Reflecting On Our Sr. High Fall Retreat – Part 2 – The Need For Retreat

Yesterday’s post began with my gratefulness for a great weekend but ended with the concern of a poor attendance because of all the other functions that were falling on that weekend.

Then there was a turning point. A junior girl decided to skip her Homecoming Weekend. Now, to guys like me, i would consider a retreat scheduled on a weekend like this to be a favor but apparently to girls, this was a stressful decision and a major sacrifice. I don’t understand Twilight or Justin Bieber either.

Looking back on it, her decision became quite the message that was communicated to everyone. I heard a few people say, “Wow – that’s cool she’s doing that.” Soon other junior girls signed up, seniors signed up (we have awesome seniors btw), and a handful of students who I did not expect began making the commitment. One skipped her tennis meet (she’s good too), a lead in a school play skipped his Saturday rehearsal and numerous other sacrifices were made and you know what – this commitment became an important message to each other. (What was also cool is that no one intentionally made a big deal of it).

By the end of the weekend, everyone was saying, “I am so glad I came …. I really needed this.” Which for those of us in youth ministry that is the same jubilation felt when a senior pastor hears the phrase “Pastor, we got a big offering today!” (Kidding, Kidding).

The other youth pastor, Greg, and I spent a lot of time talking about the idols we (un)intentionally create in our lives. It ranges from academics, sports, the arts, and numerous other extracurriculars. This stems from being taught at an early age that we are in competition with one another. “Nothing will be handed to you, you need to earn it” and sitting at the kitchen table and hearing a loving and concerned parent explain that scholarships are essential to get into a good school so you can get a good job so you can get a good life and if you don’t, insert the nightmare story here that every family has but rarely shares from behind closed doors. This is the pressure that my classmates and I grew up with and in many ways, it is even more competitive now.

Numerous times a day, I hear the crazy pace of our students – getting up early, after-school practices and rehearsals, jobs and other responsibilities that bring them home around 9 (some later) and then the homework … On the retreat we discussed this at length. Where is the balance that God intends for us? Is it even possible to live a life that is focused on Jesus with such a calendar? Is an idea like Sabbath even practical today?

I know these sentiments may be scary to people, especially to parents (and I write knowing very aware of this and hope you communicate any concerns to me). These sentiments when abused lead to laziness in the name of God which is of course, not godly at all. We as adults, youth pastors, students, anyone who considers themselves a follower of Jesus is called to live out the calling placed on our lives. This always means hard-work, being a good steward of our gifts, personalities, time, resources, etc. we have been entrusted with and our commitment to serving the Father’s Kingdom, because as Jesus said, “What good is it for a person to get a 4.0, a perfect SAT score, a dream job that provides the luxuries and amenities of the world but lose their soul?”

Reflecting On Our Sr. High Fall Retreat Part 1

I find myself very thankful for an excellent retreat this past weekend. Some excellent conversations and connections were had and made, some important truths were remembered, and some friendships were made and deepened. From my vantage point, it was great to see those and other beautiful moments happen over the weekend.

Our group joined the good people at Westminster Presbyterian from West Chester, PA on their annual fall retreat. Their youth director Greg Kilmovitz and their director of alternative worship, Jon Frost and I know each other from Biblical Seminary. (Faithful readers of the blog/twitter will recognize Jon as a member of my cohort and the recipient of the prestigious “Biblical Seminary Missional Student” award ;-) Back in April, the three of us and two other good friends went to see the NT Wright Conference at Wheaton and we really connected (it was sorta like a youth retreat, except for theology nerds). It was on our way home that Greg and I began talking about the possibility of doing a retreat like this with our respective groups. Though I knew it was a terrible mistake to ever partner with someone whose last name you could not pronounce, like how Kierkegaard taught about the absurdity of Abraham, I stepped out in faith.

Here’s the context of it – We both serve in suburban churches, contend with a bit of our denominational traditions and have high visions for student ministry. This means a lot of things. For one, some consider us boring because we quote Barth and Augustine to our students but we do it to attempt to communicate the rich history of the Church. On a good week, we even use the Old Testament ;-) Two, denominational traditions, as well as the histories of our respective local churches inform what we do. I do not intend to make this sound like a negative thing at all for there is a lot of goodness in this too, only to say, it’s something necessary to account for. And three, youth ministry in the ‘burbs is a tricky thing for a lot of reasons but among them is our collective busyness.

