Youth mission trips on the rise from Pittsburgh churches

Minutes after arriving in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, a group of local teenagers from Franklin Park‘’s Orchard Hill Church is whisked away in the back of a pickup truck. Riding with no seatbelts, they see rows of dilapidated houses lined along a river contaminated with garbage. Continuing on their annual journey to a more rural Haitian village, these sights, unfortunately, do not appear less bleak.

According to Orchard Hill missions director Kevin Cotter, it is only when these youngsters talk, interact and see hope from Haitians do they understand that the locals’ situation is not as miserable as previously believed. This realization, however, does not completely alleviate the difficulties associated with being a young missionary in an unfamiliar environment.

What drives young people away from the comforts of 21st-century America to Third World countries like Haiti?

Church missions.

“It makes young people, who are typically very egocentric, look outside of themselves. Teens can begin to imagine what it would look like to be people of service,” said the Rev. Glenn Hanna of Allegheny Center Alliance Church. “Some youth are local, but many go global as well.”

Even as church attendance has steadily decreased nationwide over the past several decades, alternative methods of practicing religion have become more appealing.

Part of this is due to accessibility. According to Mr. Cotter, “Today, with airplane travel being normal, many people want to go and see the mission place, creating a more personal connection.”

Eva Trout, missions director at the Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, further explains the appeal: “It is really engaging for youth. They do not want to just sit down and stand up for church on Sunday.”

For Mrs. Trout, organizing multigenerational trips is very important, as younger missionaries bring energy to the group while learning from older missionaries. “[Youth] have to have a big vision for God and a new vision of cultures. We want them to learn about it, not just hear about it. Educating our young people is all about doing it with them.”

Mr. Cotter, of Orchard Hill Church, also expressed this sentiment.

“I think that when they’ve seen other young people go on these trips and come back and talk about how powerful the trips are, how things were so much different, where people saw hope and poverty, it gives them a desire to go. It’s an opportunity; whether it’s Appalachia or Haiti, it takes them out of their world and puts them in another.”

Youth With a Mission, a global organization with nearly 1,200 locations including one in Pittsburgh, caters to this trend by focusing on how to engage young adults locally, nationally and internationally.

According to Youth With a Mission’s Douglas Tunney, youth missions became an attractive practice between 1950 and 1970, when social movements ran strong and access to travel and communication increased. From there, older missionaries became increasingly open to the idea that having youth along would be useful.

“The nice thing about youth is their passion – they’re willing to go places that other people won’t go and do things that others won’t do. They do things that older people, who have kids and jobs, can’t do,” Mr. Tunney said.

Yet, sending young people on mission trips takes a great deal of preparation.

Before departing, churches might spend up to several months preparing youth for what to expect abroad. Specifically, youth might gain a better understanding of how to best convey their message, how to defend their faith and how to interact cross-culturally.

Young members of the Covenant Church of Pittsburgh “research a culture, write a little paper on an aspect of the culture, then meet together as a team to talk about what they learned and researched, and that’s what they pray about,” Mrs. Trout explained. “Anybody at any age, can prepare for a mission.”

Extensive groundwork for a mission trip does not necessarily prepare young missionaries for the experiences that await. Culture shock can make even the most seasoned traveler uneasy. On YWAM missions, according to Mr. Tunney, there is an unwritten rule about interacting with a new culture: “You’re not allowed to say it’s weird; it’s just different.”

From street dramas to teaching basketball and hip-hop dances, activities promoting mission work reflect a youthful presence on both short- and long-term missions all over the globe. More traditional work includes the establishment of churches, providing communities with food and water, or simply reading and translating the Bible for locals.

Regardless of location, there seems to be a balance struck between religious teaching and cultural immersion.

Mr. Cotter broke down what a typical mission trip looks like with Orchard Hill Church. Forty-five percent of time spent abroad is dedicated to interactions with children in orphanages. This might entail helping them with homework, playing basketball or creating arts and crafts together.

The rest of the time is split evenly in three ways. Trip members interact with members of the community, doing a smaller project (last year’s project involved helping Catholic monks for a day at a home for the severely disabled and elderly), getting a feel for the local culture by delivering food or clothing to those in need, and discussing general thoughts and feelings with one another about the experience of being in a new culture.

Some intrepid young missionaries leave for solo trips abroad. One young woman from Allegheny Center Alliance Church has been living in the slums of India for several years. There, she works on empowering women by helping them produce and sell fair-trade products.

Church directors pay close attention to youth missionaries like this in order to combat any issues that might arise while abroad.

“Because we live in the 21st century, we can do counseling over Skype on a weekly basis. I pray with them and encourage them. As a culture, we need to do a better job of embracing those who do this work abroad,” says Pastor Hanna.

It is a top priority to ensure that these young men and women are supported both while on missions and upon return.

It’s the little things that go a long way.

For example, Pastor Hanna explained that he sent Pop-Tarts to Russia for a missionary with a sweet tooth. “If it’s something simple, being there, finding a way to help, we need to make sure we have the resources to intervene, even across the globe.”

While incredibly enriching, coming home from these trips can also be a difficult transition for young missionaries. “You go home after experiencing something that is so unique to you, and your family has continued on with their daily life, so you have to make sure that you come back and you’re not judgmental or angry,” Mr. Tunney said.

Eva Trout elaborated: “Some of the kids in our church who thought they were very poor, their world was shifted after coming back from missions. They think, ‘I used to think I lived in a poor place, and now I think I live in a palace.’ ”

Emily Kaplan:

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