There’s a lot of concern in the church today about how we are “losing” younger people. At the same time, younger people are much more sensitized to issues of justice and poverty than ever before — certainly more than I ever was when I was young. So, to paraphrase Dickens, is this the “best of times” or the “worst of times”? Are we dealing with a problem, or an opportunity?
I asked Rev. Louise Knowles, who oversees Youth and Young Adult Engagement for Canadian Baptist Ministries, to share with us some thoughts on how we engage youth and young adults in mission today. Here’s what she says . . .
I recently read about a study by the Fuller Youth Institute that identified the top three things senior high students are looking for in youth ministry.
- deeper conversations
- more service opportunities
- more mission trips
These are exciting results, but they have challenging implications for youth workers and churches that seek to meet the demands of this generation—a generation engaged in social justice issues and with a keen sense of global awareness.
Through my work as a youth pastor and with CBM, I often hear from churches and youth pastors who are looking for practical ways to engage their church in mission.
With that said, here are four things that I think are worth keeping in mind:
1. Work out your theology
First, I would suggest working out your theology of mission. Before you jump into any mission project, fundraise, or support an organization, start by answering questions like:
- What is mission? Where does it happen and why?
- How have we been engaged in mission historically and what have the results been?
- What needs to change in our thinking about mission? Have some of our ideas around mission been unhelpful both locally and globally?
Personally, I have found CBM’s theology of integral mission to be extremely helpful in forming my own theology of mission. Integral mission teaches that mission encompasses both word and deed—and a whole blog post could be written on just that topic! For those who would like to learn more, there’s a great resource called Wordeed: An Integral Mission Primer available online at www.wordeed.ca. And as you do the hard work of working out your theology of mission, I encourage you to include your youth in those discussions. By doing so you will teach them to think theologically.
In case you’re wondering, my theology of mission is about participating in the action of God. Engaging youth in mission is not about solving all the world’s problems, not about changing people, or getting kids to go to church more; it’s simply (and profoundly) about participating in the action of God. And God’s action is always hopeful and always life-giving. It’s about being in the places where life is difficult and caring deeply about people and bearing witness to the coming of God.
2. Find partners
Secondly, once you’ve begun working out your theology and are ready to engage in mission, I would suggest beginning by identifying partners. Sometimes the Church can be a bit slow in meeting local and global needs, so there’s a good chance that somebody is already actively working in your community! I would suggest finding those people and partnering with them. For example, if your youth are passionate about issues surrounding food, then partner with your local food banks or find a global organization who deals with food security. Let these organizations be the experts and respect their efforts and accomplishments. Come alongside them and learn from them.
It is always a good idea to engage in mission in places (locally or globally) where you are invited. Don’t step on toes, or march in with your own agenda. Wait to be invited, or offer your help and be committed to working with others.
One of the things I love most about CBM is that we work in partnerships. We are over 1000 Canadian Baptist Churches partnering globally to engage in mission that seeks to be sustainable and life-giving as we partner with churches and communities who are deeply aware of real needs.
While visiting El Salvador a number of years ago, I went to a very impoverished rural village where I learned about a new medical clinic that has been built by a North American group. At first, I was excited about this clinic and the potential to help improve the health of the people in the village who were chronically ill. The new doctor talked about her plan to do a survey in the area to try to find out why people were sick. As we went into the village to talk with the residents, we learned the reality. One older gentleman said that the clinic had the potential to do good things and that he is willing to help the doctor with her survey, but he quickly stated that the reason for all the illness was simple: “we have no clean water.” Immediately, I began wondering how things might have changed if a well had been built before a medical clinic was constructed. How might things have turned out differently if the group who built the clinic had taken the time to really understand the needs in the community by partnering with the residents, churches and any other organizations that existed there?
As you and your youth begin to engage in mission work start locally in your own community and discover the real needs of the people there. Do the kids in the community really need another bouncy castle carnival or do they need help with literacy? Does the food bank just need more cans of soup, or do people need to learn how to cook and prepare fresh food?
3. Work for justice
Thirdly, as you engage in mission, do it in a way that works for justice. “Simple service” or “acts of kindness” is giving a cup of cold water to someone in need. Justice asks why that person is thirsty and unable to quench their own thirst, and how can things be changed so that person can provide for both themselves and others. These are complex issues, but they’re worth exploring, and I’m hopeful that seeking to understand them will curb our tendency to become disillusioned and complacent.
When we do mission on our own and don’t partner with others, and when we don’t focus on justice, we can actually do more damage. I highly recommend the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself as a good place to start thinking about this.
4. Make it a process
Fourthly, I suggest making your mission experiences a process and not simply an event. I know all about the torturous details of planning to take your youth group anywhere—finding drivers, printing permission forms, re-printing permission forms for everyone who lost them, collecting permission forms, etc. Sometimes the details can be overwhelming and so time-consuming that we neglect the importance of preparing our youth for the mission experience in which they’re about to engage. For example, it is much easier to announce to your group that you’re going to go help serve at the local soup kitchen, organize the drives and forms, pile your youth into the vans, arrive at the soup kitchen, serve, and then get them back home safe and sound.
What is much more challenging is to prepare your students ahead of time by addressing some of the issues they may encounter such as poverty, homelessness, employment challenges, mental health issues, etc. This could be done by doing activities that simulate their upcoming experience, discussing what the Bible says about the poor, or bringing in a guest speaker. There are many ways you can begin to engage youth in the mission experience so as to maximize each opportunity.
You should also prepare them practically for the experience—let them know what they should wear, what are the rules they need to follow, etc. Then go with the youth and serve alongside them so you can see what they’re seeing and share their experiences.
After the experience debrief with the group, help them process what they saw, smelled, and heard. Let them ask questions, talk about what was uncomfortable, how they felt, and how they sensed God at work. Talk about any changes they will make in their lives in light of this experience and decide together about the next steps as they continue to partner and seek justice.
By making mission a process our students learn to live missionally and they learn to think theologically about life.
So, in summary: Think theologically about mission, identify partners both locally and globally, serve with a focus on justice, make it a journey not just an event as you and your youth participate in the mission of God!