Nehemiah is the story of a Hebrew man who lived as an exile in Persia following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. He served in the honored position of cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. Being a man that even the King trusted, Nehemiah gained great power and influence. In spite of all this, he would soon choose to leave his lavish lifestyle, having received word that the temple of God in Jerusalem lacked a wall to protect it. Nehemiah’s love for the temple and for God’s chosen people brought him to his knees as he wept, fasted, and prayed seeking direction from God. In many ways, the story of Nehemiah is a perfect example of how student ministers should be thinking when considering short-term missions for their students.
Nehemiah heard the outcry of a broken people. He assessed the situation and developed a plan. While rebuilding the wall, he asked questions concerning the condition of the people—he processed, reflected, and acted accordingly. He could have simply brought a crew, constructed a wall, and left, but this shallow approach would not have resolved some of the deeper issues the city of Jerusalem was facing. Because he prepared, listened, and processed, Nehemiah was able to bring long-term healing. This is called deep justice. It’s what happens in short-term missions (STM) when student ministers prepare students ahead of time, process and reflect with them during the STM trip experience, and translate that experience to life after the trip. All three stages (prepare, process, and translate) must occur if students are going to be transformed and develop a lifestyle of service that goes beyond extrinsic motivators.
Kara Powell and Brad Griffin detail this crucial three-stage process in their book Deep Justice Journeys (a must-have resource for student ministers preparing for STM).1 The authors refer to it as “The Before/During/After Model.”2 Unfortunately, as Powell and Griffin point out, many student ministries never get beyond the “M&Ms” of STM trips: Money and Medical Releases.
Let’s be honest. Normally we’re too rushed to thoughtfully help students engage in interpretation and application before, during, and after their STM trips. Our “preparation” before the STM experience usually consists of fund raising and medical releases. Our “process” during the trip boils down to a few minutes of prayer requests before our team tumbles into bed, exhausted. And our “debrief” after we get home is little more than organizing the slide show and the testimonies to share in “big church.”3
The cost of such oversight (or laziness) is shallow service. Lives are minimally transformed and the effects of the trip are short lived, and in some instances, harmful.
Kennedy Odede, a boy from the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, gives a unique perspective as an individual whose community has experienced the effects of shallow service first hand. In his article for the New York Times, Odede addresses the issue of Slumdog Tourism (a voyeuristic industry that exploits poverty). From his experience we get a glimpse of how a host site might perceive an STM group that has not been careful to prepare, process, and translate with their students:
Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something—and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before. . . . There is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.4
You may be tempted to say, “but yeah, that’s a money driven tourist industry that has nothing to do with the church or STM.” While it may be true that there are differences, the results are the same. So let’s look at a similar scenario within a student ministry context. Eric Iverson works for YouthWorks, an organization that plans STM trips for youth groups. At one point in his life, however, as he points out in a presentation titled “Being There: Short-Term Mission and Human Need,” Eric hated missions. Listen to Eric’s experience with STM having grown up in the inner city:
I hated short-term missions!
As a young, inner-city African-American male from a single parent home, with a working knowledge of the welfare system, I saw short-term missionaries doing more damage in my community with their “drive-by’s” than the gun-toting gang-bangers ever inflicted with their own versions of this practice. I think it was the sense of powerlessness I felt as I saw again another group of white kids (that’s how I saw them at the time…) burst from their new vans every summer to “save” me, and others who looked like me, again that year.5
I don’t know about you, but that’s a tough pill for me to swallow. I confess as a student minister who has been doing this for a little over 11 years that I have been guilty of this. I think it’s time that we start reevaluating how we approach STM. We need to ask tough questions like, “will this trip simply be another event, or will there be long-term results both for those we join in service and for our students?” It’s a hard but necessary truth: the days of STM as an episodic trip must come to end.
As student ministers we must regain our focus, our passion, and our mission. Providing trips for students merely to see and/or experience poverty is not only a waste of time, it is degrading to those in whom Christ dwells—those whom we are seeking to “save” (narcissistic, arrogant tone intended). STM should never be about what we can do to save them. In fact, there should be no “us.” There should be no “them.” And so, our renewed focus must come from our view at the foot of the cross as we join what God is already doing. Our passion must come from a heart that is broken by the same injustices that break God’s heart. It is a passion that is further driven by a desire to rejoice when God rejoices: those moments when he sees young and old, rich and poor, black and white fighting side by side for justice. Our responsibility is to resist the urge to program shallow service opportunities into our ministries and expect students to grow. Our mission is to develop, within our students, service as a lifestyle, but the question is how?
