My high school students thought that Jesus lived in Tijuana. Or maybe it was that they thought that was they only place that they could serve him? Something like that, maybe?
For almost a decade, a church at which I worked took high school students to the same orphanage in Mexico to build houses. I love that orphanage. I love that trip. I love the big pick-up truck I got to drive. I love the relationship that we and several other stateside churches have with this place. I love the children. I love the houses we build. I love the dry, quiet nights. I love the acoustic worship. I love figuring out how to get around the confusing neighborhoods and stopping for fresh tortillas as an afternoon snack. And I loved watching students’ lives being transformed by God’s amazing love and grace. I love it all. It, to this day, has been my most favorite of dozens of youth ministry adventures.
Students loved it, too. It wasn’t just an over-zealous leader who kept the tradition going. I didn’t even arrive on the scene until it was well-established and had incredible tradition and significance, but I did have previous experience with this special corner of Tijuana that made it an easy transition to take over the lead.
The students in our ministry were privileged. They didn’t just have a choice between “church mission trip” and staying home all week over spring break. They had options. Lots of options. Options that made me jealous. Options I would have jumped on had they been presented to me over spending a week with no plumbing, limited electricity and sleeping on a concrete floor. There were international school trips to exotic countries in Europe and Asia, family ski vacations at high-end resorts and a week living in a Caribbean paradise offered. But these teenagers begged to go on our trip. They told mom and dad “no, thanks” to the generous 5-star resorts and stamps in their passports. Of course, not every student had these options, but for some of them, this was real life.
And for all, this little orphanage in the run-down part of Tijuana that smells like a city dump and kind of looks like one, was more attractive. The reputation spread though schools, and parents and students who had never been to the church requested registration packets through their friends. Our biggest problem was making it work as it seemed to bust at the seems with participants.
But then we were told no. Violence and plane-ticket price closed the door, according to the powers that be, which was totally fine. Our tenure there had been strong and celebrated. We knew that last year was the last hurrah and almost 70 people participated in the final adventure. We were sad to know that we would not return the following year, but it’s OK. All good things seem to come to an end, and for this trip, it was time.
We thought and prayed about how to invite teenagers into a service opportunity and give them an experience that would invite them into knowing Jesus for the first time or growing in relationship with Him. We had hours of conversation talking about locations, projects, leaders and trips. But then a natural disaster in our own state made it clear that we could serve our neighbors in a way like never imagined. People with whom our students might go to college. A city many had visited. An area where extended family members perhaps lived.
With no plane tickets to buy, passports to collect or nearly as much concern for danger, we were excited. We contacted the organization on the ground. We knew that some of the WOW factor would be missing, as opposed to the international adventure of previous years, but the accessibility of this trip would make up for that and bring students in masses…masses we couldn’t even fathom, right?
Eleven students signed up for the trip.
What happened to the 70 people who were begging to spend a week without plumbing and electricity? What happened to the teenagers who were willing to bucket shower and get dirty? We graduated a somewhat small senior class the previous year and welcomed in a huge group of freshmen. Where did everyone go?
“My family’s going skiing this year.”
“Our school’s going to Vietnam.”
“I’m not sure I can miss practice.”
“We have rehearsal for the school play.”
“We’re going to the beach with friends instead.”
“My parents are taking me on a college road trip. That way, I don’t have to miss school for it.”
The reasons were all pretty legit. Never once did I hear a student say that they just didn’t want to go. They all just got busy. But I don’t think that was actually the case. This year’s trip didn’t lay down the heavy trump card; a local experience, only hours away by 12-passenger van, wasn’t nearly as sexy as a week in Mexico.
The lack of wow deflated what was the anchor of our high school ministry in one seemingly lame trip being offered. Ouch. Time to cancel some vans, beg the organization to release a few dozen spots and start rethinking our approach to the week. We even had to tell adult leaders who had volunteered to use a week of vacation time to go on this trip that we didn’t really need them if they didn’t really want to go. Weird. Very. Very. Weird.
Let’s take a slight commercial break here: We did have a fabulous mission trip. The 11 students and 7 leaders…we had a great time. Those teenagers were challenged to reconcile all the destruction of what happened. They worked hard. The learned roofing and hanging dry wall. They worshipped. They shared. The grew to know each other and those we served. They had an incredible experience. God used that group — the tight community — in ways that I wouldn’t trade for a 1000 teenagers. Almost a year later, some of those who had been to Tijuana reference this local experience as “one of the best trips ever.”
But what happened? It’s not like God woke up one day and was surprised and disappointed in me or our ministry for not inviting more. He knew who would be there. He knew who would participate. He knew what would happen in their lives. He knew. And we honored and trusted in Him.
What was the real reason behind all those other things that students were choosing for spring break? Were they bad? NO! Were they second-rate? NO! There’s no right or wrong about what teenagers did with their week off of school. But it did make me uncomfortable. I lost sleep. I emailed colleagues in ministry. It bothered me. A lot. Like a lot a lot.
It brought all my thinking and expectations of missions in the roller coaster of youth ministry to a screeching halt. We were training our students to have expectations of tradition and adventure over seeing people how Jesus saw them and engaging in opportunities to serve wherever they were presented.
I’m not dissing international mission trips. I’m not dismissing the value tradition. And I’m not getting up on a soap box to say that all churches who go to the same place year after year, if it happens to be an exciting place, are doing something wrong. I don’t think that’s the problem. Those are amazing ministries that write amazing stories and change lives in amazing ways. Praise God for them!
The problem seems to be that we – we as in most of us who grew up in the event-driven, mega-conference, messy-game youth ministry – possibly subconsciously teaching students to serve people who live in other places and not those who are right in front of our faces? How, in youth ministry are we inviting students to see people the way that Jesus saw people and responding in love to meet needs and serve others along the way like he did? Jesus served those who approached him. He taught those followed him. It was quite simple. He was interruptible.