If discipleship is the endgame for youth ministry, how do we help teenagers break free from the gravitational pull of a conventional life and “achieve orbit” in a life defined by a passion for Jesus?
Well, I know from three decades of youth ministry experience, and from in-depth research projects I created to explore what really matters in teenagers’ spiritual growth, that nothing in our ministry toolbox has more “rocket power” than a mission trip.
What Matters Most
Some years ago I partnered with Professor Dave Rahn at Huntington University (he’s also a vice president with Youth For Christ) to explore the role of youth ministry in Christian conversion and growth. We designed a seven-question survey that youth ministry professors gave to 369 Christian students on 10 campuses across North America.
Almost all of our respondents (nine out of 10) said they had a “crucial recommitment experience” in their life that was as significant to them as their initial commitment to Jesus. And two-thirds of them said their experience happened when they were teenagers. Of the top four experiences they cited, “Outreach Trips” topped the list, and “Big Events” and “Camp Experiences” polled #3 and #4 (“Crises” was #2 on the list). Clearly, summer mission trips are at the top of the pyramid of crucial rocket launcher growth experiences in youth ministry. They do not have the short shelf-life that’s implied when we refer to them as “mountaintop experiences.”
Far from it.
In fact, I believe so strongly in the inherent power a mission-trip experience has to create a rich environment for growth that, for four decades, our Group team has made them a central focus of our youth ministry resourcing efforts. Service alone can be compartmentalized into a feel-good experience that is powerful, but disconnected from a teenager’s discipleship journey. But when you make the service experience an immersive context for a deepening relationship with Jesus, the results are life-transforming.
Not Everything Deserves All-In
In the run-up to the Super Bowl, Facebook posted a running video series called Tom vs. Time—a kind of visual memoir tracking the extraordinary NFL career of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In one scene at a private workout camp hosted by Brady before the season starts, one of his wide receivers complains that he’s been running wind sprints all day, while Brady… hasn’t. Brady responds with, “It’s not my job.” Then he repeats himself for emphasis. Knowing what’s important to your impact, and what isn’t, is crucial—Brady goes all-in with the skills he needs to help his team win championships, and resists the pressure to do things that seem important, but have minimal impact. It’s a great model for us, as we consider all the things we could be doing in youth ministry.
Go all-in on the ministry strategies we know create an environment for lifelong transformation. And don’t over-invest in things that don’t. And that points us, clearly, to prioritize mission trips, and choose wisely the particular discipleship environment that can maximize kids’ growth. In that light, I invite you to experience the carefully crafted, Jesus-centered, innovative mission-trip adventures created by our team—they’re called Group’s Lifetree Adventures.