FIRST-PERSON: Let's send every Baptist student to serve on the mission field
Southern Baptist secondary school students typically participate in local mission projects lasting a day and summer mission trips lasting about a week. Every youth leader knows these are valuable experiences that always will have a place in ministry. At the same time, leaders recognize that the degree and depth of life transformation during such brief experiences must be somewhat limited.
At present, a limited number of high school students serve on the front lines of missions for most of a summer. Some are sent by Southern Baptist Convention entities, and some are sent by other organizations.
A larger number of college students serve for a summer or longer. But compared to the vast number of Christian college students, they represent only a small percentage. Some college students who serve a summer or longer are funded by a missions organization or Christian collegiate ministry. Others raise their own support.
Almost all high school students have to raise their support. For those with families who cannot quickly write a check for several thousand dollars, the alternative seems to be pleading with church members to make up the difference.
On Feb. 20, 1999, the Great Commission Council, which is made up of the presidents of each of the Southern Baptist Convention agencies, seminaries, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Woman's Missionary Union, unanimously approved the following two recommendations:
-- That Southern Baptists challenge all our students to give several weeks or months in full-time ministry or missions.
-- That Southern Baptists challenge parents to create savings accounts for their children that will fund such a period of full-time ministry.
Many voices will now begin to challenge students to invest a summer, semester or year in front-line missions service. This usually will mean going to a mission point alone or with a friend rather than with a church group. In most cases, students will serve alongside career missionaries in North America and around the world.
Leaders in churches and in the convention have come to see the potential that high school students have on the mission field. Many older high school students have the maturity and the spiritual strength to serve most of the summer. High school students in such settings have proved in recent years they can pull their own weight in making a kingdom impact on lost communities.
For decades we have known of the amazing ability college students have in missions settings. Whether students choose upper high school or college for their term of service, students will speed the harvest worldwide.
Finances represent a potential challenge. If the majority of older high school students and college students step forward to serve from a summer to a year, millions of dollars will be needed to cover their basic living expenses. Such funds do not exist in the convention.
Instead, Southern Baptist leaders are challenging parents to begin savings accounts that someday will fund their children's time of missions service. Ideally, accounts should be opened at the birth of a child. Even couples of modest means should be able to set up an automatic draft that would move $5 or more a month into that savings account.
Churches that do baby and family dedications could use that ceremony as a time to affirm that child's call to missions while young. The pastor could present a check from the church to go into that child's new missions savings account.
Church members attending baby showers might choose to make financial gifts into missions savings accounts. Similarly, members and relatives might make gifts to the accounts at birthdays, graduations and other special times. Godly grandparents might sense God's leadership to make significant gifts to each of their grandchildren's accounts along the way.
Over time, such a plan would result in tens of thousands of students reaching upper high school or college each year with all the funds they need to invest a summer or even a year in an inner-city neighborhood or international outpost. At present, funding is a ceiling that is preventing many from doing what they sense a call to do. If families save for their children, there will be no ceilings at all.
Wise parents will allow even small children to earn money that can be placed in the child's missions savings account. When children become teenagers, they can be challenged to work as hard to save for their mission project as for a bike or car. Obviously, where a teenager's money is, his heart will be also.
Family savings accounts can mean that in 16 years we will see students ready to go overseas who have all the resources they need. But what about 16-year-olds called by God to go now? It goes without saying that if God wills for them to go now, he also will provide the resources they need.
Many (but not all) parents are willing to make significant financial sacrifices to provide opportunities for their children. When the local band is invited to march in the Thanksgiving parade on national TV, when the school French club decides to go to Paris, when a student has had a lifetime dream to go to Space Camp -- parents often make the sacrifices to open those doors. Godly parents will help many students gather funds for a trip this year.
Youth workers and other members in churches often are willing to help fund a mission trip, especially if members feel comfortable with the sending organization and the way the trip will be conducted. Grandparents and other relatives also are helping to fund students who feel called to go now. Awe Star Ministries, Tulsa, Okla., has a wonderful plan for building a "board of directors" around a student to assist in fund-raising. Bottom line: Students moving in the center of God's plans will find the resources they need.
