I often wonder what we’d think if a short-term mission trip came to the community around our churches. What would we have to explain about the peculiarities of American culture to them? In my region, how would I explain Amish to them? Or interpret the meaning behind ‘touchdown Jesus’ on the Notre Dame campus? Seriously, what needs would they work to meet and what would they do in ministry? How would we respond to having a short-term mission team from overseas come to our area? Would we help with similar graciousness as those that host our groups in other countries? Where would they see the gap between church culture and the local culture? And, perhaps more importantly, what could we learn from them?
For the last two years, I have worked on two book projects that have opened my eyes to the future of youth ministry at our doorstep and around the world. Globalization gains momentum each year and presses in on nearly every local youth culture around the world. A youth worker from Houston just caught me off to the side at a conference where I was speaking, overwhelmed with the new realities he faced. He asked about how to handle legal issues related to immigration, working with the dynamics of Southeast Asian family culture, and how to understand Buddhist theology. As much as some want to ignore cultural issues, they give dramatic to how we do youth ministry and how teens think about theology and the world.
I think a short-term mission trip is not only a fantastic opportunity for your students to serve, learn, and grow, but it is also an opportunity for you (and I) to learn and grow as well. The next time you are on a short-term mission trip, I recommend finding some local Christian youth workers, who will probably be volunteers, and take them out for a meal or coffee. Spend the time getting to know more about their stories and ministries. Ask them to share what lessons they’ve learned and what challenges they face. Ask them where globalization influences the youth in their community and seek to understand how the church has responded to the new cultural influences.
Most of our printed materials come from a very distinct culture within America, but most youth ministry in the world takes place in other cultures. I’m of the opinion that, as youth ministry continues to grow in excellence all over the world, we in America can learn from those who lead in other countries and cultures. And a short-term mission trip is a great first step to do that. I know I learned from the various authors of Global Youth Ministry how to recognize the gaps between church culture and youth culture. I’ve been challenged by youth leaders in Eastern Europe to see the potential for youth ministry to be a shaping influence in my local community.
We’re always looking for fresh insights about youth ministry. I think many of them in the coming years will be coming from people leading youth ministry in other cultures. If leaders are learners, short-term mission trips are fantastic learning opportunities that God might use to expand your vision and invigorate your ministry leadership.
Terry Linhart now teaches youth ministry at Bethel College in Indiana and blogs at TerryLinhart.com. His forthcoming book, What Can We Do? (co-authored with David Livermore), provides creative solutions for youth groups to get involved and impact the lives of people and around the world.