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Should young people participate in missions?

I was 18 years old. The year was 1977. The whole country of Nicaragua was in turmoil as the revolution that led to Anastasio Somoza’s defeat was getting underway. Signs all over said “Yankee go home!” And some people said it too. Needless to say we were out of our comfort zone – a long ways.

Breakfast was served at 6:00 AM. The guys had already left for the fields. As my friend Steve and I tried to wash down some salty form of cheese with contaminated well water, we wondered whether we would survive the month long experience in Palenque. Someone said that the word “Palenque” was a reference to a “falling off place”. We felt like we’d fallen off the map of civilization. Electricity was used only for lighting a small light bulb. Water was pulled 120 feet by hand out of the well, oxen pulled the carts, and the corn was planted, cultivated and harvested by hand. We did our best at running a VBS, and the kids did their best to teach us to speak Spanish a bit more intelligently. They were very patient – maybe more than we were at times.

A month later we left, with amoebic dysentery and many experiences to think about. Both Steve and I ended up in missions. As did many others who attended the Summer Training Session led by the Van Halsema’s. Years later, married to my wife Aletha (who also spent the same summer in a different location in Mexico), we noted how many missionaries had begun their mission work on a short term experience.

I believe that God uses many ways to call missionaries – and one way that makes a lot of sense is for young people to join some mission endeavor for a time and participate in as many activities as is appropriate. In this regard I would like to note the following:

1) For the mission experience to really be a mission experience, the young people can’t stay in a “herd.” For travel, for certain kinds of work, etc., the “herd” is great. But for the young person who is thinking seriously about missions, it is necessary to be alone or with one other person. Why? Because that is how many mission works are. You are separated from home, family and friends – either alone or with a small number of expatriates, and it is good for people to experience this before they are committed for the long term. In my 18 years of experience in missions, I have seen all too many cases of people move to the mission field, only to find out that living relatively alone “was not for them.” Many of these cases could be avoided if we provided first of all a similar experience for the person without a long term commitment.

2) The “short term experience” should not be so short that it isn’t useful. You should be on the field long enough to get sick, be laughed at because of your poor language ability, miss family, experience all sorts of cultural differences, and in general enter a bit of culture shock – because these sorts of things will probably happen if you choose the mission field. Two to three months is a good time frame, I think.

3) The experience should be designed to “wake us up” culturally. I speak from my background in the United States. We are woefully unaware of other cultures, in general we think that their ways of doing things is inferior, and we often transmit this arrogance when we travel – even when we don’t intend to. For example, our penchant for “efficiency” and “saving time” comes out in complaints that to foreigners can be irritating at least and alienating at worst. Efficiency and saving time are great values (I think!), but they aren’t the only values. What we call “saving time” at a meeting for instance, is interpreted by some other cultures as coldness and a total lack of consideration to really hear and understand the perspective of your fellow workers. To set an hour for finishing a meeting regardless if all have had the opportunity to share in the discussion is seen by some as idolizing time. They consider people more important than the clock. So who’s right? I’ll leave that up to you to judge, but my point is – it is likely that a foreign missionary will encounter different values, and he or she must be able to assimilate these values in order to be a servant in the new culture. Every culture has good and bad values. A short term mission experience will help a person begin to compare values, and to be more sensitive to these issues.

Practical matters: How can we go about this? There are already several good programs available, and use can be made of them. Or a church can finance a summer for a young person to work with one of their missionaries. I am very grateful for First CRC Ripon which financed three summer trips to Mexico for my wife and I when I was studying in seminary. These trips were of invaluable experience that I still draw upon. It was money well invested in God’s kingdom. Churches need to take more initiative when it comes to “investing” in missions. Some might say: “Well, what if they never end up in missions, then the money is wasted.” To the contrary. A thousand dollars spent for a young person who thought they were called to missions, but on the field comes to realize they are not called, is a much better investment than sending an adult with a whole family to the field only to find out they aren’t called a year later! Let us be proactive in seeking and preparing youth for missions – with the understanding that not all are fit, and not all are called.

I hope these comments will help us reflect on the importance of ‘on the field’ training for young people who are considering work in missions. May God raise up an army from among our youth! And may our churches lend intelligent support in their formation. Soli Deo Gloria!

About the author:
Rev. Bill Green, married to Aletha, together they have 4 children and live in San José, Costa Rica.
Mission service – 18 years in church planting and theological education (1985 -2003). For the past 5 years (1997 – 2003) Bill has coordinated the efforts of the CLIR in Latin America, which is a fellowship designed to help churches train elders and pastors, and to be faithful in the call to missions and evangelism. The work of the CLIR covers the entire continent of Latin America, with the participation of the majority of confessional Reformed churches. Aletha serves as administrator in the Tepeyac Christian school that was founded in 1993 in order to provide Christ centered education for Costa Ricans.