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Teens in Short-Term Missions

One of the most impactful things I learned as a teenager was that God will do extraordinary things through you whether you are 5 or 45, 15 or 52; He has no age restrictions and certainly does not follow the boundaries that we build up ourselves. Even now, at 21, I sometimes wonder, “What can I really do? How can I make a difference when I have so little experience?” It’s helpful to remind myself of verses like 1 Timothy 4:12…

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.”  – 1 Timothy 4:12

As a young disciple, your age is not a limit. You have an extraordinary purpose now and it’s not something to wait around for. Short-term missions you participate in as a teenager can be an opportunity to find that purpose, dive in deeper, and pursue whatever God is calling you to.

When I was a teenager, I participated in a Forward Edge short-term mission trip to Villa Esperanza in Nicaragua as well as a trip to Mexico with a program through my local church. While I am no missionary expert, I have written down a few tips that were most impactful in shaping my experiences as a teen and beyond. I’d like to share them with you:

What’s Your Intention, Hero or Servant?

It is important, especially if it is your first mission trip, to reflect on your intention before you leave home. It can be helpful to ask the question, “Are my intentions rooted in God’s intentions?”

Often without realizing it, people from places of privilege come to help poor populations to be the hero, but this can be more destructive than helpful. If we go into situations with our expectations of how our strengths or services could be used to “save” others, we will probably forget to listen to God’s purpose for us and His Kingdom. We are called to humility and servanthood and in true forms of hospitality for others, to work alongside our neighbors in a dignifying way. As you may hear your Forward Edge leaders say, “Do things with people, not just for them.”

Short-term mission trips can be a wonderful opportunity for this. But beware of the intentions of your own heart. It’s too easy to believe what you are doing is right without truly owning what is in your heart.

“People may be right in their own eyes, but the LORD examines their heart.”  – Proverbs 21:2

Before you go, be honest and vulnerable with yourself. Pray and ask God to use you as a servant so that His intentions are a priority over your own. Join any meetings with your teammates before leaving if you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be truthful about why you are taking time out of your summer, spring break, or whatever it might be to help people miles from home.

Also, keep this in mind while taking photos and telling your story when you return home. Before sharing, reflect on your intentions and the best ways to dignify others in your stories on social media or elsewhere. It helps to ask, “Am I communicating in a way that glorifies God and empowers the people I met?”

Your Work is an Act of Worship

Recently, I read the book, Pursuing Justice by Ken Wystma. It speaks to the reality that worship is so much more than the songs we sing on Sunday morning (I highly recommend it if you somehow find the time to read a book outside of your school schedule). God asks us to worship and glorify Him by sacrificing our time, bodies, and souls for the things He cares about deeply.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” – Romans 12:1

Worship could be any form of work to glorify God; it could be handing out food, painting a wall for a school, building the foundation of a house, or teaching a VBS class. As you are working hard on your short-term mission trip it’s helpful to keep this in mind.

Your Visit is Short-Term

As a teen on these mission trips, I tended to gravitate towards kids because I knew more about how to play with kids than other skills that were asked of us. But if I could go back, I wish I would have been more aware and intentional about how temporary my week with them was. Especially when spending time with young children on your mission trip, it is important to remember that your visit will be short. You may find the young kids on your trip want so much love and affection from you; they may run to hug you or ask to be held even though you could be a stranger to them.

The problem with these kinds of interactions is that it is likely you will only have a relationship with these kids for a short time while you are in their community. I would advise you to be very careful and seek wisdom in the way you interact with kids. Once you leave, they may expect that same energy and overflow of love from their permanent caretakers, which can be damaging to the relationships they have with the people committed to their long-term care.

Don’t Fear Failure and Don’t Compare

Let’s face it, we are all broken people and even if you’re the star athlete, straight-A student, or leader of your Youth Group worship band, you will make mistakes of all sorts. Sometimes we see mistakes or ruts in the road as complete stopping points and often that is because we chose to see these situations from our expectations rather than God’s. If you run into a rut in the road or “mess up,” DO NOT DWELL ON IT, learn from it. Often God reveals to us ways to grow through the mistakes we make.