Simply having a retreat weekend is tough enough. In fact, one of the reasons we do not do fall retreats is due to the difficulty of creating a critical mass. A week before the retreat, I did not know if we would have 2 students or 20. Further, in order to secure the camp (Sandy Hills, in North East, MD), we needed 50 participants. I want to be clear here and not cast any negativity on our respective youth groups (our churches, our families, etc.) but only to make the point that youth ministry, and in this case, fall retreats are becoming increasingly difficult in the busyness of suburban life.

Back to April – we discussed this on the long ride back from Wheaton, the expectation of our retreat grew. In fact, this helped us develop the problem that we wanted to discuss and its solution – the idols we create and the journey that Christ has called us to. We decided that there were numerous journeys that our lives were on and some times the metaphor of “journey” was not always helpful so we narrowed it down to two – the Inward and the Outward Journey and this became our theme.

Deposits from our ministries were in, youth leaders were committing to the weekend, the brochures were mailed out and we were excited. Then the next week all I felt I heard was, “I can’t make it, I got a recital, game, practice, it’s Homecoming, taking the PSATs, taking the SAT’s, taking the MCATS” (some of these AP programs are getting out of hand ;-) and I thought to myself, “I should have never have listened to Greg Klimokegaard”.

Part 2 Tomorrow.

Our Youth Group Has Dropped It’s Name (What We Are Hoping to Learn From Jacob’s Search For Indentity) – Part 2

Last week, we began the process of our youth group’s collective identity searching by telling this story. One day back in high school, we had a substitute teacher and as he was doing the roll-call, I decided to claim the name of one of the students alphabetized before me. (I wasn’t even that rebellious of a kid but I thought it would be funny). Consequently, my friend took my name. It was Mr. Millheim’s history class and every time the teacher asked a question, I would raise my hand and answer with the most ridiculous response I could. Eventually, he asked what my name was, I responded, “Tobi” and taking pity, he gently told me that I would need to really study my history book if I was going to pass the class. By this point, the class was giggling. He probably figured it was due to my stupidity, but in reality, they were being humored by my first (and only) case of identity theft (Yeah, that’s how advanced I was, I didn’t even know what that was back then ;-)

This was a relatively harmless prank. It’s not like I stole my friend’s grade, credit, or birthright like the way Jacob stole his brother, Esau’s inheritance. For those of you not familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau, they were two brothers born to Isaac (Remember him? The guy that was almost killed as a sacrifice by his father. This is seriously a dysfunctional family. Had DYFUS existed back then, children today would not be singing “Father Abraham had many sons …”). Birthrights were only given to the firstborn and the siblings were expected to serve the elder.

Adding an even worse wrinkle to this story was that Jacob’s accomplice was his mother Rebecca! Working together, they tricked Isaac into giving Esau’s birthright to Jacob. Isaac, old and almost blind, suspected something was amiss and asked, “Which son are you? You have the feel of Esau but the voice of Jacob? Who are you?”

Jacob answered, “I am Esau”.

And so he was blessed, Isaac deceived, and Esau pissed.

To move the story along here, when you steal your brother’s inheritance, you pretty much have to move out of the house in a hurry. So Jacob heads to Haran, meets a pretty girl, Rachel, who hooks him up with a job working on her dad, Laban’s farm. She probably thought, “Now we be together always”. He probably thought, “Pretty girl, a job, a home, and an inheritance – this is the best week ever!” and Laban probably thought, “Sucker.”

As the story goes, Jacob worked for seven years to be allowed to marry Rachel. On the night of the wedding, Laban secretly gave Jacob, Rachel’s sister, Leah. It’s best if we don’t ask questions at this point, all I can imagine is that it must have been really dark and perhaps Jacob got a bit drunk prior to the ceremony but he apparently did not figure it out until the next day. Also and this is just a speculation, perhaps the divorce attorney lived a good distance away or perhaps was neighbors with his brother Esau, but what probably really happened is that you can’t divorce a man’s daughter and expect to marry his other one, especially since marriage was necessary to insure a woman’s survival. (Thus the ancient, social justification of polygamy). so Jacob settled out of court to work another 7 years for Rachel.

