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Why am I so cynical? Nadia asked herself as she stood surrounded by about a hundred young people and a dozen adults in bright orange T-shirts that read "Operation Change: Being Jesus' Hands in Making the World Right." What are we doing here? she wondered, watching the leaders of the mission organization pump up the youth and herd them onto the buses for a week of mission and service in an impoverished village with no running water.
This was the fourth mission trip Nadia had led during her time as the church's youth pastor, and the third trip to Mexico—all sponsored by the same short-term mission organization. Based in the States, this mission agency led trips to Mexico and about a half dozen other countries. For Nadia and the youth of her church, teaming up with a mission agency like this had a number of logistical advantages: They picked you up at your church in their buses, drove you into Mexico, set up your accommodations, and planned your service outings. In other words, they did almost all your legwork, allowing you to spend your time and energy doing mission service rather than planning it.
Nadia's sudden fever of skepticism had come on quickly during a leaders' meeting just the day before. Upon arriving, Bud and Stacy, the staff people from the mission agency, had pulled together the youth pastors from the three churches making the trip. After going over some safety-related ground rules, Bud and Stacy asked the youth workers what they were hoping their young people would get out of the trip.
Tara, the youth director of a group from a middle-class suburb in the Midwest, spoke up first: "I'm hoping to shake my kids up a bit, hoping this experience will push them to really believe. I want them to see how other people live, how hard some people have it. I think a trip like this will push my kids to want to, like, know their faith more and really believe it; I think it will make them take their faith more seriously. My kids get so caught up in all kinds of activities; they struggle with being worldly. I think being here and having this experience helps them to know what's true and to really, really believe it. I think it will make them more God-centered and less world-centered."
Kevin, a veteran youth pastor leading the largest of the three groups, chimed in, "I agree—I want my kids to be moved to take their faith more seriously. And in taking it more seriously and doing these trips, I think they learn that they really can change things in this broken world. In my many years in youth ministry, I've found that the way you change kids' faith is to get them doing something, give them the chance to participate in making the world better. I want to see my kids make a difference, and I think when they're given a chance to make a difference, they are changed. After all, Christian faith should change the world, and I think these kids, this generation, can change the world for God. So I want to get them started on that this week." As Kevin spoke, Tara nodded her head in agreement, and both Bud and Stacy offered deep "hmmms" of approval.
"Yeah," Bud said. "That's what our organization is really about. We think kids are right in the middle of the will of God when they're doing mission and service, because they are doing God's work. They're bringing forth the kingdom of God by being Jesus' hands; their work is the engine of the kingdom of God."
Bud then turned to Nadia and asked, "What about you? What do you want for your kids? What's your desire for the trip?" A year ago Nadia might have said almost exactly what either Tara or Kevin had said. In fact, reflecting back on last year's trip, she probably did say something very similar. But now, hearing their responses, she felt like they were somehow missing the point, theologically. She wasn't sure what the problem was, exactly—but it all just sounded out of tune, like a familiar song that is, for whatever reason, off.
Nadia sat silently amid the cacophony of what she perceived to be misplayed theology. "Well?" said Bud, interrupting Nadia's frozen pause.
Standing in the thin air between the question asked and the answer they were expecting, Nadia thought to herself: This maddening theological journey I've been on has tripped me up again! Can't I do anything in ministry without being thrust into contemplation?
Nadia had been on this journey since her evaluation meeting at the end of her very first year at the church. At that meeting she'd been struck by the need to really explore the purpose of youth ministry. After lots of wrestling, she'd concluded that youth ministry was about participating—and inviting youth to participate—in the action of God. This central focus on the action of God set terms not only for how Nadia understood youth ministry but also how she practiced it. This had pushed her to rethink how to talk about the cross, which then led her into reconsidering the ways Scripture functions in ministry. And now, here she was again.
Still mentally casting about for an answer and wanting to avoid the theological problems she'd heard in the previous two responses, all Nadia could say is, "I don't know." Even as she said this, she was aware it was not the right—or even the polite—thing to say. Although she didn't intend it, Nadia knew her response would only create discomfort and uncertainty among the other leaders.
Sure enough, Nadia's answer painted Stacy's face with confusion. "You don't know?" she repeated.
