Youth workers are known for shaking things up and taking creative approaches to old challenges. So why do so many youth workers follow the same-old-same-old approach when it comes to mission activities and trips?
The chief culprit is habit, captured in the question, “The way we did things last year seemed to work OK, so why change things this year?”
Another culprit is convenience. Change is hard; even leaders who publicly champion change admit same-old-same-old is easier. When you simply repeat what you’ve done in the past, there are no structures to overhaul, no late-running meetings to coordinate, no relational landmines to navigate, no administrative nightmares to address.
Three mission advocates we talked to argue the right changes are worth the challenge, especially when they improve effectiveness of kingdom work.
Mission as Movement: Adaptability
Steve Addison is a church-planting strategist who has spent a lifetime studying movements that have ignited and renewed the Christian faith. In his book Movements that Change the World, Addison identifies five characteristics that make the difference between a flash-in-the-pan burst of ministry passion and a dynamic missionary movement that transcends cultures, countries and generations.
One of those key characteristics is adaptive methods. What happens when movements are willing to risk change for the sake of their mission?
“Movements that drift away from their core beliefs are always at risk, but so are movements that regard the way they currently function as sacred,” Addison says. “That means we need to be very clear about our unchanging message and mission and clearly distinguish them from our continually changing methods. We are responsible to remain true to the gospel and continually evaluate the fruitfulness and effectiveness of our methods. If we don’t, self-preservation will become our mission.”
When self-preservation becomes a group’s mission, Addison argues, it’s time to raise the red flag and evaluate what adjustments—or upheavals—might need to occur. “The most effective movements are prepared to change everything about themselves except their core beliefs. Unencumbered by tradition, movements feel free to experiment with new forms and strategies,” says Addison.
An example of the successful use of adaptive methods is found in the case of James Naismith, who invented basketball in the late 1800s. Naismith was passionate about mission intersecting with sport. He became convinced he could minister more effectively on a gym floor than in a pulpit, so he took a job as an instructor at a local YMCA. His vision was to create an indoor activity that students could enjoy during the winter months.
After attempts at various versions of football, soccer and lacrosse—with no success—Naismith finally decided to adapt his method by drawing from all three sports, using a ball that could be easily handled, play that involved running and passing with no tackling and a goal at each end of the floor. Hence the game of basketball not only was born but has been used for decades as common ground to introduce people to Christ throughout the world.
Addison sees adaptive methods in Jesus’ ministry, as well. These consistently were characterized by being sustainable (not requiring external funding); flexible (modifiable as the context changed); transferable (easily passed on to new disciples); simple (including only the essentials); functional (effective for the purpose they were intended); scalable (able to be multiplied without distortion); and reproducible (spreading rapidly from person to person, network to network).
Youth workers who want to evaluate whether the mission strategies they are using are due for change should apply these criteria to their programs.
Mission as Personal Development: Short-Term Mission Trips
When it comes to mission, many youth workers think mission trips. In his book Short-Term Missions: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience, associate professor of anthropology Brian Howell explores the narrative shape of short-term mission, describing how participants in short-term mission remember and interpret their experiences.
Regardless of whether participants traveled to Ethiopia, the Czech Republic, Mexico or Brazil, “the similarities of phrases, expectations, disappointments or emotions were striking.” Repeated phrases were “‘life-changing,’ ‘eye-opening,’ radically transformed the way students ‘saw the world,’ the first time ‘really seeing’ the conditions of poverty and inequality throughout the world invoking deep emotions including sorrow, anger and compassion and ‘discovered’ that ‘we’re all the same’ and ‘we are one in Christ’ despite language, cultural or economic differences.'”
Howell says short-term mission participants “frame their trips as significant—even life-altering—experiences, largely in regard to personal spiritual and emotional growth, and often related through one or two significant relationships, divine revelations or meaningful encounters. In these retellings, there are often moments of epiphany, if not conversion, in which realizations of unity across cultures, gratitude for a relatively affluent life and self-discovery punctuate a week or 10 days of manual labor, sacrifice and service in an unfamiliar cultural context.”
Not all experiences of short-term mission are positive, of course. In fact, many stories are riddled with common expressions of disappointment, frustration and confusion.
“I recall one of my students telling me that in her first short-term mission trip, in which her group of high school youth traveled to Mexico,” said Howell. “She felt as if the team was not needed. She told me she regretted the money and effort spent on the trip, because she felt the time serving did not make much of a difference.”
