It’s a fairly common tendency among adults to remember our adolescent years as the time when we thought we had life all figured out, and chuckle at our youthful arrogance. But former evangelical teens like me possessed another level of audacity in our youth — not only were we armed with our own answers for all of life’s big questions, we also had answers for everyone else.
In all of the world.
Many of us who grew up attending short term mission trips with our high school youth group look back on those memories with a particular mixture of horror and endearment. We would bake the heck out of all the cookies and wash all the cars to raise funds so we could go and ensure that all over the world, people knew our answers to their life’s problems. And the stories we’d marinate while on our trip —embellished with details like how gross the bathroom conditions were in this or that third world country and the volume of exotic foods we consumed — were designed to best the previous year’s short term missions trip’s “sharing.”
It was at once a ridiculous display of privilege and a treasure trove of dear memories with our peers.
In recent years, short term missions (STMs) has come under some scrutiny. Popular blogger Jamie the Very Worst Missionary opened what she called a can of worms on some problematic aspects of STMs — like centering on the stories of the rich kids who go on these trips, instead of the locals. And the bestselling book When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, critiques the financial stewardship of the Western church’s resources, highlighting astounding statistics like this one: In 2006, Americans spent $1,600,000,000 on STMs. Other problems inherent in STMs include a lack of quality cross-cultural training and an abuse of power dynamics, things Westerners are often unaware of when stepping across foreign boundaries. Thoughtful engagement of STMs consider what it means to do good development and how that intersects with evangelism's goals.
We're long overdue some criticism of short term missions and a long, hard look at the colonial roots of long term missions. There is much that the church, particularly the Western church, has to repent of when it comes to harm and damage done in the name of glorifying the Lord in all nations. As a new generation of youth rise up in the church, we must lead them to do better.
And yet, I fear that as we strip away the baggage of STMs, we may also rob our youth of the life-giving spirit of service, compassion, and community. Once we get past the embarrassment of the errors of our past, a powerful narrative of strength in teamwork, and participation of something greater than ourselves, remains. I believe this is a crucial element of adolescent development, as teenagers embark on the road to outgrowing their childhood egotism.
“Missions” has a much broader definition outside the evangelical context. The concept of banding with a team of people and embarking on an adventure to achieve a worthy cause is the driving story behind all of the world’s epic tales. A deep sense of mission is an essential driving force that carry us from moving through each stage of living a meaningful life.
How can the Christian youth of today band together with non-Christian youth in a way that fuels their dreams and taps into the vibrant energy coming of age?
I want to suggest the idea of protest as mission. I propose this idea not from my own jaded adult mind, but from following the lead and tremendous example of young voices in this generation.
In a historic lawsuit, 21 young plaintiffs — nicknamed the “climate kids” — are suing President Obama and the United States government for not doing enough to stop the rapidly changing climate. Children as young as eight-and-a-half are speaking up for their own generation, while the actions of adults are causing consequences for the earth they have to inherit.
And in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline,which would snake through the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and threaten their water supply, young Native Americans are standing up for their own community.
“It’s a time of unification. It’s to be with my brothers and sisters and my youth to stand as one and fight or this land,” Naelyn Pike, from the Chiricahua Apache Tribe, said.
In these brave protests, I see echoes of the same sentiment that fueled my own young evangelical dream — to be in community with my people, and together make a change in the world. Historically, children have been involved in protests, says Kenneth Braswell, author of the illustrated children’s book, Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside. Our youth have a right to learn and understand the issues facing our community, both local and global, and they deserve to insert their voice into the spaces they occupy. This is as sacred and spiritual a mission as short term missions.
We need to continue the pressure on churches to re-imagine better ways of mission — one that does not imbue spiritual arrogance on our youth to spread harm in local communities of foreign lands. Our children are ready to embark on their journey. We had better be sure the story we are dreaming for them is a worthy one.