It’s time to get practical. We have already introduced the before/during/after model, but what does this look like in a student ministry context? Keep in mind I will be speaking from the ministry context with which I am familiar. On a given summer we will have 7–8 STM trips planned for students on 3 campuses (typically one trip per grade 6–12). On each trip we will take 45–120 students and adults (if you are starting to hyperventilate, welcome to my world). Planning this many trips for this many people each summer is a huge undertaking! My first area of focus is on the before stage of the deep justice model for STM. Our first responsibility (I obviously do not do this alone; I am part of an amazing team) is to ensure that all three campuses (as well as 7 ministers plus support staff) are on the same page as far as administrative planning is concerned. Due to the involved nature of this task, I developed what we call the “24:7 Mission Trip Planning Checklist.”6 It looks like this.
24:7 Mission Trip Planning Checklist
Nine Months to One Year Out
- Meet and Pray with Special Servants (our term for deacons) regarding possible mission sites
- Make initial communication with site leaders and select a site
- Remain in communication with Special Servants (SS)
Seven Months Out
- Coordinate dates of trip with 24:7 staff at December all day meeting
- Determine dates for mission training
- Determine dates for trip specific organizational and planning meetings
- Create trip information document to be added to spring/summer packet
- Continue to coordinate with mission site and communicate with SS
- Determine budget needs for trip
- Solidify housing needs
Six Months Out
- Support Staff creates spring/summer packet
- Conduct spring/summer meeting for all 24:7 parents, volunteers, and students
- Hand out spring/summer packets
- Sign-ups for all trips open
Five Months Out
- Coordinate transportation needs with admin.
- Recruit volunteers utilizing SS
Three to Four Months Out
- Take survey trip to mission site
- Coordinate with restaurant and entertainment venues
- Write training thematic
- Coordinate with volunteer specialists (trip nurse, cook, etc.)
- Submit contracts to Executive Minister
One Month Out
- Missions training
- Print maps and driving directions of trip to and from destination, of all work sites, restaurants, and entertainment destinations
- Create schedule
- Create what-to-bring and trip-expectations sheet
- Send letter to trip participants
- Submit cash request to Finance
- Report trip information and departure times to Shepherds
- Coordinate supply needs with 24:7 staff (especially tools, first aid kit, and coolers)
- Write devotionals for evening processing
One to Two Weeks Out
- Gather supplies necessary for trip
- Conduct organizational meeting with parents and participants
- Assign loading/departure roles to volunteers
- Create folders for trip sponsors (schedule, maps, work groups, helpful numbers, devotionals, etc.)
- Verify reservations with restaurants and entertainment
- Call elder assigned to pray for your trip
- Gather radios for vans
Day Before Trip
- Hook up trailers
- Number vans
- Ensure vans are full of gas
- Obtain cash from Finance
- Obtain all trip forms
Day of Trip
- Have volunteers arrive early and report to assigned roles
- Students arrive and check in and then filter to meeting area
- Go over trip expectations and have elder pray
- HAVE A GREAT TRIP!
- Return trailers, unload, and clean coolers
Obviously, if you decide that a checklist like this would be useful, you would want to adapt it to meet your specific context. There are some items within the list itself, however, that I believe are non-negotiable when it comes to the before stage and preparing students and adults for any STM trip. The first and most critical is that there must be caring adults involved throughout the process (especially during training). Why is this so important? The latest research has shown that “40 to 50 percent of kids who are connected to a youth group when they graduate high school will fail to stick with their faith in college.”7 That is an astounding number. Intergenerational STM trips are part of the solution, not only to having a faith that sticks, but also in deepening the impact of the trip itself. The key distinction between the two ratios is that 10:1 is mandated by the state regarding the number of chaperons needed for a given trip, and 5:1 is focused on intentional relationship building. We ask our adult leaders to deeply invest in the lives of our students for the seven years they are in student ministry plus one year after they graduate.8
There are several other key components to the before of mission prep. For instance, we try to associate our student ministry STM trips with the greater vision of The Hills Church where I serve. In other words, we give ourselves a better shot at going deeper by serving with people with whom we already have established relationships.9 In addition, we allow the mission site and/or missionary on the ground to give us the details of the trip rather than vice-versa. We ask questions like, “When would you like for us to come and what would you like for us to do?” We always take a survey trip so we can better convey to our students and adults why we are going, what they can expect, and what is expected of them. This information then becomes part of our mission training, which is a vital piece of the preparation puzzle.