Clearly, mission trip participants are more positive about their experiences when they have a sense that these trips make a real difference in the lives of the people they serve, whether feeding the homeless in inner city Chicago or presenting the gospel to young people on the streets of Mexico.
Will youth workers place a greater emphasis on the personal growth of mission trip participants or the trip’s impact on those people it was designed to serve? Leaders who continually seek to balance these two goals have a chance to achieve both goals, but if leaders grow complacent, mission trips may become habitual, not transformative.
Mission as Leadership Culture: Environment Matters
How do leadership styles impact the way youth groups approach mission activities? Pastor and church-planter J.R. Woodward is convinced the culture of a group inevitably will shape the group’s experience outside the walls of the church.
In his latest book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, Woodward argues that a polycentric (or shared) approach to leadership is one of the most important things a ministry can do to maintain missional integrity.
Many young people are skeptical groups with a single, strong individual leader who uses a hierarchical approach to leadership. On the other hand, a polycentric leadership approach “allows groups to interrelate and incarnate the various purposes of Christ in such a way that the entire body is activated to service and matures in love.”
Creating this kind of missional culture in youth ministry is about more than just adding another mission trip or outreach project. Woodward says a hierarchical, strong leader approach to leadership creates an individual approach to discipleship, whereas a shared approach to leadership creates a communal approach to discipleship. Woodward believes this latter approach is a reflection of the heart and identity of God.
“Creating a missional culture helps the church live out its calling to be a sign of the kingdom,” says Woodward, “pointing people to the reality beyond what we can see, a foretaste of the kingdom where we grow to love one another as Christ loves us, and an instrument in the hands of God to bring more of heaven to earth in concrete ways.”
Woodward lays out five environments that a ministry can cultivate in order to embrace this kind of missional culture. When these environments are already part of a ministry’s core belief system, using them in mission environments will be a natural outflow, helping students get the most out of their mission experience.
1. A learning environment. When students understand the Bible not simply as a book to be read but a voice to be heard, they are made more receptive to God’s call to join in His mission to transform their neighborhoods, cities and world. A learning environment goes beyond weekly gatherings, midweek studies and Bible studies. It requires active learning by which students are given learning objectives that help them to think, feel and do in everyday life. It’s a dialogue, not a monologue.
2. A healing environment. Every Christian community—including youth ministry environments—is messy because it is a collection of imperfect people seeking to be transformed by God together. Overly programmed ministries can take away much needed space for students to take off their masks and simply enjoy one another. An atmosphere of acceptance not only will help cultivate a healing environment but will give students a more realistic picture of community-building as a process filled with pain and joy. If students come into community expecting utopia, they likely will leave hurt and disappointed.
3. A welcoming environment. Cultivating a welcoming environment means helping the community practice hospitality as a way of life. We all have felt the pain of exclusion, of feeling unloved, unwelcomed or unappreciated. We all can recall wounds we have received, and we all have felt the longing to be a part of some exclusive group. While the narrative of our world encourages us to be exclusive, the narrative of God encourages something quite different. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus constantly crossed boundaries to demonstrate that God welcomes all, and as Christ’s disciples we should seek to do the same.
4. A liberating environment. Cultivating a liberating environment encourages students to embody a holistic gospel, helping them experience liberation from personal and social sins by forming Spirit-transforming communities. A liberating environment encourages people to overcome addictions, grow in personal holiness and live in the power of the Spirit.
5. A thriving environment. Cultivating a thriving environment includes developing a strong discipleship ethos in which the multiplication of disciples, ministries and churches take place. In a thriving environment, people are discovering how God has made them and learning to match their passion with the needs around them. Mentoring and coaching is taking place at every level. People are being encouraged by word and example to find experienced mentors and peer mentors, as well as starting to mentor others.
To Change or Rearrange?
Discerning when to change and when to remain committed to the same-old-same-old is no small task. The process takes perseverance, commitment and an unswerving faith in God and the mission to which you’ve been called; but the process is worth it, says Addison.
“The church Jesus founded was a missionary church,” he says. “Its existence and activities were an expression of its missionary calling. Its members were fearlessly determined to win others to faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. Their mission field began at home in Jerusalem and Judea, and it extended to the ends of the earth.
The goal and purpose of their missionary work was the making of disciples and the creation of communities of disciples—people who turned from their old ways of life, put their trust in Jesus and obey His teaching.
Suanne Camfield is a freelance writer who works as an assistant editor at Intervarsity Press. She lives in Chicago with her family and loves a good mission trip. Follow her on Twitter.