Moving the story even further, the two families start realizing that there’s not enough space for their clans, so Jacob runs away again, this time with his wives, kids, stolen sheep and goats (long story but by now you will just believe that he’s good at stealing stuff) but the problem is that he has to go through his brother Esau’s territory to be away from his shady father–in-law. Dilemma.

Sending his family out in front of him with gifts for his brother (who by now is bigger, badder and a tribal leader with a small army. Need a name for a mental picture? I think of a Hebrew Tony Soprano), Jacob stays behind and sleeps in his tent alone. But he’s not alone. As he prays, he wrestles all night with a figure identified as the angel of the Lord.

Finally as the day is breaking, Jacob says he won’t let go until he his blessed. Of all things to say the Lord asks, “What is your name?”. You would think the omniscient one would know that but as it turns out, He’s not the one that needs to “know”. If this were a movie, the camera would zoom into Jacob’s shocked face right now.

Remember the last time he’s asked for his name in the Genesis narrative, he lies. As a result all these years of running, scheming and deceiving have now caught up with him. When he stole his brother’s identity, in some ways, he not only lost his own, but lost his life as well.

When he answers, “Jacob”, in that moment, he finally and fully accepts his failures, his sinful deceit, his selfishness, and the pain that he has caused others. But the beautiful thing is that in the very next moment, he is finally forgiven. The angel says, “No, your name will be Israel. For you have struggled with God and prevailed.”

A lot of time has passed but Israel certainly has a history, a legacy. A few in fact and depending on your theology you are a part of Israel (at least spiritually).

As we wrapped up our time, I tried to explain to our students that their own personal search for identity is going to lead them down many roads and as fellow believers, our Father has called us to search together as a community – to search for our identity collectively and individually. It may be a struggle, but abundant blessings will unfold as we sojourn together. Again, we are not just looking for a name, but looking for who God has called us to be.


I took the liberty in adapting these stories but you should read them in their full context in Genesis 27-32.

Our Youth Group Has Dropped It’s Name (And Begun a Process of Searching For Our Collective Identity) – Part 1

Primary Audience – My local church context
Secondary Audience – Fellow youth workers who would understand how potentially traumatic this is ;-)

As of August 31st, our church youth group shed it’s name “Fusion”. It’s been overdue but  attachments are tricky things. The name was introduced under the former youth pastor (who is a  good guy and a friendship I wish we could enjoy more of), the logo they created was ok , the  purpose statement worked with the theme and most importantly, the students liked it. For me, it  wasn’t a big deal because I’m not really into group names because most of them arelame and all  of them get old. So when I came on 4 years ago, I kept it (but updated the logo).

In the years that followed, I had a hard time every using “Fusion” in a sentence apart from “The name of our youth group is …”. What started to really bother me was that I felt it did not have a deeper connection to who we were as a group. Why are we “Fusion”? Is it rooted in our love of protons, neutrons, and electrons? We don’t call our students nuclei and pray they come together in the name of Jesus and BAM – FUSION. “Activate the reactors – it’s mission trip time!”

Like I said, names are a tricky thing. For instance we have a student leadership/followership team that was called “S.A.L.T.” which stood for “Student Action Leadership Team”. Personally I am not a fain of acronyms (or acrostics) and as the years passed on the SALT team felt more like a student council selected in a manner similar to fantasy football than what was consistent with ministry. So last year we changed the name to “Sugar” because it felt we were too caught up in the name “SALT” and not enough with its group process ( But I do myself wodnering if sugar was around in Jesus’ day, would He have said “You are the Sugar of the world …”?). This year we changed it to “Paprika!” (you can’t say without the exclamation!). And if this year’s team gives us trouble, we’re calling them “Sour Milk” or “ChalkBoard Scratchers”, or “Church Van Vandals” or “Southern Baptists”.

