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I got to spend time with youth workers last weekend at Group’s National Youth Ministry Conference in Indianapolis. Youth workers tend to be more fun, more goofy, less full of themselves, and more authentic than most people I get to hang with. And, of course, it’s always a joy to be with people who love teenagers as much as I do.

Of the many encounters I had in Indianapolis that week (which included sharing an elevator with Toby Mac, a Christian musician), none had a more profound impact on me than Mark.

Mark used to work in a “normal” job in a “normal” office doing “normal” work that would make any mother-in-law proud.

But then he want on a mission trip with the teenagers from his church. As he fought back tears, he said, “That’s why I’m here.” The experience on that trip was so profound he had a hard time going back to his “normal” job when it was over. In fact, he said he was sitting at his desk at work the next week, wishing for all the world that he was still on the mission trip. He felt out of place there. Like he didn’t fit anymore. And in the process he heard God gently nudging him towards ministry.

Thankfully, Mark’s boss was understanding. He encouraged Mark to follow his passions. And Mark was able to continue working at his “normal” job parttime, because his church couldn’t afford to hire him fulltime. So now Mark’s doing youth ministry, and doing a “tent making” job on the side to make a living. And he encourages everyone to go on mission tips. There’s nothing like them to help you experience what God has created you for.

I know I’ve gotten at least as much out of youth mission trips as my teenagers have. I’ve encountered God in dramatic ways as I’ve served others. And it’s even more special to see how God uses mission trips to work on those teens we love so much.

Last week I reported some of the findings of two unpublished doctoral papers. The authors of these papers both concluded that taking youth and young adults on mission trips has a dramatic affect on their lives — especially their spiritual lives.

I’ve also just come across the results of a study by the School of Social Work at Baylor University. This research, reported in Associated Baptist Press, studied 631 Protestant teens (although the results certainly reflect Catholic teens as well). The study found that service draws teens into a deeper experience of Christian faith than anything else, including worship, Bible studies, and other activities in the church and youth group. (Source: “Study Says Teen Faith Shaped More by Hands-on Ministry than Worship,” Ken Camp, American Baptist Press, Feb. 8, 2007.)

I found many parts of the brief study report to be fascinating. You can find it at www.abpnews.com.

Furthermore, the study reports that if the following aspects are present in teen service projects, the impact is greater:

  • Including worship, prayer, and Bible study along with the service;
  • Mature Christian adults serve with the teens;
  • Direct interaction between the teenagers and people receiving their service;
  • Ongoing contact with the same people over a long time;
  • Doing fun things in conjunction with the service.

Different scholars quoted in the report say what I’ve been saying for a long time: Youth service projects aren’t an add-on to effective youth ministry, they’re integral to it. In other words, if you want your kids to grow to a deeper, mature faith…get them involved in service.

I would add to these findings that service throughout the year in their own communities makes a strong impact on kids, but taking them away once a year on a week-long mission trip is the most powerful service experience teenagers can have.

And as my new friend Mark and I would tell you, the most powerful experience adults can have as well.

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