In my experiences as a student in youth ministry, “training” was simply busy work given to students to help determine whether or not they were “serious” about going. I find this to be silly and a waste of valuable time. The last thing students need is more to do. Their pre-trip training has to be meaningful. They (along with the adults) need to be prepared spiritually, socially, culturally, and emotionally for the trip itself, which brings me back to Nehemiah. This year, our missions training curriculum was taken directly out of the Book of Nehemiah. The series consisted of three sessions written to prepare each mission team for their given trip. I have included a copy of the thematic I wrote. Notice how the themes from Nehemiah track with many of the principles behind the three stages necessary for moving beyond the episodic trip toward mission becoming a lifestyle.
“The tenderness of Lincoln. The fire of Patton. The savvy of Churchill. All found in the same man. Nehemiah.” – Max Lucado
Nehemiah is one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Through God’s power, he saw a need and with the help of others he responded to the situation. As the Body of Christ we too have a responsibility to assess the many needs of those around us. Whether he is calling you to go on a mission trip, sending you to your neighbors, asking you to walk down the halls of your schools as aliens and strangers, to be a light in Southlake, or plant a church on the Westside, God is calling us all to live a life of mission. In order to do that, we must first listen to his voice. he will reveal his plan as we begin to serve in the places where he is already working. When we join God’s mission, there will be difficulties along the way. Nehemiah faced opposition. However, because he stood firm and was willing to ask tough questions, he discovered that God’s people were being oppressed. Still, Nehemiah focused on God’s vision and led the charge to fight injustice and rebuild the wall. In short, Nehemiah’s story, like our story, is one of hope, restoration, and faith. In this series students will be challenged to assess the areas in their lives God has called them to serve, develop a plan that enables them to join God’s work, and to listen and respond to the many stories of those to whom God has called us to serve.
SESSION 1 – Assess the Situation
Key Text – Nehemiah 1; 2:11-15
Assessing the situation is a critical step in moving beyond shallow service toward deep justice. Having returned from a survey trip to New York, I gained valuable insight about the people, the culture, and the city. While this is the first time we will have worked with the Everyday church, it is an important first step in developing a deeper relationship with them and the people they serve.
Nehemiah did the same thing before rebuilding the wall. He questioned people from the city about its condition and sought the Lord’s guidance before responding to their need. In this lesson we will attempt to get a better understanding of the situation God is calling us to. You should make attempts to share stories with your students about the people you are serving and the culture they live in. Finally, spend time in prayer confessing your own faults (1:6-7). Pray also for the people you will be serving with and for the success of your trip (1:11).
SESSION 2 – Develop a Plan
Key Text – Nehemiah 2:1-9 (seeking favor from leadership); 2:17-20 (recruiting workers); 3 (responsibilities divided); 4:7-22 (confronting opposition)
Nehemiah had a clear vision for how he would undertake the monumental task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. He was a master at utilizing people and gathering the necessary tools for the job. He even had a plan for when things went wrong and opposition arose. You too will need a plan. During this class you will develop a mission/vision statement for your specific trip. Encourage students to be mindful of what you talked about last week in assessing the situation. Also, discuss any setbacks you may experience along the way. How will your group work through those situations? Having a clear vision and direction will give you the focus you need to overcome any obstacle.
SESSION 3 – Hear the Outcry
Key Text – Nehemiah 5
While busy rebuilding the wall, Nehemiah starts to receive reports from the poor in Jerusalem. He listens to their outcry and hears how they are being oppressed having to sell their land and even their own children into slavery simply to have food to eat. Unjust laws and abusers of power are the cause of this great injustice. Nehemiah responds by making personal sacrifices and deep level changes that help the people for years to come.
