The Importance of Missions in Youth Ministry


By Marty Estes

In my third summer at my first youth ministry job, after a shaky experience at summer camp the year before, we took a risk and tried something new. Instead of a traditional summer camp, we attended a mission camp, a large affair within our denomination where groups stay at a college campus, go out during the day to work sites, and return for worship at night. Our teens had never experienced or attempted anything like this, so here I was, three years into youth ministry, leading them off the beaten path.  And you know what? It worked! It more than worked. That one week of camp launched ministry that would continue for years to come in our group, starting with those teens who caught a vision for their own nation and others that would inspire them to pass an infectious hope down to the ones who came after them. As long as I stayed at that church, I saw it again and again: teenagers who fell in love with Jesus and others all due to the fact that they were mobilized for missions and educated about the needs of the world around them.  Due to this, I want to make a bold assertion:

Your group (AND YOU) needs missions.

Looking our current landscape, one thing is clear: you and I have a lot of work to do. There’s no shortage of need in our own country, not to mention those that live outside the United States that have needs that we are called to meet. God has positioned you and your group uniquely in your community, and given you the resources that you have in order to meet the needs of those around you near and far. I am deeply committed to the idea that solid, growing youth ministries must include missions in the palette of experiences they offer to students because of the impact that I have seen it make in the lives of not only the students who serve, but also, those who have been served. Out of that original ministry to teenagers, we saw almost 10 students give their lives to ministry, including three of those ten who are currently on the mission field on a permanent basis. So, why does your group need missions?

1. Mission is a command

Spend any time at all with us good ol’ Southern Baptists (my denomination), and you’ll encounter what I’ve heard are our “marching orders” and the “job description of every Christian.” The Great Commission.

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT)

This sentence begins with an imperative command, the implied “You” at the start, making the real reading of verse 19 “You, therefore, go and make disciples…” This means that all the going and doing we do is a direct command of Jesus. Anything else is disobedience.

2. Mission is memory-making

Some of the best ministry stories I’ve ever heard have been as a result of something that happened on a mission trip. From the hilarious, like passing a can of Vienna sausages between cars at 65 mph (this was adults!); to the holy, like seeing a whole village of Romanian farmers saved, along with their families’ to the beautiful, like seeing teenagers cry as they had to leave children they had spent the week playing with at a community center—there’s no shortage of memories to be made from missions. But, before you throw these things away as “just memories,” stop for a moment and realize that those moments have a profound impact on faith formation as they serve as markers and milestones along the journey that our students can call back on when the road gets marred by doubt. Yes, God really did do something there! Additionally, some of my proudest ministry moments were watching the lightbulbs come on over students’ heads as they finally “got it,” whether we were in East Tennessee, Canada, or Romania. You have to admit, those are the kinds of memories you really want to make with your students.

3. Mission is essential

Mission is essential for the growth of the Kingdom of God. It’s essential for the stickiness of your students’ faith. It’s essential for the life of your church. It’s essential for the people you serve. There are so many positive things that could be said about mission here, but I believe the best is this (stolen from a little book called Youth Ministry 3.0 by Mark Oestreicher): “The best ministry happens at the intersection of community and mission.”

For most youth ministries—mine included—we do community well. In fact, I believe that in a lot of ways, we over-emphasize it. Why? It’s a lot easier. It’s flashier. It’s not as messy or complicated. And, most of all, it’s fun. But, community without purpose eventually becomes stale. That’s where mission comes in. As we serve, we are drawn closer together to the ones we are serving, and also the ones we serve with. That creates community, which then creates a drive for mission, and on and on. The cycle becomes one that brings both challenge and reward to your group as you seek to serve others and see yourself drawn into further relationship with them.

So, I hope I’ve made my case: your students, and you, youth worker, need mission. Whether you’ve got three teenagers or 300, it’s our job as those who care for and shepherd students to cultivate moments of mission to create a global, kingdom mindset.  This is why ministries like 30 Hour Famine exist: to give our students a taste of what it’s like to not live in a place where, for most of us, food is available anytime we want it. They don’t do this for show, but to instill in those that participate a drive to help those who are hungry, who are broken, who need Jesus. Because hunger isn’t just physical, right? We do missions because, ultimately, we want to meet the spiritual hunger need that we see in the people around us, around the world.

So let me ask you: where’s your mission field? Are you ready to go there?