How to Think Like a Missionary in Youth Ministry

How to Think Like a Missionary in Youth Ministry

Do you know anyone who has become a full-time missionary?

I’ve known a few people through the years who have sold their belongings and moved to another part of the world to serve as missionaries. One couple went to Ethiopia. Another moved to New Guinea. And another went to Nepal.

Youth ministry is a mission field.

You might not have realized it, but youth pastors are a lot like missionaries. Youth ministry expert Duffy Robbins explains, “Youth ministry is a cross-cultural ministry. It requires people of one culture (adults) – with one set of values and mores regarding fashion, leisure, volume of music, and son on – to cross over into the world of another culture (teenagers) with its distinct language, customs, arts, and preferences” (This Way to Youth Ministry: Companion Guide, Kindle Loc. 5899-5908).

Youth pastors and missionaries both try to share the Gospel in ways that different cultures can comprehend and embrace.

So, you might not have moved across the world, but when you share the message of Jesus with teenagers, you’re doing the work of a missionary.

Lessons from the Mission Field

In The Mind of a Missionary, Nik Ripken explains the lessons we can learn from past and present missionaries. He puts the lessons into four categories: motivations, expectations, risks, and rewards.

1. Motivations

First, he says, “A passion for God’s glory undergirded their compassion for the lost and obedience to the commands of Christ” (p. 1). Investing your life to reach people for Christ seldom convenient. Reaching people for Christ requires us to make sacrifices. It can be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

So, why do we do it? Well, we won’t do it unless we’re gripped by the goodness and glory of God and see those things are more valuable than our comfort or convenience.

2. Expectations

Next, Ripken says, “When you swim against the influence of social norms, heavenly opportunities open up to you” (p. 65). Navigating cross-cultural ministry is complicated. That taboos of one group might be considered normal or no big deal in another group.

This explains why so many people in churches insist they want to reach teenagers in their communities but then react negatively when new teenagers start showing up and stepping outside the norms. At one church I worked at, a new boy came wearing a hat. He was met by an older lady who promptly told him that he was being disrespectful and needed to remove his hat. The boy meant no disrepect, but the lady assumed that her norms should also be his.

Which aspects of culture should be embraced? Which aspects should be rejected? Which ones should be redeemed? Opinions differ widely on those questions, but one thing is certain: If the church looks exactly like the culture, then our invitation to trust Christ and adopt his way of living will fall on deaf ears.

The difference that Christ makes in our lives is what opens the door to conversations about the difference Christ can make in others’ lives too.

3. Risks

Third, Ripken says, “Threat of risk in the mind of global Kingdom workers calls for radical devotion to God’s will” (p. 129). Sharing the Gospel across cultures can be challenging, and sometimes even dangerous. Some people will readily listen to you while others will actively work against you.

I was teaching a Bible study at a skate park when a man came up and tried to shut it down. He yelled and cursed at me for what I was doing. He said that I was brainwashing the kids. He threatened to assault me if I ever showed up there again. Of course, I showed up the next week at the same time and place. I never saw that man again, but that was a tense interaction.

The resistance you face might take the shape of physical intimidation or it might involve emotional frustration. Either way, the challenges of missionary work (and ministry work) must be met with an unrelenting desire to please God rather than people. God is the one who called you, and God is the one who will ultimately see you through.

4. Rewards

Finally, according to Ripken, “[God] graciously grants you joy on the journey . . . Other rewards include supernatural ministry breakthroughs and the manifested presence of God in and through your life” (p. 181). On the other side of all the risks is where you’ll find the rewards. After all, growth is only possible when you leave your comfort zone.

The primary reward for faithful service is greater intimacy with God. Doing hard things puts you in a position of dependence upon God. Those are the times when you recognize the need for strength greater than your own and you start to see God’s power showing up in your ministry in new ways.

Your Move

Missionaries seek to spread the Gospel in cultures different from their own. Youth culture has distinctive elements that differ so much from adult culture that youth ministry fits the description of missionary work.

It might help to imagine yourself in the role of a missionary who has been sent to your town to reach students there. How might that mindset shift affect the look, sound, and feel of your ministry today?

Or, put more simply:
How would a missionary reach students in your town?
Go and do that.

Suggested Resource

Considering Christianity: How to Believe in a Secular Age

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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