Almost Christian: Hanging Loose

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, Almost Christian, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me. Find all the posts here.

In chapter 8, “Hanging Loose: The Art of Detachment,” Kenda uses the youth group short-term mission trips as the backbone of chapter.  She writes,

Every year, youth ministers immerse teenagers in cross-cultural encounters, cajole them into unasked for leadership roles, and confront them with Bible studies on cultural and theological sticking points.  In doing the daily work of ministry, these church leaders eject young people from their comfort zones and catapult them into disorienting dilemmas–thereby introducing them to a larger story in which God has given them a part to play.

She primarily relies upon the journal of a just-returned teenager to exemplify just how discombobulating a short-term mission experience can be.

It all reminds me of a story that was popular among Southern California youth pastors when I was one, in the early 1990s.  A girl steps out of the church van, having just arrived back in the church parking lot from a week in Tijuana, when she sees her dad drive up in a BMW.  Upon experiencing the dramatic juxtaposition, she pukes.

While this story is likely hagiographic, it exemplifies Kenda’s point: “Decentering practices like mission trips and prayer pave the way for epiphanies, conversions, and other threshold experiences where youth glimpse who Christ really is, and what loving him really costs.”  This happens, she writes, because teenagers learn “reflexivity” by engaging in these practices.

Kenda does admit that this flies in the face of adolescent development theory, most of which argues that adolescents should encounter stable environments.  But the NSYR shows this doesn’t work, at least in religious upbringing.  Survey respondents reported a belief in God’s activity in the world but were almost completely incapable of saying anything substantive about that work.  In other words, it seemed that the teens were simply repeating what they’d been taught by parents and Sunday school teachers — that God still does stuff, answers prayer, etc. — but they had very little experience of those things.  And even those who had such experiences lacked the tools to translate that experience into their daily existence.

In this last point, I heartily agree with Kenda.  I have very little faith that the apocryphal girl who puked in the church parking lot, or Gabrielle, the teen from whose journal Kenda extensively quotes, are any stronger Christians today because they went on a short-term mission trip.  While those jarring experiences do kindle the fire of faith in some youth, in my experience the vast majority go right back to life-as-usual.  It is, indeed, as Kenda says, inculcating Christian practices like contemplative prayer that gives adolescents the tools to let these decentering experiences filter down into their workaday lives.

My question for you: Do short-term mission trips, and other decentering experiences, do anything substantive in the spiritual lives of teenagers?

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  • Paul Soupiset

    Yes. All I can speak from is my own experience. The effect may not line up with the youth worker’s intentions, but these engagements certainly can and do draw some deeper in, both to the larger world around them, and to the mysteries of their faith, however nascent.

  • Once there was a market to be tapped with short-term missions, we were inundated with many well-intentioned, shallow programs that often did more harm than good, both to the students participating and the communities they “served”. I am thankful that I have seen many excellent, intentional, reflective, etc. short-term missions programs that address this reality and function accordingly. So, in respect to the responsible examples, yes, short-term missions can have a substantive impact on the life & faith of teen Christians.

  • Sarah Erickson

    I’ll have to reflect on this a bit more – vis a vis my experience and that of my sons. In my youth – in NE Ohio in the late 60s/early 70s, we didn’t go on short term mission trips or long term mission trips in youth group – when I went it was fellowship and study mostly. BUT in Scouts and among school groups – we did service projects in the community – often building long term relationships along the way – and relating it to why we were engaged in these works, to values of Scouting or the school service group, talking with our leaders and other adults about the experiences in community involvement/service/enagagement. Think there something to the relational aspect? Over time…. Hmmmm..:-)

  • I would say the late teenage years, yes. I went on three mission trips to Mexico. One sophomore year, one junior year, and one after I graduated high school. It wasn’t until the third mission trip that I realized the inanity of borders, and how none of that was real, and the power of God being in all places and nations.

    However, the first two mission trips were spent hanging with friends and being cool. The epiphany didn’t happen for me until AFTER high school. I think life-as-usual just happens, it’s the nature of our lifestyles.

  • Jim

    Fascinating empirical study on Coptic religious schools in Australia having almost too much success, evidenced by extremely high positive correlations (90 percentile ranges in some cases) of spiritual nurture on students owing to positive spiritual influences from teachers, parents, and Confession Fathers, so that the detachment issues (hanging loose) recommendations from this research advised more multi-cultural exposure in schools and more silence and silent mediation time for students who are potentially at risk of becoming a Coptic subculture insulated from the rest of Australian multi-cultural realities (see, “Spiritual Education: literary, empirical, and pedagogical approaches,” Ota and Erricker (2005), “Empirical Approaches: Spirituality in Catholic and Coptic Schools,” de Souza, 8-23). Fascinating that some religious ed faces questions of over-success with teens having little problem expressing religious affections and spiritual sentiments.

    Though I think a new empirical study is in order on, “The Theoretical Options for Interpreting Puking Teenagers Returning From Mission Trips to Tijuana: 1) Montezuma’s Revenge?, 2) Typical Teenage Emetic Responses to Seeing Parents under Any Circumstances, 3) Whether or Not to Drive the BMW to Pickup Teenagers Returning from Mission Trips in Tijuana – Would A Rusted out AMC Pacer Do?”

    Vomiting as a positive correlation to missional success. Works for me ….



  • I think the answer is yes but only if there is on-going theological reflection and an opportunity to respond to the experience as a way of life. I think the experience serves only to open young people up to the gap between God’s desire for the world and the reality. If youth are thrust into an encounter and then removed from that encounter without any way to respond to what they experienced, there will be little lasting impact. If however, a young person is given ways of responding from within their own context or opportunities to process and reflect upon the experience and encouraged to do so, I think the impact can be profound.

    I run an urban ministry in Richmond, Va and we do monthly mini missions experiences and incorporate theological reflection into the experience. However, the youth who were changed by the experience were those who had the support either at home or in their youth group to continue to wrestle with the issue of poverty in their own city. I don’t think we do a great job of this but it is an area I would like us to improve on in the coming year because I see a the gap and I don’t think it is because youth are not willing or interested. I think we simply truncate the process by not making space for reflection and response.

  • EricG

    This is only one person’s experience, but I view a short term mission trip I went on to Honduras as a HS sophmore (decades ago) as critical to my spiritual formation. I learned on the trip that there is great need outside my immediate world, and as someone with Christian faith I am called on to do something about it. I learned what tangible Christian love actually looks like.

    Having learned these things, my return to the U.S. was the same sort of rude awakening mentioned in Tony’s post. I had a crisis of faith in my later high school years, which related in part to this disconnect between my new commitment and my (conservatuve evangelical church’s) lack of commitment on this issue.

    But when I returned to faith a few years later, it was in part because of my earlier experience, where I saw the tangible love of other that Christian faith can be. Incidentally, one of my friends who went on the trip now serves in Central America.

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