Shift #1: Shifting from missions to missional approach in youth ministry


A few years ago, I brought my students on an international mission trip with a very well known mission organization.  The idea was to show the students all facets of missionary life and to allow God to use us in ways to reach people for Christ.  There was a heavy emphasis on prayer and evangelism for the week, as they were two pillars of these particular organization.

I will never forget one specific afternoon.  We were doing a “prayer walk” past abandoned buildings that needed fixing up (ironically praying that God would bring help and send others to fix them up!). Then “as the Spirit lead”, we would walk to certain homes and start conversations. Some houses we would walk past, while others we would stop at.  The objective was to somehow work Jesus and the gospel presentation into the conversation, and ideally the goal of each encounter would be that the individual make a personal profession of faith in Jesus.  We even had cards to record such occurrences.

So, there we were in a very poor country walking down dirt roads and talking with people who had no access to running water, little food, and shanty-type houses (if you could call them that).

We approached one lady whose roof was falling apart, clearly needed food and water, and I am sure that some money would have helped greatly (we were told not to give money though).

She shared with us her problems (a long and depressing story that I will spare you) and how she had no one to help.

Some students interrupted and talked about Jesus and that he could and would help her if she only accept him into her heart as Lord and Savior. They proceeded to talk about a heavenly mansion that would welcome her when she left earth and all her pain and suffering would be no more.  They did a good job doing what we were told to do.

The woman politely nodded her head at every question we asked about faith and salvation.  We prayed for her and wrote down her information.  Then we left.

One of my senior guys was trailing in the distance on our walk back.

I asked him what was wrong, believing he was overcome with emotions of joy.

He said this.

What did we actually do for that lady?   I feel like we took the cheap way out of getting our hands dirty.

I responded by saying something along the lines that we offered her hope and salvation, which ultimately is more important than her current physical needs.

He then said, “And you really believe that?”

I froze. Speechless as I was, it occurred to me that I deep inside, I felt that there was something wrong.

Here we had a great opportunity to do something to bless this lady, make a difference here and now, and to show her God’s love, compassion, care, and provision.   I am just not that convinced that our ministry and message must be so focused on the afterlife and making sure people are prepared for when they die.  Quite honestly though, I am torn because I also believe that merely addressing physical needs while ignoring spiritual realities is just as harmful in the end.  And besides those theological issues, what kind of relationship were we building with that lady?  It seemed to my student at the time, that missions needed and could be so much more!

I have  been challenged and convicted in how we as youth pastors define  and do “missions”.  For years it has been a 1-2 week trip to some different context and culture (usually poor) where we go, feel really bad for the people, try to make some sort of difference, come back and be moved into action for about one week. Shortly after our return we inevitably forget the names and faces of those people and within a few months, realizing we will never return, the memories fade and our focus begins to shift towards the next mission trip  (because we need to further stretch and expand our students horizons)

Listen, I have been to 3 cities in Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Peru, Dominican Republic, Detroit, Philadelphia, Appalachia, Cincinnati, and a few others places, never to return to a second time with the same students. 

It seems to me that what we have traditionally called short-term mission trips are, in actuality, more realistically short-term discipleship trips.  We always end up saying the same things:

 “The people there touched me so much.”

 “This trip changed my life.””

My perspective on faith and life is different because of my experience.”      

My love for God and others has grown.”

“I grow so much closer with the other students in my youth group.”

My worldview is much broader now.”

etc.. etc….etc….

Notice the emphasis on the word “my”!

Now this is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a great thing. I have seen the faith of my students grow more in one week on these types of trips than any retreat or conference.

But in the end, these trips usually impact us more than the people we are attempting to serve.

Who are missions trips supposed to be serving?

It is hard to develop meaningful relationships in a span of a week.  It is hard to meet needs when you bounce back and forth from activity to activity, spending no more than 1 day on one particular need.

It is a very hard to have a real passion for an area, people group, or culture when within one year you are preparing for some different place.

