The transformative power of mission and the work of relationship

Both last week and this week we'll be talking about transformational moments in ministry: Moments that have transformed our faith or changed the way we do ministry. Over the next few days, you'll hear from several women in ministry who serve in various capacities - some paid, some volunteer; some in youth ministry, some not – from various denominations around the world.

Today's post is written by Rachel Bahr, the Director of Youth Ministry at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn. She's a gifted youth worker and writer and someone I'm proud to call a friend.

“Get thee behind me Satan!”

I’ll never forget these words and their utterance.

Nope, I am not referring to Jesus scolding Peter. Not at all.

When I was in 8th grade at my small and very conservative Christian school, one of my fellow classmates chose to defy my English teacher’s wishes for him to stop talking during class. These were her words. We all thought it was quite humorous; she was really good at the dramatic voice and gesture that accompanied the phrase.

"I will never be like her," I thought as a naïve teenager. Fast forward fifteen years …

Tonight at youth group “Get thee behind me Satan” is running though my head, as the youth I typically count on to be “on board” with new ideas are, in fact, not on board and are panicking about some of the new changes to work camp... Like requirements including egularly showing up throughout the year at youth group and reading a book (Beyond the White Noise: Doing Mission in a Multi-Cultural World written by our own church member, Tom Fate, which I highly recommend).

Instead of listening to me and each other share thoughtfully, youth are interrupting one another - I can see that soon folks will be picking up pitchforks. I calm the masses, and ask them to pray with me for peace to be among us. I pray, and am silent for a good long minute because God knows that I need it to keep my own cool. We resume our dialogue and I remind the group about our ground rules.

That night, two youth come ready to discuss the reading and the other forty are hearing two more youth who refuse to do the reading argue that they disagree with having to read. My lofty ideas about engaging and respectful dialogue are flying out the window.

Meanwhile, I try to compress the ideas presented in the book to the group. I say, “Fate is talking about a different kind of mission called ‘co-mission,’ defined by relationships formed on an understanding that we, the folks entering the community, are humble learners who do not presume to have all the right answers and who will fix all the broken things. We do not bring a superior intelligence and construction knowledge. Rather we will work alongside our hosts, open to be changed by the experience, hoping to get to know the nuanced life of this person and community. Our mission trip to St. Louis this coming summer will offer us this opportunity as we will be working alongside many people. Two-hundred and fifty homeless folks come daily to the BRIDGE, and we will be working alongside other community residents in their homes. Where ever you are, there are many people you will come into contact with. Please take time to talk with them.”

Uncertainty is the mood of the room. Hammers and nails seem easier than a conversation with a homeless person. We end the night with a closing prayer, the group feels unsteady. I clean-up and go home and wonder what I could have done differently.

I am called the next week into my senior minister’s office. I hear from her that there are disgruntled parents. I’m told that all I have to do is stop talking about the book. “Get kids on the trip; then do the theological reflection.” I ask how asking kids to be open to relationships with homeless folks is sabotaging our trip.

I actually don’t think kids go on mission trips thinking they will learn from the people they will work with or somehow connect their own pain to the pain of the world. For many of our youth, it’s more about feeling good that they have helped someone “less fortunate”; Benevolence feels good to do - especially to us privileged white people.

(By the way, the words “less fortunate” freak me out. I know it is regurgitated from the talk they hear at home or in the community, but I want it to be my goal to teach my youth a different way of talking about doing mission or about service to others. There is such an unhealthy dynamic of dominance in these words. When we do mission to “help the less fortunate” the benevolence of the host community and family is often ignored or undervalued or not thought of as equal to the material changes that have happened over the course of the week. This is not to say that I don’t think this is important to do short-term mission, but I believe a more lasting change happens when our hearts collide with the hearts of the people we are there to learn with. These relationships that are a result of mission trips can provoke more thoughtful reflection and action. The hope of this happening both for myself and my youth is why I can even stomach going on short term mission projects.)

Fast-forward to the mission trip, when one of my students happened to be working on the home of a man who happened to be an ex-convict, and through it all, had gotten out of prison ready to put his life on track. This past year, he had lost many family members including his mother. The family home which we were working on had faced one set-back after another. Immediately, this student was at ease in conversations with him. Over the course of the week, she opened up while working alongside him on the work sites; stories were shared between them.

“Can we talk somewhere?” she asks one night.

We go for a walk.

I’ve been worried about this kid all year; she had lost her mom a year ago. We were getting together frequently, but I worried I didn’t have the whole picture.

I didn’t.

She tells me about the past year. She tells me about a year of hell, poor decisions, and scary things teenagers aren’t meant to deal with and mostly alone.

She talks, I listen. We cry.

I ask her to consider some changes she will need to make when she gets back. We pray.

This is a profound moment. She looks tired and hopeful.

As I reflect on this experience, I know that the work does matter, but I also know that the work of relationship enabled so much more “work” to happen. This is why I do youth ministry, I’m hoping to cultivate more moments such as these. I know I can’t create those moments; They happen because of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

As I cultivate preparation for our mission trips I have this in mind, I never want to hyper-glorify the material work, but it is a vehicle for the deeper work. Hopefully we will make it there this year.

Other posts in this series:

Jen Bradbury - The transformative power of conflict;

Pam Voves - The transformative power of story;

Elle Campbell - The transformative power of women in vocational ministry;

Gina Abbas - The transformative power of carpet;

Becca Baker - The transformative power of friends;

Rachel Blom - The transformative power of the church;

April Diaz - The transformative power of asking for help

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

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