24 hours in gainsville & middle school missions

tomorrow morning, i catch a 6:20am flight (again i say, a flight with this departure time is clearly a result of the fall) to atlanta, through somewhere (denver? chicago?), for my last board meeting with adventures in missions (they’re actually located in gainsville, georgia, about 90 minutes northeast of atlanta).

when i was a part-time junior high pastor in wheaton, illinois, back in the middle ages, i was a regular attendee at the local youth ministry network meetings. but i was the only junior high guy who attended. at one meeting, we were talking about youth missions, and i stated that i’d been thinking about taking my junior highers on a missions trip. the strong and unanimous word back was that missions trips should be reserved for high school ministry — that it didn’t make sense to take young teens. it didn’t sit right with me, but i left it at that for the time.

a couple years later i was working in a church in omaha, and decided i just had to try something with junior highers. this was a time (like i said, the middle ages) when pretty much no one was taking young teens on missions trips. so i looked through our denominational church directory, and found a native american congregation in northern minnesota called the mokuum indian chapel. i called up the pastor, and the rest is history. we took a dozen kids that first year, and it was both fantastic and a total nightmare. planning all the aspects of a missions trip on my own, when i had no idea what i was doing… well, it’s a miracle i didn’t start a whole new level of agression between native americans and “the white man”. but it convinced me: young teens are especially ripe for missions trips, since their natural inclination (due to the massive amounts of change in their lives) is self-focus; and a missions experience forces their hand (and heart) to notice other needs, as well as to experience what it’s like to have god use them to meet someone else’s need.

i came home and stumbled on an article, in good ol’ youth worker journal, about junior highers and missions, by some guy named seth barnes (who was writing a youth ministry and missions column in the journal at that time). i called him up and we instantly connected. seth had just recently started an organization called adventures in missions, helping facilitate short-term missions trips for youth groups (over the years, AIM has greatly expanded their ministry, and really see themselves as a discipling ministry now, not merely a short-term sending agency). we planned a trip to reynosa, mexico, for the following summer, and seth himself led our trip. the following year, we took 60 junior highers to the same place, and opened the trip up to other churches in our denom. during this time, i landed on a handful of non-negotiables about young teen missions trips, like:

    1. no airplanes. adding air travel to a young teen trip adds an element of intrigue and glamour that colors kids’ motivations. so, even from omaha, we drove two 12-hour days to get to southern texas/mexico.

    2. tons of prep. we always had a stringent application process (more for the refining of motives it brings) and a whole series of hurdles and preparation steps. months of prep meetings, memorization of simple spanish (for our mexico trips), scripture memory, testimony telling, prayer (including enlisting a raft of prayer supporters), financial support raising, tons of team building stuff, cultural sensitivity training. for our mexico trip we even had a required prep retreat for a whole weekend.

    3. at least one adult leader for every 7 kids of each gender. any less adults would cause us to limit the size of the group.

    4. stepped approach. before we would take a kid to mexico, she had to have been on a shorter and less intense trip — like a weekend-long service trip to a rescue mission in the city we lived in. these entry-level trips only expected kids to use their hands to help others. the more extensive trips added relational stuff and more cross-cultural intensity.

    5. make it young teen appropriate. we watched the length of the trip, the activities on the trip, all that stuff. for instance, our work in mexico was intense enough (at the time AIM didn’t have a camp in mexico to house kids) that we came back accross the border every night to sleep in a camp on the US side. we wanted to make sure there was “down time” and an opportunity for kids to not be overwhelmed. once, i took a select group of students on a 2nd week further into mexico — and it was clearly a bad choice. the 2nd week was just too much for them, and the experience was a bit lost on them.

    6. be careful of stewardship. a friend of mine wants to take his junior highers to ireland on a missions trip. this is just bad stewardship, in my opinion. there’s nothing a junior highers can learn in ireland that she can’t learn in a mexico border town or an appalacian rural zone or a hurricane recovery area.