We too can respond to injustice if we are willing to ask good questions and listen to the stories of the people God has placed before us. In chapter 5 we see that Nehemiah had a relationship with the people (they saw him as a leader who worked among them), he had compassion for their condition, and he addressed the issues that directly affected their situation. In this lesson we will discuss ways we can begin to develop deeper relationships with the people we serve alongside, begin to understand their condition by hearing their story, and begin challenging the students to look for deeper issues that cause injustice. For example, explore case studies such as with homelessness. Which is better, to bus people to Lancaster and hand out sandwiches in assembly-line fashion and disappear until next time, or, to sit down with the homeless, share a meal and conversation together, and discover more about yourself and the person you had lunch with? In the latter scenario one is able to listen to their story, develop a relationship, and possibly come to understand why the person is homeless in the first place. At the very least, you will have gained a friend. For the 6th grader in Como this may look like a student developing a relationship with one of the kids from the center and hearing about the high drop out rate for kids in their neighborhood. The hope is that the 6th grader may begin to ask why this is the case. In Port Arthur, students may begin to wonder why so many years after the hurricane people still have not received the help they need. Only by hearing and identifying the outcry of people God places in our path can we begin to identify questions that will eventually lead to deeper resolution to core issues.
Using Nehemiah provided the perfect backdrop for preparing our mission teams and provided a framework for initiating long-term change. We continued to utilize Nehemiah’s story during all of our trips, which, coincidentally, is the second stage of getting beyond shallow service. In this second phase it is the student minister’s goal to lead students through an ongoing process of experience and reflection.10 Often, we become overly focused on getting the job done and fail to recognize all that God is doing among us. We must learn to slow down and master the art of capturing the moment.
This process should begin as soon as you gather each morning. I typically have one of my students give a morning thought, which is followed by prayer and instructions for the day. As the day unfolds, students are encouraged to watch and listen to process their experiences with those around them. In student ministry we call these “teachable moments” where every experience becomes a learning/growing/loving opportunity. In other words, the goal is not, in and of itself, to get to the end or complete a project. The goal is to love people and become aware of how God is loving people. Mother Teresa embodied this principle. Kathryn Spink writes this about her when referencing her work in the home for the dying:
To Mother Teresa and those who worked with her, restoration to health was not the all-important factor. What was equally important was enabling those who died to do so “beautifully”. For her there was no incongruity in the adverb. “A beautiful death”, she maintained, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”11
When we rush through a trip, or each day for that matter, we miss moments to love. We miss moments to grow spiritually, socially, psychologically, and intellectually. Besides, it is shared experience and reflection that will drive the evening devotional.
Ending each day with a devotional is important. Having witnessed and experienced such amazing acts of God, we end in celebration. We give “shout outs” (words of encouragement) to other team members, sing, and share stories. Yes, by this time we are all exhausted, but bringing everyone together and processing what they saw, felt, heard, and experienced is one of the most critical aspects in making this more than a short-term experience. After all, our mission is to develop service as a lifestyle; and for this to happen, we must begin the translation process.
How do we do this? The answer (at least in part) is that we ask good questions (e.g., Where is God calling you to serve within your context—school, church, neighborhood, or somewhere else? How are you different now from when you began this STM journey? Can you think of scenarios or conditions at home that may be similar to those you experienced on this trip?). Ultimately, however, the most important tool we use in the after trip translation process is our small group ministry and the adults who lead them. Our groups meet three times a month and on the third Sunday they serve. I like this for a couple of reasons. One, because I question the effectiveness of large group service projects, and two, because our groups connect with service opportunities within their context. By connect, I mean our groups are given a list of organizations that our church has established relationship with through our neighborhood connections ministry and they choose one with which to partner.12 In other words, we ask our small groups to serve with one organization, once a month, for four years! As a result, relationships are developed and it is the students, not I, asking questions. They begin to ask deep-justice kinds of questions, like why are so many of the kids we are serving with dropping out of school? Where are their parents when they get home from school? Why is there such a high divorce rate among this community? Can you imagine, teenagers asking these questions? That’s exactly what happened with Alex.
When I first met Alex, he was a fringe kid who hated church, and for good reason. His dad had just kicked him out of the house for getting in an argument with his stepmother. It was the summer before his senior year, and with nowhere to go, Alex’s future looked bleak.
But God had other plans. Finding out about his situation, Jennifer (a student at our church) simply responded in the way she had seen her parents do for years: she reached out. It wasn’t long before Alex was living with the Wilson family.
