Myths, Truths, and Your Participation
"We've got to have a meeting. Now."
The voice ringing through my phone was a youth pastor who was scheduled to bring his junior highers into inner-city Chicago the following weekend. Now, the trip was in doubt. "A parent of one of my students has a friend who has a friend who's a Chicago police officer," he continued. "The friend talked with the officer, who said we were crazy to take our kids into the inner city. The friend then talked to the parent, who went ballistic and started phoning the other kids' parents. If we don't do something, the trip is going down the tubes."
Not with My Kid, You're Not
Parental fears. You know what they're like. They're natural when your son or daughter heads into a situation where they could be at risk. And a mission and service trip that takes teenagers into an inner-city ghetto, another country, or halfway around the world poses significant dangers--right? Or are you overreacting? What's a concerned parent to do?
As a parent, it's your right (and duty, really) to ensure that your children are not exposed to undue risk. But as the president of an organization that brings thousands of young people and adults into the inner cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Toronto, I can tell you that the life-changing benefits of youth-ministry mission and service experiences are without parallel. It's the kind of experience I want your son or daughter to have, without it putting unnecessary gray hairs onto your head.
I share your concerns. I have two teenagers of my own. Yet both of my children have spent significant amounts of time in dusty Mexican villages and gang-infested urban neighborhoods--happy, productive, and safe. How? By being part of mission and service opportunities that were well-planned, well-connected, and well-supervised.
I'd like to suggest three steps you can take to ensure that your son or daughter is headed for a mission and service experience that, while not 100% risk-free (after all, what in life is?), is well worth your child's and your time, effort, money, and courage.
Just the Facts, Ma'am.
It amazes me how many parents have sent their children on a Center for Student Missions inner-city mission trip with very little idea of where their child is going, what they'll be doing, and who will be looking after them. Any reputable mission organization will have written, video, and other information available that thoroughly describes who they are, what they do, and how they operate. If they don't, your youth pastor has no business considering them.
As your youth pastor researches various mission and service opportunities, have him or her supply you with the same written information that he or she is considering. Read it thoroughly. Feel free to contact the agency, organization, or missionaries in the field directly with any questions you might have. Where do the kids stay? What kinds of ministry activities will they be doing? Are they working with local Christians who know their way around? What do they do at night? Ask away. I love to hear from parents who care enough to contact me or one my staff directly to find out more about our ministry.
You can also invite a representative of the agency you'll be serving with to come to your church, present his or her ministry, and answer questions. While this may involve additional time and expense, the results can be well worth it. I was once flown out in the dead of winter from Chicago to Syracuse for a special Saturday night presentation to the parents of the high-school students who were preparing for their summer mission trip. It set them back the cost of a plane ticket and a few meals, but I was able to answer a number of nagging questions that several parents had - and for whatever reason, hearing it from my lips (the guy who actually lives in inner-city Chicago!) carried more weight than hearing the same information from the youth pastor. (Besides, they had me preach the next morning before I left, so they got a double bang for their buck.)
See for Yourself.
The Center for Student Missions requires any group registering for the first time to make a previsit to the city where they'll be serving. We've learned that this first-hand, half-day look at our housing facilities, ministry sites, ethnic restaurants, and the chance to meet our staff and urban ministry partners is a vital preparation tool for an effective experience. I always recommend that, if possible, the previsit group include the youth leader, at least one of his or her students, and at least one parent - optimally, the most concerned parent in the church.
Why not be part of that previsit? It could mean a significant investment of your time and money, but isn't it worth it? After all, this is your child we're talking about. Brochures, videos and other information notwithstanding, there's nothing like seeing it for yourself.
A few years ago, a large group from the rural West was on the verge of canceling their scheduled trip to Chicago because one particularly influential dad was dead set against his 14-year-old daughter going on the trip. To his credit, he agreed to join the youth pastor and several other adults for an extended weekend previsit.
I remember meeting this guy when they arrived. Jim (not his real name) was a nice man, but very serious--set face, few words. It was starting to feel like a long weekend. But off we went, bouncing all over the city as we visited sites, met with our inner-city Christian ministry partners, ate our way through town, and talked through the specifics of the trip. I was beginning to enjoy myself as the group loosened up and became more animated--all except Jim, who remained quiet and serious.
Finally, it came time for the group to pack up and head for home. With about an hour left before they were scheduled to leave for the airport, Jim took me aside. "I'd like a few minutes with you," he said. We sat down and he proceeded to grill me with a laundry list of questions and concerns--tough, but polite, and the issues he raised indicated that he'd been paying close attention throughout the weekend. When we finished, he stood up, shook my hand, and said, "Thank you for your time. I appreciate everything you've shown us."
After they returned home, I got the call from the youth pastor. Had Jim changed his mind? Well, no--not about his daughter at least. "He still feels that his daughter is too young to go on the trip," the youth pastor told me. "But he thinks the trip is a great idea for the older students, and is talking it up all over church." That group eventually brought 37 young people and adults for what was a fantastic ministry experience. And the punch line? Just last year, this same church sent nearly 50 students and adults to our Houston site. Included in that group: Jim's daughter, now 17 and, in his estimation, old enough to handle the trip.
Who Sez You Can't Go?
Why not? Your youth pastor is probably struggling to find enough adult sponsors to help with the trip. (CSM, for example, requires a ratio of one adult supervisor for every five students for its serving groups.) Who's to say that you can't be one of them?
Helping your youth leader to supervise your child's mission and service trip is the best way for you to be on top of every aspect of the experience. You're right there, on site, able to help in managing the situation as it happens. Best of all, you'll be able to experience the trip for yourself! Trust me--you may find that God is doing as much (if not more) in your life through your group's mission and service experience as He is in your kids. (Be forewarned.)
Fear Strikes Out
So what happened with those parents who were threatening to pull the plug on the Chicago trip? I was able to arrange an emergency meeting between the most concerned parents, the church's pastoral staff, and the African-American Christian leaders we were scheduled to work with in Chicago. Everyone had the opportunity to air their concerns, ask questions, and work through the issues together. We finished with a great time of prayer.
The group came to Chicago after all--and had an unbelievable experience, sharing the love of Jesus with poor residents of a public housing project, in partnership with their African-American brothers and sisters. It was one of the most powerful ministry experiences I've ever been a part of, and it opened a whole new branch of urban ministry for subsequent CSM groups. It's okay to fear for your kids. Goodness knows that there are plenty of things to fear. But fortunately, a well-planned, well-connected, and well-supervised mission and service trip isn't one of them.