But I digress, the graduating class of 2009 would have been the class to have been my freshmen under the Fusion regime. When they graduated, I thought it was time to make a change.   Instead of breaking out the white board and brainstorming with leaders and students and figuring out a new name, I did what most good pastors do – took a year to think about it, talk about it, change my mind about it, do nothing about it, think about it some more, come to the conclusion we needed to do something about it …

That said, the truth of it was, it’s not just about a name change. We needed to figure out who we are and what God has called us to be. What are we and supposed to be doing and who are we to become collectively and indivudally? Further, we have been discussing what missional Christianity looks like in a student ministry context which meant numerous things. Among them was am I leading and organizing this ministry in a manner consistent with that hope? So it was time for a change and not just a name change but a searching for a new collective identity. These posts will attempt to describe this process, offer our plans, failures, joys and experiences from my perspective. As always, open to your thoughts and suggestions – feel free.

Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip – “Katrina Wasn’t Even the Worst of It…”

It feels more often than it probably actually is but I feel that our mission trips need to respond to why we invest so much in meeting people’s physical needs “when it’s their spiritual lives that only really matter”. For me, that is very flawed statement on a number of levels but I think I understand what people are trying to say. Why help rebuild someone’s home and not share with them the hope of Jesus? It’s like saying, “I hope you enjoy going to hell in a nicer home.” Know that I, nor any sincere Christian I know, don’t actually feel that way.

But here’s what works for me. I have a hard time “compartmentalizing” life into the categories of “spiritual life”, “physical life”, “social life”, etc. They only work in terms of abbreviation and frankly, I am not always sure where my “physical life” ends and my “spiritual life” begins. That said, it’s easy for me to see how my physical well-being/state/condition affects the hazy, extremely subjective idea of my spiritual well-being/state/condition. And vice-versa. For example, when I feel physically drained, it’s less likely that I feel spiritually joyful and excited and ready to go to a Hillsong worship concert. In that instance, i’d prefer to take a nap. This is not to say that your spiritual state is entirely determined by your physical state but they certainly relate to each other. At least, that’s how I see it (and I suspect this is true for most of us after a bit of consideration).

So back to mission trips. One day Aaron and I went to see about picking up some wood from a family that was offering to donate it. We stopped at the house, knocked and a sweet southern grandmotherly woman opened the door. After the pleasantries, she offered to show us the shed and on the way she complained about the weeds, the bugs, and the mess that the backyard was in (A bit of a long story but she had rented her home to out to people Aaron knew). As she complained, I felt the need to repress my judgment of her. I mean after all we had seen, if weeds in your garden are among your chief complaints, then you may have it pretty good. Of course I knew that when we complain over trivial matters, it’s usually a front for deeper, more hurtful pains but the story works better if I just tell you that I was annoyed by her annoyance. Anyway, after finding the wood, we decided that we’d bring some students the next day to haul it off.

The next day we showed up, I knocked on the door to announce our presence but secretly hoped she wouldn’t be home (the shed was unlocked and it was very hot out). I even imagined that she may had hoped that we wouldn’t show – it would give one more thing to complain about. But when she opened the door, there were smiles from me, from her, even the weeds waived hello. The kids unloaded from the van and we created an assembly line and I was in the shed being bit by mosquitos and bugs that had mutated from who knows what but they seemed to be reneging on the offer of the wood.

We finished up, students loaded into the van and I wanted to say good-bye and thank her on behalf of Aaron and the Gathering Church. When I did so, she revealed that she had no idea who Aaron was or the church. And then it began, a real conversation, not about tenants or weeds or the heat but about life, about recovering from Katrina, about unhealthy loved ones and and about grief. Doris told me that the water had flooded 8 feet of their home and they were so lucky to have salvaged it. But after the water receded and the home was gutted, they left their home to stay with an elderly family member and have been renting out their house for the last 3 years.

I tried to encourage her but then she said, “But Katrina wasn’t the worst of it” and she started bursting into tears. We had crossed a point of no return here. Students were already in the van, I was on the porch being bitten by more bugs, and now had made an elderly woman cry. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that just less than a year after the hurricane, her 9 year old grand-daughter was killed in a parade by the float she had just jumped off of. She was assigned the job of handing out flyers and when she tried to hop back on the float, she slipped …

My heart broke and I listened to the whole story. About how she would have been turning 13 this year. About how all this happened in front of her parents who had been following the parade. About how the little girl’s dad held her until help came. About how she believed in God but she was just hurting so much.