"What do you mean you don't know?" asked Bud. Clearly, in his many years, no one had ever said they didn't know. "Obviously, you had some reason for coming all this way with a group of teenagers," Bud continued.
"Yeah, I think I did." Nadia continued, "But, now, I'm not so sure."
"Not so sure of what?" asked Stacy, seemingly worried that Nadia's inability to state her goal in bringing her young people could have a negative effect on everyone else's experience.
"I guess I'm not sure why we do these short-term mission trips in youth ministry," Nadia blurted matter-of-factly, aware that such directness might upset the other four. "I'm not saying we shouldn't," Nadia said, trying to clarify herself. "I'm just saying, I don't know why we do it."
"Maybe you should have figured that out before you came," said Kevin with a tone of authority, or at least with the confidence he'd gained through experience. "What I mean," he continued, "is that over my many years working as a youth pastor in quite a few large churches I've learned that you should never do anything without first understanding your needs and desired outcomes, and then assessing your resources. Only then should you plan your program. It sounds like maybe you got a program scheduled before you did the other work."
Nadia tried not to roll her eyes, nodding and biting her lip to hide her irritation at Kevin's "Youth Ministry 101" lecture. She knew it wasn't lack of organization or planning that led to her uncertainty. Although Nadia worried that her "I don't know" made her seem flaky, thoughtless, or (worse) obdurate, she knew it was really an open door into theological reflection. Perhaps it would have been better—or at least more convenient—if she'd figured more of this out before she came on the trip. But Nadia had realized she did her best theological reflection not in libraries or closed offices, but in the middle of doing ministry. Nadia's "I don't know" wasn't avoidance, but the first dramatic leap into theological wrestling.
"Well," Nadia responded tentatively to Kevin, "maybe you're right, but I'm not sure better planning would really answer my question. I mean, I've led several of these trips, and I've seen that they can have an impact. I also know kids like traveling and going. But I guess my question is theological: Why theologically do we do them?"
"Well, okay," Bud interrupted, "I think we need to table this for now, since we still have quite a few logistics to go over." It was clear he wanted to stay away from conflict, especially now that theology had been broached as a subject before the trip had even started. Nadia just shrugged her shoulders. She felt fine with the ambiguity; after all, it was where she'd been for the last few years in ministry.
ON THE BUS
The question of What are we doing here? was still wrapped tightly around Nadia's being as they boarded the bus for their first mission activity. Sitting close to the front and leaning against the window, Nadia could see the other two youth pastors, Tara and Kevin. She thought again about what each of them had said about the purpose of the trip. Tara believed the trip was for moving kids into further commitment to their faith; Kevin said the trip was for young people to do something to change the world. Nadia wasn't sure why, but both premises bothered her. At one level she agreed with them, but at another level these justifications made her uneasy, pushing her into her contemplative state.
By the time the buses pulled up and unloaded a hundred kids into the impoverished village, Nadia was beginning to get a toehold on what was bothering her. It became clearer later that afternoon, as she helped one group of young people prepare a puppet show for the local children and another group paint a wall of the little Sunday school building. She realized her focus was almost completely on her kids. Sure, the village and its residents were there, but in many ways, it was as if they were only the background, a soundstage for her teenagers' experience. Maybe that's why she'd been so uncomfortable with what both Tara and Kevin had said. They spoke as if the village were important only for the way it could be used. For both, it became the material their young people could use to do something, could make them into something.
Already feeling cynical, Nadia dug deeper, wondering if this real impoverished village with real poverty and real people was real to the herd of orange-shirted crusaders. If the purpose of the mission trip centered on providing particular experiences to the young people from the three U.S. churches, it was hard to say whether the village served any other purpose than being the backdrop to those experiences.
Tara sought to engage the village enough for her young people to have a transformational experience, but that experience didn't include encountering the humanity of the people there. She wanted her kids to see the poverty, but primarily so they'd be more thankful for the blessings they'd been given. She hoped her kids would recognize that the people had very little, yet they were happy. But these realizations didn't depend on encountering these other people in any genuine way as much as it used their situation to provide her young people with an experience. In Nadia's mind, this made the mission trip a lot like Disneyland; both provided enclosed, discreet experiences that made you feel something. What if we made a big Disneyland of Poverty for people to visit? The employees could dress in rags and sit outside huts pretending to be hungry and jobless from 9 to 5, she thought wryly.
