Mad Science & Youth Mission Trips

Today’s guest post comes from Ryan Braley, one of an excellent class of students from Bethel Seminary who recently studied the intersection between faith, vocation and work.

Youth pastors are kind of like mad scientists. We sit in a lab and experiment with crazy idea after crazy idea searching for better ways to create space for young people to experience the living God. Sometimes the experiment fizzles out and amounts to nothing more than a decent effort. Other times we catch lightning in a bottle and it’s worth every second of invested time. Either way, youth pastors love to share about our experiments. We love to dialogue about, argue over, and to dissect to our experiments with other youth pastors (or anyone else that will listen to our ravings). We do this often. And there are myriad topics around which we do these things.

One topic that seems to be fairly “hot” these days is the “Short-Term Mission Trip” for teenagers. For years these trips have been commonplace in the annals of youth ministry and rarely questioned. But recently we have begun to wonder about the effectiveness of our work and even the motive behind the work. We have begun to dissect the experiment, beginning by asking questions. Questions like: “What long-lasting good can we really accomplish in such a short amount of time?”; “How do the locals see our work and what do they think of us?”; “Do we really think that with our money and ‘Western’ ideologies that we can somehow ‘save the world’ or at least this particular village?”; “And if so, how condescending and ethnocentric is that?” Another question posed was: “Should I really spend a couple of thousand dollars to send a kid to ____________ (insert country) when I could use that money for greater good elsewhere?” Good questions, right?

These questions have challenged me (personally) to rethink the “Short-Term Mission Trip” in my current context of student ministries. I have always advocated for international trips for young people as I saw them to be important…but I couldn’t quite articulate why I thought this. That’s when I came across Kara E. Powell and Brad M. Griffin’s Deep Justice Journeys: 50 Activities to Move From Mission Trips to Missional Living. This proved to be an invaluable tool for me as I began to experiment with and dissect our youth trips and their value to the ministry.

For Powell and Griffin, international trips provide space for young people to explore deeper systemic injustices and evils that exist in our world and to move towards missional living every day and right here, and not just while on a trip somewhere else. They acknowledge that it is quite ambitious to think that a small team of 15 Americans can change an entire city, and even ethnocentric and potentially offensive. They instead propose missions as a way for young people to partner with locals in foreign places in order to promote justice and wholeness for the people. On the right track, right?

With Powell and Griffin as my catalyst, I began to explore and experiment in the lab further with yet another reason why I think international trips are important for young people. It is similar to Powell and Griffin’s but a bit nuanced.

The reason I promote such trips and why I will do all I can for my own children to go on an international trip someday is because I think it is important epistemologically and for a young persons developing worldview. Growing up in Minnesota my kids will be exposed to many things in life. But regardless of how hard I try, they will not be immersed inside of an epistemologically (and in myriad other ways) different culture. My kids will grow up thinking like a Midwesterner from Minnesota (and white ones at that). This is not bad per se, this is who they are. But it is limiting and as a stand alone can lead to dark places.

But imagine if I could immerse my kids into another culture for even a short time and my kids could begin to learn from that culture how to see the world differently, how to see “the other” differently, how to see creation differently, and how to see God differently – an epistemological shift might begin to occur. And hopefully the same might happen for the friends that my kids would meet from that other culture (in this sense it would be a mutually beneficial experience). Both cultures could learn how to live deeper and richer lives of love for “the other” and learn how to see the perspective of “the other” more clearly which provides a more inclusive and loving, balanced and beautiful worldview. And this could lead to some enriching experiences, especially in the lives of young people and their involvement in the Kingdom of God. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a mad scientist.

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