Eventually it was my turn to say something other than, “Well gee sorry to hear all that – thanks for the wood.” So I asked her if I could pray with her. Afterwards she asked me what I did for a living. I explained. Which of course began another conversation that centered on hope and the significance of Jesus. I shared briefly about that my family had gone through tragedy too, and just recently mourned the loss of a dear uncle. I told her that I knew it wasn’t the same but in the pain, I was reminded again the importance of life and the resurrection of Jesus and the hope he offers for now and for eternity.

She hugged me. We said our goodbyes and I reminded her about Aaron, the Gathering Church and mentioned that they have a professional counseling ministry. And then I was on my way. I remember being affected by that though. Sometimes when you are the group leader, you don’t get to engage because you expend a lot of energy managing and staying ahead of the curve but I was really affected by the encounter. I forgot how to get back to the Gathering building, forgot about my mosquito bites, forgot to plan out how to pick up the Kids camp volunteers and I was grateful that Jim was driving.

I kept replaying the conversation, wondering if I had said things right. I have to admit, it surprised me how the conversation took a course of its own. It seemed easy enough, go to the house, pick up some wood from the lady that was annoyed by the weeds. Who knew. Once I regained my composure, I was really moved by how a such a simple act of picking up wood turned into a moment of expressing care. I don’t know how much different her life is from a stranger praying for her on her porch but it reinforced to me the need for making conversation and uncovering the needs of people in our communities. To me, this is an enormous part of the work of the Gospel and living missionally.

Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip – Post 2 – “We Feel Cursed”

“We Feel Cursed”
On our first trip I remember hearing people express this sentiment post-Hurricane Katrina. How could an American entire city be submerged under water? This time, we heard people express it in relation to the oil spill. “We feel cursed”, “Why does this always happen to us?”. If you ask a Pat Robertson type, he’ll say that you are cursed. Ask even an environmentalist type, and you may get a similar response. But if you ask someone like me, it’s because we live in a fallen, depraved world and we are all cursed in some way.

I know this is a pretty pessimistic post but we will never run out of bad news streaming across our televisions and computer screens. There will always be tragedy to be shocked about. There will always be many crying themselves to sleep at night. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s me. We are all cursed.

When talking about New Orleans and the Gulf region, I often hear people ask if it’s worth rebuilding because it’s likely inevitable that they will be devastated by another natural (or man-made) disaster anyway. I would like to assume that these people never take medicine or go to the doctor when they are ill. I mean why bother, if this illness doesn’t kill them, they probably figure something else will kill them. So why concern oneself with getting better if it is inevitable that one day their body will stop working anyway? This logic sounds weak right? That’s how I feel when people wonder if we should rebuild places like New Orleans.

Like I said, we are all cursed in different ways. Some choose to deny this reality and are completely overtaken by surprise and shock when pain and evil find them. Others accept this and live their lives in such paranoia that they souls are too paralyzed to even enjoy the good days. Obviously a balance would be helpful but that’s only the start. We need hope. We need a real reason to be hopeful.

This is one of the many reasons why I am a follower of Jesus. He is the hope that can save all of us from this cursed world. He offers salvation, forgiveness, redemption and recreation. It also reinforced to me the important work that must be done in New Orleans and the Gulf Region. Not only from a physical rebuilding but including a psychological and social one and especially a spiritual rebuilding. From conversations with people, there are many groups that continue to come and serve. I found that to be encouraging. My prayer is that one day people will no longer feel exclusively cursed but rather released because of the hope of Jesus.

Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip Part 1 – High School Students Can Do Just About Anything

High School Students Can Do Just About Anything
I’ve always held this suspicion but like many great truths, I have doubted. My working theory is my perception is due to the “modes” that I find students in. There are many of these modes: apathetic, passionately motivated, committed to missing the point, brilliant, rowdy, rude, and messy, almost behaviorally perfect. There’s many more of course, and they depend on a number of circumstances. It’s interesting to note how this reflects adulthood but considerably more exaggerated in the teen years.

I hold the belief that you need to push, motivate, lead students to do great things*. In ministry it becomes difficult to do this without inflating their collective ego and revolving the group not around God but around them. Sadly, this is among the mistakes that I have made numerous times. My intentions never started out that way but between the frustrations, criticisms, weak attendance, parental complaints, compromises were made and the trajectory drifted off-course.

