Each summer for the last three years, our youth ministry has served our city through a weeklong local mission trip called “I HEART LINCOLN” (or I❤LNK). Our teenagers pay a $100 fee and are placed on a team with two leaders—each team is assigned a pre-arranged service project organized by a local organization in our city.
We’ve laid down hundreds of pounds of mulch at city parks, shoveled hay and poo at a horse ranch for disadvantaged kids, painted stadium railings, provided childcare at a homeless shelter, cleaned non-profit student centers, and picked up trash on school grounds, among other projects. The impact on our community and our teenagers has been profound.
Of course, this city-wide effort requires a huge commitment of time and “sweat equity” for administration, planning, and detail work. The leaders have to arrange for vacation time way in advance. Each team is named for the color bandana given to them—Black, Green, and so on. Kids sleep at the church, and every morning they wake up to breakfast, packed coolers, and freshly laundered T-shirts. It’s as if their food and clean T-shirts appear out of nowhere!
But behind the scenes lurk… the Ninjas.
Our Ninja Team is perfect for adults who want to help in this massive service effort but can commit to an entire week. When we decided to create a behind-the-scenes team, we had adults from our church come out of the woodwork to help. That first year I quipped to another leader that all the workers who weren’t going out with teams but doing all these unseen acts of service were like ninjas. My friend and I dropped jaws simultaneously, then exclaimed “THE NINJA TEAM!” like the nerd-buckets we are. And so, sporting red bandanas, the Ninja Team was born.
1. What the Ninja Team Does—Every day, Ninjas prepare a delicious breakfast for kids and pack a travel cooler with lunch and water. After morning devotions, take off for their serving destinations, then return around 4:30. They toss their smelly, grimy T-shirts in a guys or girls tall laundry basket, then head off for dinner and a fun evening activity. What they don’t see is the army of Ninja laundry ladies who cart off those baskets of smelly clothes to wash, dry, and fold them at home that night. The next morning, those clean and folded shirts magically appear on an 8-foot table, ready for kids to grab.
Christ Place Youth Director Kelli Sajevic was our media Ninja our first year—she used still photos and video to record activity at our job sites, then created memorable video and slide shows. She says: “The Ninja team does anything and everything to support the overall vision of the week. It means unlocking external doors at 6 a.m. so outside leaders can drop by the office for the day before they head off to work. It means turning on the sound system and running tech so the kids can be woken up each morning, then have devotions and worship together. It means driving from site to site delivering water, dropping off popsicles, collecting photos, updating social media, interviewing participants, and so on. If someone needed something, the Ninja team was honored to serve.”
2. How to Recruit a Ninja Team—What’s our recruiting strategy? Well, it’s mostly underwhelming, dependent on viral word-of-mouth. But we’ve discovered that some people who wouldn’t touch a youth group with a 10-foot pool noodle will offer their “grunt” skills (slicing cantaloupe or loading water bottles into coolers) for a couple of hours a day for five days. “Word of mouth and personally experiencing part of the week are effective,” says Sajevic. “Once you see what the week is about and how God uses it to impact the youth and the city, people want to know more and see how they can get involved.” We’ve both heard people say that they’ll never miss the week again because it’s so hard to miss it!
“Once you see what the week is about and how God uses it to impact the youth and the city, people want to know more and see how they can get involved.”Click to tweet
The ninja team flies under the radar, says Sajevic. “It’s a team that fills in the cracks so people who serve on it need to be ready to sacrifice sleep and personal needs for the week. But in my experience everyone is ready and willing to do that over and over again…which I love!” The final day of I❤LNK is capped with a celebration dinner, where teenagers and adults share their stories from the week and offer their thanks to all the adult leaders who made it all happen. While the unassuming Ninja Team members don’t do it for applause, they receive a giant round from appreciative BBQ-sauce-faced kids.
Service Hint: This same Ninja-Team strategy works great for responding to crises and emergencies in your community. For example, in much of the Midwest (including Nebraska, where I live) hundreds of communities have been devastated by flooding. Many organizations, including Convoy of Hope and Nebraska Army National Guard, are donating money and needed items, and they’re sending people to help clean up. We have the frontline help we need, but they need behind-the-scenes Ninja Teams helping to make their service possible. So, for the last 10 days, our Ninja-Team members have filled 400 “Flood Buckets” or “Baby Care Bins” to be delivered to displaced families. (If you’d like to help Nebraska flood victims, check out these organizations helping.)