We live in a world of SO MANY OPTIONS when it comes to our kids. We hear our student needs to be in sports camp in order to make team, they can’t miss the training in the work out room if they want to be seen, they want to go to camp with friends, and then, there is the hope of a family vacation. OH, and the church is going on a mission trip. It’s overwhelming and complicated calendaring! Where do we spend our time and resources?
As a parent, my kids went to summer camps, sports camps, band camps, and family vacations. They also went to workcamp, not every summer, but as many as possible. We had to look at the overall summer opportunities and choose. When I look back now, they were all great in their own ways, but I’m so glad they did mission trips. They were amazing, expensive, hard, learning experiences that affected their faith and gave them perspective. I know I was their youth leader, but that’s not why we prioritized mission for our kids.
In the summer of 1999, I was a couple years into part-time middle school ministry and we were headed to workcamp. Workcamp is a week of literally working in home repair while adding in camp elements. It was my first one of this sort. The youth group had served through Habitat for Humanity in our state the previous summer, and that was cool, but we wanted to do something that felt bigger. We were headed to North Carolina to serve in a community through Appalachia Service Project, I think there were around forty of us in borrowed vans and trucks filled with tools, people, and gear. We drove through the night (never again), had our walkie-talkies (thank goodness we have cell phones now), and while kids slept we made our way to the backwoods of North Carolina following paper maps (oh the wonders of GPS!).
When we arrived at the elementary school where we were to stay, I was introduced to my first experience of classroom floor sleeping (no air conditioning), dripping showers that never quite get warm, and the chaos and wonder of late night shenanigans and laughter. I fell in love with it all! If I could live on these types of trips, I would. The hot hard meaningful work alongside students, the significance it creates in our hearts, the depth of conversations, and the reality of what it means to serve Jesus with our hands in a tangible way. These lessons are life-long and I wanted them for my own kids when they were older.
That year, my crew was assigned a farmhouse built in the 1800s. It had sawdust insulation and our job was to pull off the walls, put in insulation, and then drywall. When we arrived, we met an exhausted, grieving family that felt the hopelessness of an overwhelming life after the loss of a child.
We dove in and each day slowly made progress as we pulled off the walls, removed the wainscoting (which we put back up – whew!), swept out sawdust by the gallons, and learned the story of the family we served. As we hung drywall, we talked about God and life. As a crew, we also helped feed the cows, dealt with wasp’s nests on the second story, and one student even learned how to ride a pig. We were filthy, exhausted, and filled with a sense of accomplishment as we sat on their porch overlooking the beauty of the mountains on our last day there.
As we closed in prayer that final time, the family was overwhelmed with gratitude, tears filled their eyes as they again shared how amazed they were at what we had accomplished. There was a sense of hope as they looked forward to a warmer winter, but I know the hope really came from all the conversations and prayer during that week. The students reminded them that Jesus sees them, He hadn’t forgotten them, and we were able to be an example of that love.
There is nothing quite like serving with students on this level. Expecting hard work, teaching skills that will last a life-time, investing in a family that just needs love, and watching God work in hearts as students look outside themselves and make a difference. We all need this in our lives, we don’t outgrow it, but when we can do this with teens we are creating a life-time of what valuing what it is to serve Jesus.
As I spent more time in ministry, I discovered so many opportunities for students. Trips, camps, adventures! I had to ask myself, what can the church offer that only we can? In Michigan we have great summer camps, I’m sure other states do as well. They are places with zip lines and incredible worship, deep conversations and conversions, and places where kids can experience a step outside of life into a 24/7 experience. I didn’t need to compete with that, I love camp. So, what could we do to offer something different?
I realized that I wanted students to have the opportunity to experience two things while they were with us in student ministry; serving at a high level and evangelism. If we put our energy into these two things, and did them well, I felt like we were helping parents give their student an opportunity as well giving students valuable growing experiences before they left high school.
Mission is defined in two ways, according to the web, it’s an important assignment carried out for political, religious, or commercial purposes, typically involving travel. And second, the vocation or calling of a religious organization, especially a Christian one, to go out into the world and spread its faith. I felt that we needed to do both of these things with our students because they are areas that are usually only found through a church.
Yes, we serve in our community and church ministries, but there is something about a mission trip that requires travel (road trips are incredible opportunities for connection), carries a level of importance, requires dependence on each other, and expects really hard work that changes perspectives and hearts and, in turn, opens lives to see Jesus.
Mission is also going out in the world and sharing our faith. Not every heart is awaked to missions, but if a student never experiences it – how will they know what it is to bring Jesus to others in this way and maybe discover the call for their lives. This type of mission helps students (and adults) value their faith in a new way and see Jesus through new eyes. The best part of international or extended evangelistic mission is that it requires full dependence on God and each other to accomplish it and this is a life-long eternal learning that isn’t found in many other places.
In the early 2000s, there wasn’t as much competition for a student’s time as there is today. Today, school’s train almost all summer and winter, club sports and sports camps take up weeks of a student’s summer, there’s band camp, and, of course, there should be a family vacations in there as well. All of this has a cost. As a parent, it’s hard to know which choices to make and which to invest in…
As we partner with parents, I encourage parents to ‘parent with the end in mind’. Think of middle and high school as one long journey with different stops along with way, what do you want them to experience and learn before they leave home? If you’re like me, you want them to expand their sport skills, experience summer camp, and you want them to experience what it means to serve Jesus on a level that means hard work and sacrifice.
Remember, parenting the middle and high school years is a marathon, what do you want them to have learned? A better block on the volleyball court – you bet. The formation for marching band – of course. The unique fun and experience of summer camp – yes please. How to serve like Jesus? Absolutely.
With so many options, we can’t do it all every summer or school year, but, if we can do it even just once, it matters.
Have you thought about the long-haul learning that summer opportunities can bring for your student? Has Jesus weighed into those goals?
No matter the choices, may you remember to parent with the end in mind and hold onto the sweet moments of family time as you enter into this summer.