Kevin's purpose fell into a similar trap. He wanted his kids to do something, to act to change the world. But in motivating his young people for action, he risked rendering the people in the village inert and passive. It was as if he believed the people living in that Mexican village existed only to receive help from a few sixteen-year-old Americans who knew nothing about the people's history or culture. Kevin was so passionate to get his kids to do that it became easy to lose sight of the very being of the people in the village. Are these people just props? We might as well be cleaning up a vacant lot or sponsoring a highway, Nadia's doubtful thoughts muttered.
As for Bud, the director of the mission organization, he seemed to believe that as long as kids were doing service, doing something, they were doing the will of God, that they were furthering the kingdom of God. But this "doing the will of God" didn't necessarily lead them to the humanity of the ones in need.
Nadia thought again about Matthew 25 and how the actions toward "the least of these," always drew the actor into an encounter with the other's humanity, and how this led to mutuality, relationship, and a shared gift. Things were more complicated than Bud had stated. Nadia wondered: Isn't it God's will that we treat one another as more than consumers and providers, problems and solutions? We're all just playing roles here. Looking around at the scene before her, Nadia thought, I don't have to know anything about the real pain or joy of these people, nor do I have to reveal anything real about my own. Doesn't it matter at all who each of us is in this equation, and that we somehow see and hear one another?
Of course, as the day went on, the young people from Nadia's church interacted more with the locals. They invited the local people to their worship service and played with the neighborhood children. But after three hours, all the orange shirts boarded the buses again and left, off to another experience tomorrow.
After a few days, Nadia's cynicism had lessened. She still had huge questions, and the theological thoughts were still racing from her heart to her head, but she'd found enough equilibrium to enjoy the trip. That evening over dinner, Bud gathered the leaders for an informal mid-trip evaluation. "So," Bud began, "has the trip been meeting your expectations so far? Is it meeting the purposes you had for it in the life of your ministry?"
"Totally," said Tara. "I think this experience is really changing my kids. I mean, I think they get it. In our times together many have shared how thankful they are for their many blessings and said they understand now that you don't need a lot to be happy and to follow God." Nadia felt a rush of unease, but held back her reaction. Like Tara, Nadia had had some deep conversations with her young people about what they'd seen and how they could make sense of it in light of their own lives.
"Anyone else?" Bud asked.
"It's been really great!" Kevin answered. "I think we're doing kingdom work here this week and really making a difference. And when you do kingdom work, you are blessed and changed. My kids have really been shaped by bringing forth the kingdom."
"Nadia?" Bud said, giving her the floor to offer her feedback.
"Oh, I agree that it's been a great trip so far," Nadia responded. "But I guess my kids are feeling a little differently than Kevin's kids are. My kids are wondering if they really are making any difference. I mean, we tried to push them to see the suffering and stuckness of the people we encountered, and how this connected to their own stuckness. And I think that's really important. But I think it leaves them wondering if our being here really makes any difference."
The others just stared back. So Nadia continued, figuring she might as well just go for it. "I guess my young people are living near the question I had at the start, which is: What's the point? I mean, there is so much poverty and need here. Do our small efforts really make any difference at all? And why is existence so random? Is it just simple luck that the kids in this village have been born into situations of desperate poverty while most of our kids live in middle-class neighborhoods surrounded by all kinds of privilege? I mean, what is God doing?" Nadia paused, recognizing that she'd just set the ticker on a theological time bomb that might well explode when she set it in the center of the circle.
"So," she added, "any thoughts on what I should say to them?" Tick ... tick ... tick ...
Excerpted from Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry by Andrew Root Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Root. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to a Peculiar Project 9
1 The Chronicles of Nadia 13
2 Signs of a Walking Dead Man 23
3 Mission Trips, Tourism, and Globalization 41
4 Youth Ministry in an Eschatological Light 53
5 Resurrection 73
6 Eschatological Discipleship and Mission 97
Questions for Reflection and Discussion 117