The last thing Alex expected to find at the church services the Wilson family required him to attend was teenagers and adults who cared, but that’s exactly what was waiting for him. He quickly latched on to our worship minister, and their shared love for music began breaking down the walls he had put in place for protection. I approached Alex about attending a high school small group series, which he joined. He also participated in our annual senior transition class.
His lack of desire and effort in school quickly gave way to a desire to graduate and a determination to get into college. With the help of other families and adult mentors, Alex graduated from high school and was accepted to a local university. Alex was adamant that he did not want to commit to being a follower of Christ until he was ready to give up everything. Out of nowhere one Wednesday night, he approached me and said, “Let’s do this—let’s dance!” He made it very clear that this dance was an eternal decision to follow Christ.
This summer we took Alex on a mission trip to New York. While there, we worked with a new church plant sponsored by our church. Through this trip God continued to work transformation in Alex’s life. Following our return, Alex decided to move to New York City and join what this church is doing there. He is now heavily engaged in ministry and is scheduled to start college next spring. Alex managed to make his experience in New York more than about the trip itself. For Alex, service became a part of who he is.
Do I sound like a proud student minister? You bet! But it is not anything that I have done; it is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit transforming lives. Do I think short-term missions are a valuable tool in student ministry? Of course! Yet, it is time for student ministers to get out of the business of shallow service. My belief is that transformation doesn’t take place one week out of the year, but that it occurs before, during, and after that one or two week trip. It may not be rocket science, but hey, neither was building a wall around a city in 445 BC.
Jason Herman is the High School Student Minister/Coordinator for 24:7 Student Ministries at The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas. In his role, Jason strives to incorporate an intergenerational model of ministry in which caring adults pour into the lives of students. He attended Lubbock Christian University where he received a BA in Youth and Family Ministry as well as a MS in Bible and Ministry. He can be contacted at Jason Herman.
Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Youth, Family, and Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
Clark, Chap, and Kara Powell. Deep Justice in a Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs Around Them. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
Iverson, Eric. “One Cross at a Time: The Mission Agency’s Role in Building the Missional Church.” Lecture presented at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Conference on Short-Term Missions, Deerfield, IL, July 30-August 1, 2009..
Odede, Kennedy. “Slumdog Tourism.” New York Times. August 9, 2010. .
Powell, Kara E., and Brad M. Griffin. Deep Justice Journeys Leader’s Guide: 50 Activities to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Powell, Kara E., Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford. Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Powell, Kara E., Terry Linhart, Dave Livermore, and Brad Griffin. “If We Send Them They Will Grow…Maybe.” The Journal of Student Ministries..
Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
1Chap Clark and Kara Powell in Deep Justice in A Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs Around Them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
2Kara E. Powell and Brad M. Griffin, Deep Justice Journeys Leader’s Guide: 50 Activities to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 9. The Before/During/After model was originally proposed as Focus/Action & Reflection/Learning Transfer by Laura Joplin, “On Defining Experiential Education,” in The Theory of Experiential Education, ed. K. Warren, M. Sakofs, and J. S. Hunt (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1995), 15-22. See also Clark and Powell, 105.
3Powell and Griffin, 8. The full article, “If We Send Them They Will Grow…Maybe,” can be found at .
4Kennedy Odede, “Slumdog Tourism,” New York Times, August 9, 2010, .
5Eric Iverson, “One Cross at a Time: The Mission Agency’s Role in Building the Missional Church” (lecture, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Conference on Short-Term Missions, Deerfield, IL, July 30-August 1, 2009), .
6While some elements of this list are geared toward spiritual preparation, keep in mind that this particular document’s intent is organizational in nature. Spiritual preparation will be covered in greater detail in the curriculum portion of this article. In addition, it is my belief that God is actively involved throughout the planning process (note prayer being the first step in the process). This belief correlates with a statement I make later concerning joining the work God is already doing on any given mission site.
7Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 15.
8Ibid., 79. See also Deut 6:4-9. For more information on systemic abandonment and the growing need for caring adults deeply investing in the lives of students please read Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Youth, Family, and Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).
9It is nearly impossible for us to accomplish this with every trip due to cost, but when possible we join the vision of the church.
10Powell and Griffin, 10.
11Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 55.
12Please notice the importance of giving adult volunteers support, training, and resources. If volunteers are allowed to sink or swim, they will sink.