    7. the trip must build the local church, and be in tandem with the local church, and not only the sending church. this is a lesson i learned along with AIM, over the years. lots of us did drive-by missions back in the day. it might be great for your kids; but it’s somewhere between insensitivity to the broader kingdom of god and downright cultural rape. any work of our kids must be an extension of local church who will be there long after we’re gone. part of our goal is to build up that church.

all that said, i’ve seen more long-term spiritual transformation take place in a compact period of time with middle schoolers on missions trips than anything else i’ve ever done in youth ministry.

so, back to my trip tomorrow. i have an obvious allegiance to AIM, and love for seth barnes, a visionary, brilliant, humble and godly leader who continues to blow me away. AIM is now hundreds of staff, with work in dozens of nations. i’ve been on their board for 5 years, which is the max (3 year term, with up to 2 one-year extensions). so this is my last meeting. my dad joined the board a couple years ago, and has brought his considerable expertise in fund development to AIM in a way that makes me really proud. plus it’s been fun to get to see my dad a couple or three times a year!

i fly home late saturday night, and will head straight from the airport to our junior high guys overnighter at my church. oh, and my 6th grade guys small group just kicked my butt with their talking and farting last night – i might try to send a few of them on a missions trip (that i would not be on!).

11 thoughts on “24 hours in gainsville & middle school missions”

  1. These are some great ideas for mission guide-lines. People give me the blank stare when I tell them that middle school kids should go on mission trips.

  2. For about 4 years I took a group of about 40 middle schoolers to Vancover BC, we mixed fun stuff with service work and it was always a big hit. I learned to expect more from my kids and they amazed me every time.

  3. Marko,
    As someone who thinks about student missions a lot – I love your principles. Stepped progression, loads of prep, partnership with local, indigenous church.

    LOVE it! My hope is that more youth ministries really apply those principles.


  4. i’m a silent specatator of ysmakro, until now. i’ve been looking for organizations who take junior highers for mission trips. (i guess cuz i’ve never been as brave, bold (or naive?) to try to plan something myself.) i life in jasper, ga, an hour away from gainesville. would it be possible for you to post some organizations (along with aim) that accept middle schoolers for missions?

  5. excellent, denise!

    well, there are SO many organizations who do junior high trips now. i think if you google “junior high” or “middle school” and “missions”, you will find a whole bunch!

    i will add, however, that just because a sending org “does” middle school missions doesn’t mean they do it well. i can vouch for AIM. i can vouch for Center for Student Missions (CSM). i’ve used both of these organizations. maybe others can chime in with any organizations they trust.

  6. Center for Student Missions is AMAZING!!! I have been to LA, San Francisco, and Chicago from SoCal. LA and SF with Jr Highers.

    Amor does a good job for Mex Housebuilding, but it’s a ton of work for you before the trip. We like Baja Christian Ministries as well. Amor is better because they don’t use power tools so JHers can do EVERYTHING!

    CSM is turn-key and high impact. They have cities all over the country that you can work in.

  7. This was the first year I took all junior highers on a mission trip.

    They got a lot out of it as a group, but it was difficult for me to adjust my expectations of them in a way that was age-appropriate.

  8. As a six year junior high guy (I worked with Jeff Buell for all of that time), I have seen God use mission experiences to greatly change the lives of students. One such student is Steven, two years ago we went to a Native American village in OK. His job was to water treat an entire deck. This quiet, shy kid would not stop working and served as an example for the rest of the guys on the trip. To this day, Steven, continues to be a leader in the ministry.

  9. I have taken my Jr. High Ministry on Missions Trips now since 1995. I have gone with Center For Student Missions (CSM) on their Los Angeles Mission Trip – and they are AWESOME!!! I continue to use them every year and am impressed at what they do, how they organize, and how they gear the trip to suit Jr. Highers. I highly recommend them.

  10. YOUTHWORKS! Inc out of Minnesota does a great job with Mission Trips. I haven’t been with Jr. High but their Sr. High program is excellent. It has all of the elements you describe. We left Vancouver feeling like we made a difference. The nightly down time with our own Youth Group and the cultural activity at night also added to the wonderful experience.
    My question for you Marko is how do you calm the concerns of parents who think street ministry is too dangerous? I run into that even with the more mature Sr. High students.

  11. well, to some extent it’s NOT safe — so i’m careful not to lie and tell them it is. but i do my best to communicate that we’re going with an organization that has done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and knows every precaution to take and has a great track record. in addition, i give them my word that i will take no risks, and will constantly be looking out for the safety of the kids. that’s the best we can do!

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