A simple example that comes to mind was when I was in Nicaragua with my team, helping renovate an old school. For some context, at that point in my life, I was insecure and took failure very personally. While painting a gate, I ended up painting the wrong section. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember the feeling of a pit in my stomach when someone kindly pointed out to me the mistake that I had made. I remember dwelling on the guilt I felt when I realized the time I wasted — which could have been used to help others more effectively!

If I could go back, I would have stopped teen me from dwelling on my expectations for myself. It was so easy for me to see how my other teammates were serving well and how I thought I was not. But if I had been paying attention to God’s intentions for me, I would have realized that; A. My mistake was a simple fix and in no way diluted the way God was using me, B. God gives each person a unique purpose, so it is never productive to compare yourself to others, and C. It’s not about me. The more we dwell on our “failures,” the more time we spend focusing on ourselves, beating ourselves up, and getting nowhere.

Instead: Reflect on it. Learn from it. See God’s bigger picture (not yours). And keep moving forward.

Displacement and Discomfort are Good!

Nobody likes to be uncomfortable and going to a different place, with a different culture, with people you might not initially understand can be scary. But before you back away from discomfort, remember that it’s a place where we grow and learn to understand others better.

I am not a person who is comfortable speaking in front of groups of more than five people. As a teen, I was not at all comfortable praying in front of other people who were older than me or who I did not know. So, when I went to Mexico with my youth group and we were asked to pray for people in the community that we were partnered with, you can imagine my discomfort. At that moment I was very aware that I did not speak Spanish well, that my group was full of enthusiastic outgoing believers, and that God was tugging at my heart to pray for someone that day.

A couple that asked us to pray for them mentioned that they needed healing because the husband had back issues keeping him from work. My hands, reaching out in their direction, were shaking and wet from sweat. In the silence before anyone spoke my heart was ticking at a rate that seemed ten times faster than usual and I felt like God was urging me to say something. I tried to insist that I could pray for them in my head or when I got back to my room, but God said, “now and aloud.” So, reluctantly, I did, and the Holy Spirit spoke through me.

After this moment, and other moments of growth with God, when people ask me to pray out loud or even speak to an audience of people, I don’t have the same reluctance I used to. This is not because I am completely comfortable speaking in front of others but because, among other reasons, I know that God helps us grow through situations we may fear. In many ways, putting ourselves in situations that initially seem scary or intimidating can lead to growth and greater understanding.

Of course, it’s important to pray and use discernment first, but your short-term mission trip can be a time to embrace the growth in discomfort. Take time to respectfully understand people and cultures that are not like your own, use those mediocre Spanish speaking skills to try to create relationships, and/or boldly and wisely respond to whatever God is calling you to in a given moment.

Be Open to Change and Listen to God

Finally, on par with most of these tips, allow yourself to be vulnerable and to change. In my experience, a gift of being young is we have the space to change perspective as we grow. I have found that it is important to pay attention to the wonders, stories, and injustices that God may expose to me daily. Because many short-term mission trips are so far from home and what we know, new perspectives or frames of understanding become more apparent.

Don’t forget to take the time to reflect on these things as they are happening. Depending on how you best process things, you may have time to decompress the day’s events with a friend from the trip or simply by praying on your own. I wrote in a journal every night before bed which helped me reflect on the ways God was working.

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”  – Psalm 139:23-24

When we return from short-term missions it’s easy to fall back into our daily lives of school, friends, work, sports, etc., and leave behind the lessons we learned and the relationships we made as important but distant memories. Remember that even after your short-term mission, God’s mission continues. You can implement new perspectives and understanding in the way you live your daily life and sometimes there are options to continue building relationships with the people you met. Like sponsoring a child.

If you went with a group of people, like your youth group, try to stay in contact to decompress and pray together. Be aware that God may be calling you to something more, in your daily life or beyond. My best advice is to be a good listener. Ask God to help you interpret your trip through His eyes and reveal what your next steps may be.

EMMA CHESNUT

Emma is a two-time Forward Edge short-term missionary, and former communications intern for Forward Edge International. She believes honest storytelling has the power to shape the values and lens people see the world through. 

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