A good friend of mine is a missionary in Haiti.  He gave up a great career as a youth pastor for Youth for Christ to serve orphans in Haiti over ten years ago. He is deeply invested in this country. His entire life is in Haiti now.  It has become a part of his being.

Because he is there long term, he has long-term plans to bring healing, restoration, hope, and salvation to the people.

His ministry consists literally of feeding the hungry, finding homes for the orphans, building schools and educating the children, taking take of the widows, training young disciples, and teaching and preaching the word of God.

I will try to simplify what he does as a missionary:

Lives somewhere (Haiti). Feels called to stay and has a vision for that area. Loves God and serves the people in that community.  Is dedicated to staying there long enough to make a real difference and impact. 

Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing as Christians?

Now for Tom, his mission field is Haiti.  And some of our students may in fact be lead to another place or country to serve.

 I honestly hope more and more students go out into the world as both as traditional missionaries and tent makers and bring the radical love of Jesus to places in need of hope. 

But for the majority of us, God is calling us exactly where we are to be missionaries ( I know it may sound cheesy, but think about it.)

What if we shifted our focus away from doing mission trips to being missionaries right where we?

I realize we have each preached lessons on that probably coming back from summer trips, but what if that idea and philosophy changed the structure of our youth ministry?

What about instead of going on your annual youth conference, you did a local service project were you lived?

Last year we spent the week on the Ohio/Kentucky border doing all sorts of hands on service projects.  Pretty cool stuff actually. But I doubt we will ever go back nor have a relationship with those organizations and individuals that we served that one week.

It got me thinking, why can’t we do the same thing right here in Westchester County, NY?

We returned from that summer trip and my students started looking for ways to serve and get involved in our community (being missional)

We began volunteering at 2 local food pantries, the Boys and Girls Club, a special needs Children’s hospital, and serving our own church more.

Just this past weekend, our entire church closed down for what we called C.S.I weekend (Consider Serving Instead).  No Saturday or Sunday services.  We all went out into our community to serve in anyway possible.

(I will post the link to the video slide show for it)

Food pantries, blood drives, parking meter watch, park clean ups, home repairs, giving lunch to immigrant workers, meals for home bound senior citizens, prison visitations, helping with a walk-a-thon for our local SPCA, free community car wash, etc..

You should have seen the response of our people and especially the community!    Organizations and individuals were astonished and overwhelmed that we would close our doors on a weekend and desire to help them out without asking for anything in return.

Now I know this is not a new idea.  In some ways, our church has been well behind in this  and possibly your church has been doing something similar for years. 

But my point is that this shift in approach is much needed and I think aligns to the ways of Jesus wonderfully. 

We hope to continue to partner with these organizations for months and years and over time develop real genuine relationships within our community.

In order to shift from missions to a more missional approach in youth ministry, I think the following are needed:

1) A more holistic approach.  We need to understand that meeting needs includes both the physical and spiritual.  Remember that Jesus healed people and feed the masses often before he preached to them and offered them the other good news.  Yes, we need to be the voices of God, but we equally need to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and serve those around us in practical and tangible ways.  You may be God’s answers to their prayers.

2)  Localized impact–  find ways to bless and serve your own community.  We live in a very affluent area, yet there are plenty of needs surrounding us, besides the fact that we are only 30 miles away from NYC.  Love and serve where God as already placed you and your youth group. We must remember that missions is not something we do somewhere else once a year…it is a way of life. 

3) Committed partnerships–  instead of going to 5 different places in 5 years, find one area or mission and invest in it. Many churches are doing this very well and working to build orphanages, schools, wells, churches, etc.. while building life-long relationships and partnerships with the people there.  We have great resources and should use them to heal the world (especially the parts of it that are desperate).  Find ways to really invest and give of yourselves for the benefit and blessing of others.  You will still be touched and though you may not get to experience multiple cultures, you heart will grow and expand for one and you will begin to see it and its people through the eyes of Jesus more and more.

“I was hungry and you gave me food,

I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

I was naked and you clothed me.

