of God’s word. During this gathering, 100 students were spurred on to commit their lives to go to foreign lands for the sake of the gospel. This began what has come to be known as the Student Volunteer Movement. It was a movement through which God took the faithfulness of these 100 and multiplied their number to over 5,000 in the course of two short years.
This event is often held as one of the single most forming events in student missions in North America. It was though the SVM that the possibility of using student volunteers as agents for the spread of the gospel through short-term trips became a reality. And the movement has rippled through the stream of college campus and local churches for decades since.
Many youth ministries today are living in the heritage of this movement, with spring semester and summer especially including at least one short-term student mission trip.
Youth leaders are tasked with taking a small group of middle or high school students, some of whom have never traveled further than their grandparents’ house, and preparing them to not only share the gospel in a different culture, but to hopefully avoid the hospital while doing it.
It can be tempting to use our training times before embarking as solely logistical meetings. We walk our students through the schedule, expectations, and the long list of packing items they must magically fit into one backpack – the first test of their true skills.
I have been guilty of this type of “training” many times. However, this past month, as I sat with a group of college students at Cross Conference, I found myself convicted of my role as a sender for my students – not only for those called to long-term work, but even for those going for a week. If we believe the command in Matthew 28:20 is not for some, but for all, then we must start treating it as more than a call to missions, but a call to God. This would change our training from a preparation for a week-long trip to the discipleship of an eternal perspective.
So, as I join the throng of youth leaders this spring preparing to lead multiple short-term student teams, I would like to give three key lessons to teach our students during training that will help shift their mindset from a one-week preparation, to perseverance for a lifetime.
Teach them to love God
I will admit, this first point might seem misplaced. When it comes to short-term trips, many student ministries have a rigorous application process for their students. Their teams are often comprised of some of the strongest students in the ministry; shouldn’t we already know what our students love God?
What I am suggesting here is not in terms of salvation, but affection.
When preparing to go, it is easy to fall into the grandeur of crossing cultures, and all we talk about is the trip itself, even in our trainings. However, what I am suggesting is that we first talk about God and then about missions. If we talk about missions first, or only, it will likely come across as just another program or trip.
If we want to make the most of the discipleship opportunity we have with our students through these short-term trips, we must help them to see their going as more than one trip or event, but as an act of obedience toward their Savior and King. The New Testament is the inauguration of God’s call to His people to be His witnesses through the power of His Spirit. As we continually point our students – even our “strongest” students – toward the glory of God, with our aim being a deepening of their affections toward God and the gospel, their “going” will become more than a call for the moment but a command for their lives as disciples of Christ.
Teach them to care for suffering, especially eternal suffering
For three years, I lead student teams on short-term trips in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Over that time, I fell deeply in love with the people and the culture. The people we served had some of the sweetest fellowship between believers, a small, but thriving church, and a movement of the gospel like I had never seen. Yet, at the end of each trip, the number one take-away teams would report back home was their amazement at how little the people had and their gratitude for the material blessings they did have.
At Cross Conference, it was John Piper who said, “Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
Don’t get me wrong, it is a gift for our students to cross the barrier of privilege into poverty, and for their eyes to be opened to, and hearts broken for, the physical suffering of God’s creation. However, if their hearts are only ever broken over physical poverty and not spiritual poverty, then we have failed in showing them God’s heart for the nations. Yes, as followers of Christ, we should care for physical suffering, just as Christ did. However, our motivation for the healing of physical suffering should first be rooted in a deeper care for the eternal suffering that only Christ can heal.
Apart from Christ, we have nothing of eternal value; but in Christ, we have been given an eternal inheritance far greater than anything in this world. If we desire to magnify the glory of God in our students’ lives, we must help them to see spiritual poverty apart from the saving grace of Christ. Not only to recognize it, but to recognize it as equally heartbreaking as physical poverty. In Matthew 25:31-46, the well-known “least of these” verses, we do see that God cares deeply for the physical care of His children. Yet these words were not given in the context of poverty alleviation. They were speaking to the heavy reality that there will, one day, be a separation of eternal life from eternal punishment. It is only through faith in Christ’s finished worked on the cross that eternal hope is found, and it is because of Christ’s finished work that we consider these present sufferings as nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).
Teach them God’s vision for the local church
Since Christ’s commission, the church has always been both the means and the goal for the spreading of God’s kingdom to the nations.
A dangerous pitfall of short-term trips is to view them with short-term vision. While we can share the gospel and even see people come to faith in a week, we know it is impossible to plant a church or see the fruit of discipleship in just one week. So, how can a week-long trip possibly aid in a long-term vision? Through partnership with local believers in the discipleship and evangelism of their people for the sake of the long-term work in that area: the church.
Paul’s journeys in the New Testament included not only the spreading of the gospel, but also the establishment of elders for the planting of the local church. We see in Scripture that it is through the church that the gospel witness spreads, and disciples continue to be made throughout the city long after Paul leaves. We also see in the Bible that it is the role of the local church to send out people to go. Our students cannot be indifferent toward the church, yet passionate about the advancement of God’s kingdom. God’s story has always been centered on His people, and the hope of the gospel is that Christ is coming again for His bride – the church. The church is at the heart of God’s gospel; Christ came to save not merely individual people, but a people, for Himself – the global church.
So, as we participate in the beautiful heritage of past generations who have laid way for our own students, may we make the most of this great opportunity of short-term student trips – the discipleship of our students to the glory of God. May we make God’s story big and our story small; may we use this time as more than a fun trip, but as a chance to participant in the greatest call of our lives; may we help our students see their role in evangelism, whether as a goer or a sender, as more than a call but a command of obedience to the God of their salvation.