The Importance of Mission and Service in the Spiritual Formation of Youth
The spiritual state of Christian youth in the United States, much like that of adults, is not good. Kenda Dean, author of Almost Christian, writes: “Three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christians, and most are affiliated with a religious organization—but only about half consider it very important, and fewer than half actually practice their faith as a regular part of their lives.”
There are at least three issues that Dean well brings out from research on youth and spiritual formation. First, while typical youth ministry can form a very important role in social formation and positive moral development, it seems to be very ineffective in creating long lasting, transformational faith. This is done much better (and more properly) in the home and family--and unfortunately, many busy parents have left the spiritual formation of their child to the youth minister.
While youth ministers can play an important role, every study will confirm that the number one influence in a teen’s life--believe it or not parents--is their parents. Nothing and no one else comes close.
Second, teens are often not challenged in their faith. The concept of “adolescence,” “teenages,” and “young adulthood,” where little is expected and immaturity is expected, is a recent, Western phenomenon. Other societies, and most throughout human history, have considered those as young as 13 or 14 (which was probably the age that Mary, the mother of Jesus was) as adults. They were given great responsibility. Life was short. They would die by 35 or 40.
It is true that we have not often prepared our youth to be adults by their teen years, but it does not mean that they do not have adult type of questions about faith, Christianity, other religions, the world, science, and a host of other things. They can serve in profound ways, and are often never called to do so. Relegated to serving in worship, for instance, on a youth Sunday, rather than throughout the year. Given no place or voice on “adult” ministry teams. In so many unintended ways, our youth unfortunately get the message that they really can’t do much until they are maybe 25 or 30.
Third, research shows that teens that participate in short-term mission trips and then practice what they learn at home stay far more faithful to God, stay active in “church,” and have a much more vibrant faith. Mission was, in fact, how Jesus made disciples. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mt. 4:19). Jesus called his disciples to mission, and then he taught them how to live (the sermon on the mount) “on the road.” Matthew 5 came after Matthew 4.
In the “Limited Commission,” Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God--and they do not even have a clear or totally accurate picture of who Jesus is. He tells them, “9 “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts” and 16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Mt. 10:9, 16). By telling them to leave behind their wallet and go out two by two, he is teaching them to depend upon God and one another. It was faith building, and they came back from this mission as stronger disciples.
Sending our youth out on mission, in unfamiliar territory, where they have to depend upon God and one another, serve others, and share their faith, is transformational. In the book Transformission, authors Wilder and Parker research the effects of STM on youth, and 91.7 % of one youth group that went on a STM to Mexico reported spiritual growth. And this trend continues back home. Adolescents “who had spent 40 hours or more involved in service through their local church were twice as likely to affirm the importance of church in their lives as compared with those who had not.” Service was a better predictor of faith maturity than Sunday school, Bible study or worship.
I know that I was transformed by going on Let’s Start Talking short term mission trips as a teen and as a college student, and then by going into the local jail and studying with inmates.I could not be more proud of our youth for going on their mission trips to Rio Grande and Nicaragua this summer, and for Lantz Howard and his team of adult leaders for taking them.. I know that these trips will be truly life changing. This Sunday, Lantz will share how God was at work through this trips. I am looking forward to hearing how God was at work in the lives of all that went. I know that most will be forever changed by this experience. --James
How could we challenge and use our youth more? What has your experience been with short term mission trips? How can we keep that experience when "back at home"?