I was sick and you visited me,

I was in prison and you came to me.” 
Matthew 25: 35-36

From my personal (and limited) experiences, I will end with a few ministries and organizations that I believe are doing a great job impacting their communities.  They are embodying this missional approach to service and ministry and I would recommend partnering with them (especially if you live in the area).  

Besides these particular ones, most communities have organizations with goals to benefit the community and make a long-term impact.  These include your neighborhood soup kitchens, food pantries, after school programs, recovery centers, Boys and Girls Club, among others.  Locate these in your communities and get involved.  I am sure that each one would appreciate the help and support. And if your particular area does not have organizations like this, start one up!  I am sure that within a short drive, you can find needs in your community. Perhaps God wants to use your church and/or youth ministry to reach beyond the four walls of your building and bring blessing outward.  Watch and see what God will do both in and through your group when you start to shift from missions to a missional approach. 

  Below are some organizations you can visit and work with.  Others such as Compassion International, World Vision, World Relief, Love 146, and International Justice Mission are also good for sponsorships, but the ones I listed below are good for youth trips.  Please comment and add some organizations that you have worked with and recommend.

I will post all comments.  Let’s build a list together and learn from the examples of others in order to do the same right where we live and minister.  Tell us about how your group or church partners with missionaries or organizations around the world or in your local community. 

*Disclaimer:  Clearly there is a Northeast focus (as there should be) because of where I live. But I encourage you to briefly look at each site and read the mission or purpose statement if they have one.  ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Group Work Camps                     

The Pittsburgh Project               

Jesus in Haiti Ministries          

The Boston Project Ministries 

The Bowery Mission (NYC)     

The Boys and Girls Club           

Adventures in Missions           

Cast your Cares (Philly)           

*CAMA services/relief projects

*C&MA Partnerships                  


*CAMA stands for Compassion and Mercy Associates

*C&MA is the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination


5 thoughts on “Shift #1: Shifting from missions to missional approach in youth ministry

  1. Great thoughts, spot on. I think a lot of us are struggling with this right now.

    And, as much as I think some will hate to see them go, short-terms missions organizations are going to have to refocus or shut their doors.

  2. See, I knew I would agree with you. Now I wonder how this could be an excellent way to teach our students theologically. It goes beyond the fact that Jesus fed some people and then taught them…but the fact that Christ is starting his New Creation through our acts of service and being missionally(sp?) minded. We are not just trying to make the world or peoples circumstances better, but we are realizing what happened on the Cross and working out those natural theological realities. Again we don’t do it because it makes us or even God feel good, but because God is doing a New Re-creative work with the Cross and Resurrection.

  3. Dan,
    I agree 100% I’ve been talking to my teens about missional living…asking them to serve with eyes wide open, rather than doing it for themselves. I actually know the founder of the Pittsburgh Project (Saleem Ghubril) and learned alot about missional living from living in Pittsburgh. I pray we as Youth pastors can venture down this road for a life time! Thanks for writing all this down…truly great stuff!

  4. I can relate to the “committed partnerships” aspect of this shift (shift #1).

    This past summer, I took my youth group to work with foster children at a camp in Texas. We didn’t do much teaching and preaching about Jesus, but we did show Jesus to those kids through the way we live our lives (our testimonies) and through the love that we showed them while down there.

    Two days into the trip, one of my high school girls asked me if we could come back again next year. It brought great joy to hear those words coming from one of my students. They wanted to make an impact, and planned to do so as we prepared for the trip months and weeks in advance. But now, they want to make a long term impact and go back again year after year. What was great about this was that I had been praying all week that God would work in my students lives and that He would give them a heart for missions and the kids that we would be working with. He did just that and laid what he laid on my heart, on their hearts!

    Thanks for sharing brother man!

    – paulg

    Paulg. thanks for the comment. Let me know if you do go back and what kind of long-term relationships you are able to forge with them. so glad to hear that your students are tracking along the same lines. keep up the great work my frien

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