This was running through my mind throughout our time in New Orleans. When we first walked into the Gathering building and saw the work we needed to, I admit that I felt the feeling of intimidation. But I was not intimidated by the task, in fact, I was confident in that. I knew our team could do it (especially after last year and this year was also a strong crew), but worried our attitudes would struggle and that we would not take the work as seriously as we should. Doubt crept in, I second-guessed myself, and wondered if the numerous criticisms of student short term missions held credibility. Of course, it’s at this point in the reflection that I am supposed to say that I prayed, the heavens opened up and God gave me his divine “thumbs up” and I winked back at the clouds, filled with courage, and gave a Braveheart speech that not only impassioned our students but simultaneously stopped the oil spill.

But nothing dramatic like that happened after my prayer. In fact, I prayed several times, and as a group we prayed regularly. Perhaps the wisest part of our prayers was that we had dedicated the work and time to the Lord and asked that He would bless it. From where I stood, it was that consistent submission to God that helped us maintain focus, kept our unity, provided energy in the forms of physical strength and encouragement in the forms of words, hugs, notes and presence.

Like all mission trips, nothing ever goes as planned. We had equipment problems, transportation glitches, missing lunches, and we constantly rotated students to different job sites (from kids camp, to menial labor like moving bricks, delivering furniture, to hanging insulation). There were days we ran out of work and had too many people and then too much work and not enough people and numerous other potential distractions. We began numerous conversations with, “I can’t do anything with these 5 until those 4 finish that and then …” Then there was the heat.

To their credit, they not only kept it together and we all witnessed moments of growth. Watching that final piece of insulation go up was more than just the pride of physical labor but the result of a youth group serving with good reason (and we had quite a few ranging from Christian service to reaching out to those that are in need). As you can tell I’m very proud of our students and I was reminded to never underestimate them.

* I know some may be inclined to say that it’s not us who do the great things but God. Certainly this is true to some extent but it has some obvious shortcomings. For instance, at car wash fundraisers, when a vehicle is cleaned poorly, it seems ridiculous to shake our fists at the heavens in protest of God’s performance. It’s usually more effective to communicate to your students, “Hey we need to bend our knees and scrub.” I know that may not qualify has a “great thing” but you get my point right? We are to serve and build his Kingdom, and this is truly an extraordinary thing.

Our NOLA 2010 Mission Trip – Setting the Context – Post 1

As a believer of short term missions, each summer our youth ministry goes on a short-term mission trip. Last year we served at the All Saints AIDS Camp in Nassau Bahamas with Next Step Ministries. It was an unbelievable experience. Throughout the years, I have led teams to Estonia, the Czech Republic, and our beloved New Orleans. It was here in 2008 that we worked with a local church plant called The Gathering in Chalmatte, LA which is just east of the lower 9th ward and an area that was also completely flooded by 8-20 feet of water.

The 2008 trip was a difficult one for a number of reasons. Many of our team members were first-timers (which is wonderful too), it was extremely hot (as you would expect), our accommodations were rough (we stayed in an abandoned elementary school that was scheduled to be knocked down a few weeks after our trip). My “trip lows” included driving through the Chalmatte neighborhoods looking at all the “For Sale” signs. It still felt like a ghost town, very few businesses, no grocery stores, not even Wal Mart had moved back at this point. The few businesses I saw were a Burger King, Home Depot, a Walgreens, and numerous establishments selling daiquiris.

I also remember never being able to cool off, except during a cold shower, but immediately, the humidity reminded you that there was no refuge. I think my biggest “trip low” was on our last work day, the team made chicken pot pie as a celebratory feast. We ate at picnic tables “inside” where the cafeteria was. It was after 8pm by the time we ate, I was starving and since I wasn’t in the shower, I was of course, sweating. Being hungry, I tried to eat the pot pie, but it too was extremely hot. And between the sweat from the heat and the pot pie, my face was literally sweating into my food. It was at this point that I remembered thinking, “Who’s dumb idea was it to make chicken pot pie?” followed by “Why couldn’t Katrina had hit Maine?”.

The better moments …
… we had a great team and were joined by a few students from the church Evan Curry was serving at the time.
… we got a lot done, mudding, priming, cleaning out abandoned houses.
… realizing the enormous need of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region.
… meeting the fine people of the Gathering.

