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?