I’ve been a Youth Pastor for nearly 20 years now and for almost every one of those years I’ve taken my students on a mission trip. I’ve taken large groups and small groups, affluent teens and homeless teens, football star types and head banger types, and just about everything in between. I’ve seen the football player types pray with the headbanger types then break into a game of Ninja with some math Olympian types. I’ve seen affluent teens with everything in the world stand in shocked silence at the realization that not everyone lives like them. I’ve had shy, I-can’t-do-anything-right sort of kids turn into I-did-it sort of kids when they stand back and watch with pride as their resident wheels down the ramp they built. I’ve had many, many teens give their lives to Christ on a mission trip. I’ve come to expect that the lives of my students will be changed by their experiences on a mission trip. This year though, I got to experience a different side of things. I learned first hand how a Group Mission Trip can change not only the lives of the students who attend, but the church as a whole.
Last year, my church became a lodging facility for Week of Hope – which means that we hosted teens from all over the country during the months of June, July and August. There were teenagers everywhere. Shower tents were setup in the parking lot, the dumpster overflowed with trash, on any given Sunday morning you were sure to find towels, t-shirts or boxers left to dry on the bushes. One day someone sat on a table and it split right down the middle. Another person stuck their foot through the glass door. On the very first Monday of the summer every single toilet and drain in the whole church over flowed….at once. As we were running around trying to stop the great flood of 2011 a burning smell came from behind the sanctuary and the power went out in one side of the building. A few weeks later the air conditioning went out. It was July. In Florida. This was not good. Our roof is now permanently littered with Frisbee’s and our once pristine parlor..well…isn’t.
It was fantastic!
If the fact that our almost 60 year old building survived isn’t proof enough of God’s divine intervention in the world, the reaction of our older members surely is. When arriving at our very traditional, stained glassed building on Sunday morning to find someone’s forgotten boxers lying across the courtyard wall, our senior members would smile, pick them up, bring them to me and say, “Looks like they worked their pants off this week.” When asked to move every single meeting and gathering of every single group in the church to another location for the entire summer, our oldest members said, “Well, let’s meet at Sue’s house and call it a party.” As I stood on the sideline I watched as my congregation opened their arms to strangers, happily changed their regular schedules and graciously over looked the crumbs in the classrooms, stains on the carpet and grease in the kitchen. Instead, they focused on the hearts opened, lives changed and love given.
Was it a challenge for my church? Yes. Was it difficult at times? Yes. Would it have been easier not to have so many teenagers living in our church? Yes. Would we do it again? Yes, in fact we are this summer. My church is a changed church. No longer a sub-group of the church, teenagers are now embraced and welcomed as a vital part of the larger church. As a result of this welcome, the number of teens in our church has doubled. The mission work of our church has moved from collections and check writing to personal, relational service. Our folks have been praying for this years’ teens, adults and staff all year long. Our focus isn’t on what might break or go wrong, but on all the ways God will show up in the chaos.
Jennyfer Norvell has been in youth ministry for about 20 years. She currently serves alongside her husband at a church in downtown Orlando, FL. She takes her students on a mission trip nearly every year and this past year led her church to become the host location for an entire summer mission trip experience.