The Gathering is a church plant by a team from various parts of the US – Phoenix, Louisville, to name a few. The lead pastor, Matt and his family moved in February ’06. They were a young couple with two kids and they lived off generators for 18 months. I would have loved to have heard some of these conversations when they were asked, “Why move there … now???” But you and I know the reasons why.

For me, one of the most important parts of the trip was meeting Aaron Johnson. He’s one of the pastors of The Gathering and the way he was trying to do pastoral work really connected with me. His church office is his donated white pick-up truck and his pulpit is his tool belt and cell phone. The Gathering had just completed the purchase of an old bowling alley that had been gutted after Katrina. Their vision was to convert the building into a community center. The Phase One (of Three) vision is to have have a day care center, coffee shop, counseling center, and include a space for worship.

After our week there, we knew we had to come back and committed to returning every other year. And so on July 6th, we left Montvale to return to Chalmatte.

Our NOLA 2010 Mission Trip – Highlights – Post 2

On Friday we returned from our student mission trip to New Orleans and I find myself trying to describe this incredible experience. Once again, we had an excellent team. It was our largest which was 19 students and 4 leaders. And once again, our church and leadership were supportive and generous in allowing this opportunity.

I have not been able to really articulate my reflections for posting yet but until I do, here are a few highlights:

I really enjoyed my conversations with The Gathering Team. Had some excellent conversations with Aaron (their community pastor) and got to know Pastor Matt. He told us the story of how he and his family (with two very young children) moved 6 months after Katrina and lived off of generators for 18 months.  This decision spoke so much to their new neighbors and community.  It’s usually at this point, that the story would say, “And their church sky-rocketed in growth” but instead, they began very non-dramatically seeking intentional relationships and serving the community in any way they could.

I don’t have any pictures with Aaron (the Community Pastor of the Gathering) but I think one of the moments I will remember is the conversation with a woman who we had delivered furniture to.  It was very pastoral, very caring, and it seemed very unlikely that she would ever step foot in their church.  When I mentioned this to Aaron, he said something like, “Well, that’s not why we do it.”   That’s Christ-like.

Watching our students reading Scripture and journaling after lunch and throughout other parts of the day. After one of our work days, I walked by one room where about ten students had gathered, sat separately, silently with Bibles and notebooks open. Honestly, I didn’t recognize them at first (“Which youth group is this?” ;-) I almost took a picture but thought that was lame, I now regret it – my eyes have deceived me before.

I don’t know how many times I thought to myself, “I can’t believe he/she came on this trip. I was pretty sure they’d never come on one. And look he/she is loving it!”

Beignets from Cafe Du Monde!  Yeah we know they’re basically funnel cakes but with even more sugar and everything else that is bad for you.

It was great meeting the youth group from Richmond.  They have an awesome youth pastor and I hope our paths cross again.

This is could be a post unto itself but our youth leaders are amazing. We had some challenges on this trip and having a great leaders was huge asset. Icould not imagine them not having been there.

I didn’t think that I would ever be moved to see a Wal-Mart. I am not a big fan of the retail giant but it did bother me that it was not able to open again for four years after Katrina. Much to the joy of Chalmatte, it finally returned.  I visited almost daily to get water, cough medicine and Sharpies.  It symbolizes that more and more people and businesses are moving back to Chalmatte.  And just recently announced, they finally plans for the hospital to return.

Hearing the news that oil spill had been stopped.  As you can imagine, hearing people talk about it there is far different than talking about it in Jersey.

Siblings!  I will always remember the siblings of this trip.  We had four sets of siblings attend this year – can’t really get into it on here but there were some beautiful family moments. I am not even their Mom and I was moved.

Watching our team deal with some real adversity.  There was some real solid perseverance that led to healthy group building and Christian unity – I’m really proud of this team.

Are Short Term Student Mission Trips Worth It?

Primary Target Audience – People in my local congregation
Secondary … – Youth Ministry workers, Missionary workers of any form, and fellow Kingdom builders

Every year this question gets asked around our local church in some variation and it also gets asked all over the blogosphere and twitterverse. And every year I wonder about it too.

The short answer is yes, based on our current western evangelical, suburban climate – yes, while not perfect, they are worth it.

