As a farm kid in the rural South, I grew up wanting to travel the world and explore places outside of the land I knew. I didn’t know many people who had traveled, at least not past Gatlinburg or Dollywood, so anyone who had ever set foot on an airplane (or even crossed the state line) had my full attention and adulation.
One steamy Sunday in July, when I was 10 years old, a missionary couple assigned to the Ivory Coast came to speak at my small country church. I listened intently (no small feat for me at 10) as they talked about traveling to a foreign country, speaking a different language, and sharing the Gospel with people who had never even heard of God. In my youthful fantasies, life couldn’t possibly get any better than that. I still remember the card distributed to the congregation with a photo of the couple and their children. I stuck it in the corner of the mirror on my dresser and prayed faithfully for them every night for months.
As I grew up, my dreams rearranged themselves, and I eventually became a language teacher. I was still very active in church, and the idea of mission work lingered in the back of my mind. It more or less languished there until the day I was approached by a youth minister from the church I was attending at the time. He was in desperate need for chaperones for a youth group mission trip to eastern Kentucky. I was excited to be asked, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in a smelly van filled with teenagers singing tirelessly at the top of their lungs and pausing only long enough to ask “are we there yet?” every half hour.
I have to confess the trip was not nearly as romantic as I had envisioned it at the age of 10. All things considered, it was better. The kids (and I) worked 10 hour days in hot, humid weather, lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chips, and had marathon card games in the middle of the floor almost every night. It was noisy, sweaty, back-breaking, and glorious. We spent each day working on houses and interacting with our assigned families as much as we could, sharing our lunch with them and chatting during breaks. I got to see my dreams realized: the kids and I traveled to a new place, learned a new language (Kentucky vernacular), and shared God with people we grew to love like family.
Seeing the youth group kids’ accomplishments and excited faces made me realize how impactful and important trips like these are for them. Most of them had grown up in church and served in their own communities, but this was a completely different experience. They interacted with people from a different socioeconomic background, many of whom had never set foot in a church—people who didn’t always smell very nice or treat them very well. They saw that there are people in the world, even in the United States, who haven’t grown up with the opportunities they’d had to hear about God and to grow in His word. Evangelism suddenly became real to them, and even though their age might limit them in some ways in our society, it definitely didn’t limit them in God’s eyes. Sure, they complained about the heat, the food, the curvy roads, etc.,—didn’t we all?—but more importantly, they found themselves empowered with and by the love of God.
There are so many mission organizations and opportunities for teens today: national, international, rural, urban, short term and long term. Missions are a chance for kids to grow in spiritual maturity, and kids’ boundless energy coupled with a desire to witness is an effective combination. In most cases, there is some financial cost involved, but often less than what is required for a summer camp. And the rewards can be priceless . . .
By the way, there are lots of opportunities for adults as well. My choice to chaperone the mission trip 16 years ago made an impact on my spiritual life that continues to manifest itself in wonderful ways. The hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky turned out to be my Ivory Coast, and I’m grateful that they did. The fields are white, and whether you’re a teenager or a senior citizen, God can use you in His work at any age.