Youth leaders sense that Christian students are ready for such a broad call to missions. Their bold response to See You at the Pole, Christian equal-access clubs, peer evangelism and True Love Waits indicates their willingness to go to the front lines. The martyrdom of some of their Christian peers has only intensified and solidified that boldness.
If indeed this is a movement of God, nothing will be able to stop the flood of students moving toward the mission field. If their churches will not champion calling them out and assisting them with assignments, they simply will turn to other organizations that will.
This generation of students understands little about denominations, missions agencies, funding plans or administrative processes. All they know is that they have a call from God to go do something bold and kingdom shaking. They will tend to follow any voice that promises to open those doors for them. Parents and church leaders will be most comfortable when those open doors for assignments include thorough support and supervision on the field, partnership with established career missionaries and biblically sound doctrine.
Over the next few years, churches who stay in a primarily entertainment mode with students will lose many of their strong teenagers to churches that provide a challenge. Students with a heart for God will move toward challenge wherever they can find it. Bron Holcomb, who is the point person at the International Mission Board in getting high school students overseas, has noted, "The present generation of youth is a passionate group of people if they are offered an opportunity to pour that passion into a cause that they deem as worthy and significant."
For many, the greatest challenge they have been given to date is mowing the grass at home or setting the table for dinner. If one church only challenges students to help build the "world's longest banana split" and another church challenges them to invest a summer with an unreached people group, where do you suppose students will gravitate?
The International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board are moving quickly to add staff and create new processes to assist in getting large numbers of high school and college students out on the field. The contacts: IMB, 1-800-888-8657 for high school students; 1-800-789-4693 for college students. NAMB, www.studentz.com.
In addition, the missions agencies are partnering with organizations that have proven track records in involving students in missions settings -- such as Awe Star Ministries (1-800-293-7827; www.awestar.org) and Elijah Teams, affiliated with Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif. (1-888-442-8710; www.GoE-Teams.com). Everyone recognizes it will take multiple strategies and sending organizations to handle the students who are sensing the call to go.
Of immediate focus are 4,200 students who promised God at the seven-city YouthLink 2000 last December they would give a summer, semester or year in full-time missions while young. Many of them want to grab a backpack right now and go do something mighty for God.
Youth leaders can look forward to the time when most grade schoolers will grow up already knowing they will be young missionaries someday. Such children will become high school or college students who always are listening for God to tell them it is now their time to go and serve. Their public affirmation that the time has arrived may become one of the most common decisions at youth rallies and conferences.
Youth leaders and even pastors can enjoy dreaming about the impact of this new challenge years from now. Imagine 15 years from now in any church when most of the deacons and Sunday school teachers have clear memories of the time they spent out on the front lines of missions. The spiritual climate of those churches will be completely different.
Leaders also anticipate even stronger support for Southern Baptists' career missionaries as students return with inspiring stories about serving alongside them. In addition, returning students likely will show a lifetime willingness to join short-term mission projects nearby or away.
The funding of students to do full-time missions and ministry should measurably increase giving to the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong missions offerings for international and North American missions, respectively. We all know that when a church sends its own members to do direct missions, their special missions offerings and their regular offerings go up.
Parents who experience the thrill of their own children serving alongside IMB and NAMB missionaries will always have more interest in the financial support of those ministries. Also, the students themselves who have seen God at work in international and North American missions will always have a bond with those movements.
If virtually every active member of church youth groups begins serving in missions while young, we should see a dramatic increase in the number of students hearing and responding to God's call to lifetime Christian vocations. For example, 18 out of 26 high school young men from Texas who did mission work in Kenya heard a call to lifetime Christian ministries.
Placing tens of thousands of students in front-line missions roles will not increase the number of students God calls to ministry vocations. God's call is sovereign and doesn't waver. But involving students in full-time ministry for a summer or longer will dramatically increase those who will hear the call that has been there all along.
The call to be a career missionary is reserved for a few. But in this era of the church, perhaps God intends to call out most godly students to join him full time for a season to finish the harvest.
Ross is the youth ministry consultant for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tenn.