In over twenty years of youth ministry I have tried to bring missions to the forefront with students and their parents. This was not always easy because for years parents and adults in the church believed that missions was something you gave to and not something that you went on. It was especially difficult when people would called summer mission trips “Youth Mission Trips.” So I prayed about how to get more people involved in missions in general and mission trips specifically.
The answer came in two parts, first we simply stopped calling them youth mission trips, we started having more and more adults going so we just called them mission trips. But we still needed a way for more people to feel like they were a part of the trip. The second answer cane as a still small voice, well actually it came in one small envelope. The ministry had moved to a church in Louisiana from Texas and my oldest son got a letter from a friend of his in one of my former churches. That letter was a Godsend to my son who was having a little trouble adjusting to our new surroundings. The internet, emails and instant messaging are all familur to people these days, but you can never underestimate the power of opening an envelope and looking inside.
This little letter was the spark that God used to plant an idea that has become a staple in my mission trip ministry for over eight years and six mission trips from Texas to Vermont twice. It’s the mission trip prayer pen pals. I am an organized individual and mission trips that I plan are often planned right down to the time between bathroom breaks while traveling. I know the location of most of the major truck stops east of the Mississippi River, well maybe not all, but a great many of them. This type of organization allows me to print out detailed schedules that are made available well in advance of the trip. Now, I know what you are thinking, what if the plans change, well that is the part that makes the prayer pen pals so exciting and a joy to see how God works everything for good! But before I get ahead of myself let me explain how prayer pen pals work.
Once the mission trip team is assemblied and the cutoff date for signing up has passed, usually a couple of months before the trip. I make the names available to those in the church who are not going on the mission trip. People select a team member to be their pen pal and they begin to write letters for each day of the trip. With the schedule in hand they are able to reference the activities of a particular day and write an encouragement or something else that they want to convey to their team member. The pen pal is instructed how to number their letters so that they are distributed on the proper day that corresponds to the letter that they have written.
A few days before the trip all letters are due in to the office and then they are separated by days and boxed for the trip. Depending on the travel time to a destination is a determining factor in how the mail is boxed. Once on the trip each morning at breakfast it’s mail call. Each team member gets a letter from their pen pal that talks about the days activities and asks about what has happened since their last letter. One of the best parts of this is that the teammembers do not know who their pen pal is. Over the years pen pals have become very creative and the envelopes have grown larger and larger. Some people put gum or hard candies (no chocolate plaease!)in with their letter, some have written in rhymes and used things in the envelope to go along with the verse. Others have given disposable cameras on a day when some sight seeing might occur and still others have placed a few dollars for a soft drink and a candy bar. Still others have placed travel games or cookies or small toys, the sky is the limit.
Each day the team is ready to see what they will recieve that day, but the trinkets are not the thing they really crave. It is the letter. On six trips the letters have become such an inspiration as we have seen God use people writing sometines weeks in advance about something that only God could know about. Those best laid plans I wrote about earlier, well if you have ever taken a group on a trip you know that it never comes out like you planned, it comes out better. God loves to use trips like these to grow our faith and to streach our belief that He is in charge. I can not tell you how many times that something from one or more of the team members letters has directly spoken to a situation or problem and helped turn the focus onto the blessing that stands before the group.
About two thirds the way into the trip the pen pals area instructed to inform their team member who they are. The guessing has gone on since the first letter. Some people have guessed their pen pal while others are totally surprised to find out who they are. Once they know then I provide a stamped postcard from the area where we are to each team member and they write to their pen pal. It is a small thing, but the realationships that come out of this are lasting ones.
Once the team returns from the trip some of the first people that team members contact are their pen pals. They thank them for praying for them on the trip each day and for the letters that they sent. It has drawn those who go together with those who don’t. It has made an impression on those who were opposed to the trips and turned many of them in to strong supporters of mission trips.
The letters are a little more to pack, but for my mission trips they are now standard equipment, because I would not be allowed to let the bus leave the parking lot without the prayer pen pal letter boxes. It has also aided with the recruitment of team members, this summer, we are expecting to take fifty people on our mission trip which will mean 50 prayer pen pals in a church that runs a little over 200 in Sunday morning services. When was the last time fifty percent of your active membership was active in missions?
Oh and one other thing this summer the church is taking two mission trips on in the states and one to the Ukraine and the church is paying half of the cost of the international teams trip. It is amazing what God will do when we let Him do it His way!