When we begin talking about mission, many people think of mission trips. That’s not a bad thing. One of my most formative experiences was a youth mission trip among the poor in Prestonburg, Kentucky.
Mission trips can be helpful to us in considering the mission of God and potentially can lead students to think more deeply about their roles in the mission. However, mission (not plural) is bigger than trips, but not so big that students cannot understand it or be involved. If students can learn algebra at school, they can learn theology at church. If they are learning theology but not putting it into practice, we are failing them. Maybe we haven’t challenged our students enough in terms of missional living.
To help them understand mission and put it into practice, we need to consider what the mission is, how we might point students toward it, how they can begin being involved right now, and how we can prepare them for an entire life on mission.
What Is Mission?
Definitions matter when we talk about mission. If we want students to be involved in something, we have to know what mission actually is.
God is a missionary God. As believers, we need to understand what God desires and what He is doing for His purposes in the world. Then we see how Jesus engaged in and called us to that mission—and we join Jesus in His mission. The obvious question is: How can we engage students in the privilege of joining Him in that mission? First, we have to help them see the two aspects of it.
The mission includes gospel proclamation—sharing the good news of the gospel through many means, including cross-cultural missionaries, outreach campaigns, church evangelism, student events, one-on-one gospel sharing and many other possibilities. It also includes gospel demonstration, where we demonstrate the implications of the gospel lived out in our lives by caring for the poor, the hurting, the marginalized and more.
As Christians, we are sent out with these two facets of mission because that is how the Father sent Jesus (John 20:21). More than 40 times, Jesus indicated the Father had sent Him. Then hear the end of the Gospel of John, at the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He says, “Oh, that stuff I’ve been talking about how I’ve been sent? Now I’m sending you” (my paraphrase).
So, How Was Jesus Sent?
Two passages in Luke may help us from the two big categories of how we are sent by Jesus into the world. Now certainly these are not the only categories, but they can help us better understand all the others.
Jesus Came to Serve the Hurting:
In Luke 4, Jesus announces and inaugurates His public ministry by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this, He identifies His mission with the Old Testament reference to the great and wonderful day of the Lord, particularly contained in the Book of Isaiah.
Jesus came to bring freedom for captives, sight to the blind and minister to the hurting. Simply put, Jesus came serving. If we’re going to join Jesus on His mission, as John 20:21 tells us, we are going to serve the hurting.
Jesus Came to Save the Lost:
Yet Luke 4 is not the only (or primary) place Jesus articulated His ministry. In Luke 19:10, Jesus clearly said He came to share the good news. He said, “I have come to seek and save the lost.” Jesus came serving, but He also came saving.
This means much more than simply praying a prayer and being saved. Yet the promise that Paul later would write in the Book of Romans, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 10:13), reminds us that, before Christ, men and women are dead in their trespasses and sins, but having heard the good news of the gospel, they can by grace and through faith receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus came bringing that message, that saving message, to a lost and hurting world.
Perhaps the easiest way to sum it up is this: Our mission is Jesus’ mission. We join Jesus on His mission—what He modeled and what He sent us to do—in our case, showing and sharing the love of Jesus.
How do we get students involved in that?
Pointing Students Toward Jesus’ Mission
Student ministry must be more than a four-year holding tank with pizza. Kids may be happy and at church when they’re younger, but unless they are shown how Christ is significant and His mission matters, they will leave in high school when they get jobs and cars. They have to be challenged to be more than consumers. We must show them how and why they are to be on mission with Christ. Whether you’re taking students on local missions or helping them discover their specific identity and calling in Christ, you’re likely helping students understand what it means to engage in God’s mission.
When students encounter Christ and they’ve seen parents and influential adults living on mission, they naturally want to use their passions in following Christ. I’ve seen this in my sixth grade daughter. Her particular focus happens to be on animal welfare issues. She collects money and donates it to a local shelter. She fosters dogs when they are sick. She has a genuine heart for animals. This is part of what Jesus called us all to do, but it does not stop there.
As my daughter seeks the welfare of animals, I am helping her understand the call of Jesus and encouraging her and inviting her to join us in the mission as we seek to reach the lost. She has jumped right in. Yes, she has a love for animals, but she also has a greater love for people and for them to hear the gospel.
She has come with me on ministry trips and outreach opportunities. We have helped renovate a building where we have planted a church. In other words, she is joining Jesus on His mission. I am intentional about encouraging her in this, because I want to teach her that life is not about her. Rather, it is about God and His glory being made known through serving others.
Obviously we want to provoke students to love and do good deeds (Heb. 10:24). When we join God on His mission, we’re seeking to make the world more like He wants it to be, and that provides us with a broad table of options for us to encourage students toward.
When Are Christians Sent on Mission?
Perhaps this is more of a theological consideration. Biblically, should students be involved in the mission of God? One place we find the answer most clearly is 1 Peter 4:10. It says that “based on the gift they have received, everyone should use their gifts to serve others, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (HCSB).
Because Peter’s readers are followers of Jesus, they are now indwelt by the Spirit’s presence and power. Therefore, they are gifted with the Spirit, and they are gifted by the Spirit. They have been given spiritual gifts. Therefore, the Bible teaches that everyone should use their gifts to serve others as good stewards in the manifold grace of God. Everyone includes students.
Every believer is called to be an agent of ministry. People who have spiritual gifts have begun a Christian life, and part of that Christian life is that they are gifted to serve others. From the moment a person begins to follow Christ, he or she immediately is sent on mission—students included.
Here is where the rubber meets the road: How do we help students get engaged in mission right now where they are?
First, have an overarching mission strategy for the student ministry in your church. The extent of your goal should be challenging, but not impossible for a church of your size. Virtually every student ministry could do a local endeavor where each small group is engaged in a regular hands-on mission opportunity nearby. Help your students be aware that God’s mission for them includes a local and a global component by having both be a part of your overall strategy.
Second, encourage each student to own a ministry personally. My 15-year-old daughter leads the kids each week through a small group ministry in our church. My middle daughter often works on the cleanup and setup crew. My youngest daughter (age 9) is only involved in activities where her parents are involved. Our intent is not just that she would do things with us, but that she would have a ministry she focuses on and a mission she seeks to live.
Finally, consider the spiritual gifting of each individual student. As we intentionally invest in their lives in a way that helps them grow and discover their gifts, we could discuss their gifting with them and encourage them in finding ways to serve accordingly.
Seeing Students Connect
When students understand the gospel and the mission, they can (and should) be encouraged toward both (and in that order). That’s the role of the student pastor, just as for any other pastor. Pastors and teachers “equip God’s people for works of ministry to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11). That’s our job—leading and teaching—then eventually equipping students for ministry and mission.
We lead students to mission, seeking to find and foster ministry opportunities for them that they own and find meaningful. This should result in them being the ones engaging in ministry. Then we invite them to partner with their peers in mission and ministry opportunities so the culture of ministries is one of calling and service. There will be no concept of passive consumers.
Student ministries that function this way will not be raising people lined in rows facing forward passively, merely watching a pastor talk about living the Christian life. This student ministry will develop and send out well-formed young adults who are ready to live passionately for the glory of God.
That’s a student ministry on mission. That will be students connected to Christ’s mission. That is what we all desire.
Ed Stetzer holds two masters and two doctorates and teaches on mission at seminaries around the world. Most important, he’s married to Donna and is the father of three girls. Follow him on Twitter or EdStetzer.com.