The comments and questions I usually see and get are among the following:
It costs so much money to send a team down there. Why not take all that money and send it to people there and have the work be done by professional workers?
I usually have two responses. Great idea, why don’t we do that all year round, collect money and send it? (insert awkward moment here).
You and I know, that money simply won’t come in to send. You may be able to raise $800-$1000 but not $15,000 (or whatever the trip in question costs). it’s because we tend to give relationally.

Second, for those who insist on seeing this in dollars and cents: Realistically, not only will you raise a fraction of what it would cost to send a team down there, I would like to make the case that money raised is a great investment in the Kingdom. I have seen and been discouraged by some stats on how the “mission trip experience” has offered little lasting help in one’s faith. Fortunately for myself, I am very suspicious of these types of stats and have also seen similar regarding the “effect” of the Sunday sermon. We still do them. Every Sunday. And we have numerous reasons, including the need for preaching and teaching Scripture to the words that can be used by the Spirit to convict, encourage, and offer the hope of Christ.

So, speaking from my experience, many (not all) of our students have been impacted in numerous long term ways. There are certain lessons that only be learned from outside of your zip code. For short-term mission trips, students are taken away from their context, away from their distractions, sharing close space with fellow youth group students and leaders. Then they are faced with situations and challenges that they simply do not get the opportunity to have. These trips create these moments and for many students, they will always value missions having experienced it personally. For some, this alters the trajectory of their lives dramatically.

This is not to say that there is no need for local missions but in fact, the opposite, as there are certain lessons that can only be learned from inside our zip code as well. Many times when seeing the needs of others in distant place we are convicted by the realization that we neglect many very near to us. As a youth ministry, this has led us to do service project weekends, In full disclosure, they are great in theory, we have been blessed by them, but we need to work on a better implementation as they have proven to be very difficult to put on during the school year. I am confident by the Spirit’s leading, we will grow in this practice,

Another aspect I like is the camaraderie that we enjoy on these trips. Students have conversations with people they have “only seen around on Sunday morning”, they reconcile differences, they see each other differently. Similar to the “teen summer camp experience”, being away provides the opportunity for that. This is also important for me as a youth pastor. This is literally the most time that I get to spend with students, the only time that I get to engage in deeper conversations with some and important times for some of our youth leaders to truly connect with the group. Again, the challenge is applying this throughout the year.

Perhaps another reason that is largely ignored is the importance that our teams serve to either a local church or missions organization. I realize this can open an entirely separate discussion altogether but it seems to me that less gets done if we do not send teams. Again because relationships and student involvement create so much motivation and energy. That said, I am very much aware of the stories of some organizations that have used groups as either tourists or as sources of revenue to repaint the same wall summer after summer and these accounts always grieve me. But it seems for the vast majority, these weekly teams serve and build credibility to these local churches and agencies and I love that aspect of the larger Church Body serving in this big-picture way.

Another feature of the trip that I have come to recognize as been the decision-making process that the student and their families go through to commit to the trip. Many choose between summer jobs, parents plan vacations around them, and every time someone asks, “What will you be doing over there?”, the student has the opportunity to search their soul of why they are actually going. The decision making process and the pre-trip reparation should not be underestimated.

There are certainly problems and challenges for student mission trips, believe me I know. Among them are behavioral problems, an inflated sense of ego (“I’m going to save these people”), the danger of categorizing missional-living as only a “summer thing” that can only be done proxy and a few other concerns that maybe I can share another time. But these are not reasons to not do mission trips, they are reasons to do them better.

To combat our collective pride and to maintain focus on why/what we are doing, we have had nightly devotions and debriefings, Scripture and journal reflection times, and have been diligent in creating a servant-hearted culture on these trips. We have even gone so far as adopting a motto, “Me First!!”. When we ask for 3 volunteers to do the glamorous jobs of cleaning the dinner tables, or filling the water coolers, or cleaning the bathrooms, there ought to be a rush of volunteers yelling, “ME!” first. We get the point when we have to turn down five volunteers because three volunteered so quickly.

Are mission trips worth it? Yes, in our current context, they are very beneficial and very much worth the cost, time, and energy expended. For more, I highly recommend the dvd curriculum Round Trip and David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open. Please feel free to comment in polite disagreement or add your concern, I have come to enjoy this conversation.