A week at a women's shelter in the heart of downtown Chicago, a fire escape, and a song by Point of Grace were enough to persuade Erica Nicole Watts that short-term urban missions was her life-long call.

It was Erica's first time in the inner city. Chicago was incredibly hot and humid that summer. Parents screaming at young children and no central air conditioning or fans all contributed to her rising frustration and discouragement. By week's end, she sought refuge on the fire escape. She sat there sweltering in the heat with the song "Any Road, Any Cost" blasting through her headphones. Suddenly, the words of the song began to speak to her. "I realized that was what God has called me to, to take up my cross, down any road, at any cost," says Watts. "Chicago hadn't been easy, but my heart felt like it was right where it belonged. In one week it was home. That night I dedicated my life to that city for as long as God needed me there."

Since that momentous trip more than three years ago, Watts, now 18, has participated in several other mission trips to Chicago, Denver, and Kansas City through Child Evangelism Fellowship and other trips sponsored by Grace Bible Church in Colorado Springs, CO. She is now majoring in Urban Missions at Moody Bible Institute.

For Suzie Eller of Muskogee, Oklahoma, short-term missions are a family affair. Eller, her husband Richard, and their three teens have participated together in dozens of such trips in this country and abroad over the past decade. "We are sending a family member on short-term mission trips four to five times a year," notes Eller.

A Mixed Bag
Frustration, fulfillment, empowerment, and disappointment: such are the mixed-bag blessings of short-term urban youth ministry. On one hand, such mission trips enable young people and youth workers to minister to the needs of individuals in their own backyards, but they also underscore the reality that inner city ministry can be both rewarding and frustrating.

That's what teens found out during outreaches at the Carl Bean AIDS Center in Los Angeles. These trips were organized by Youth Service Project and jointly sponsored by the Southern Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the American Friends Service Committee, a multicultural, faith-based, interdenominational organization. Several of the teens had suggested the Center as a viable mission project because they had friends or family with AIDS and wanted to make a difference. "We found that AIDS was something they [the youth] all had in common, regardless of race or ethnic background," says Anthony Manousos of Youth Service Project. Teens prepared food, hosted a talent show, and talked to residents during the day-long trips. "These trips were very moving for our youth because they had a chance to reflect on life and death issues: 'Why are we here? What is life about.' They recognized that some of the people they were ministering to were certainly going to die soon."

Formula for Effectiveness
Like foreign missions, short-term urban missions provide an opportunity for participants to minister to the spiritual and physical needs in a community. Youth missionaries and youth workers live for short periods of time—say one to five days—in inner cities ravaged by poverty, drugs, and other urban ailments. By living among the residents, these Christian teens and adults strive to understand the real life situations faced by the people to whom they minister.

While no two projects are exactly alike, many include some aspect of community improvement, such as constructing new homes or ministering to the basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. Some include Bible lessons, praise and worship, or other musical elements; others rely heavily on drama to present a message of redemption and hope.

While some people contend that even a day in the urban city can have a long-lasting impact, others are not convinced. Manousos suggests that one way to give short-term urban missions longer lasting effects is to consider serving a community over a period of successive years. "Our youth like change, so we do a lot of different things," says Manousos. "From working on an ecological project to homeless shelters, but I think it's important to have some projects that the group commits to over a long time." Such commitment provides youth groups a chance to have a greater, more stabilizing impact on a community.

Creatures of Comfort?
One of the greatest advantages of urban missions is that they heighten teens' cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. Even so, the reality of homelessness, crime, and staggering poverty can be quite disconcerting and upsetting. Some youth groups use pre-trip orientation and extensive prayer sessions to help prepare youth and adults for ministry in the inner city.

Watts, who notes that urban missions are outside of her "comfort zone," explains a major hindrance to cross-cultural ministry: missionary perception. Regarding inner city street evangelism, she says, "I saw them as having so little and they don't necessarily see themselves as that. Once I got over that barrier, ministry was so much easier; they were not wanting me to feel sorry for them but to genuinely love them."

Born and bred in Kentucky, Lisa Beamer wasn't sure what to expect during an urban missionary trip to build homes in Yonkers, New York. Attending her first ever all Spanish-speaking church service was a real eye-opener for Beamer. She says it made her realize how sheltered her life had been up to that point. By the time the service was over and she was enjoying tamales at the fellowship meal, she notes, "I realized how rich life is in many other ways, even for those folks who really didn't have much money or worldly goods."

Counting the Costs
Even small youth groups can get involved in urban youth missions. One option, as Marilyn Yocum points out, is to serve with another church or larger organization such as Youth For Christ. "We partnered with another youth group from a church about 3 hours away, same denomination, that had about 40 kids. The trip was coordinated by Youth for Christ which lined up the service projects, provided the daily teaching/training time, and took care of the housing and feeding of our group," says Yocum.

The financial costs to sponsor an urban youth mission trip can be minuscule compared with foreign trips, and there are many organizations and churches that'll help those students who can't afford it. "Twenty-five dollars can be a lot to some families," notes Youth Service Project's Manousos, adding, "we never turn anyone away."

However, financial cost is not the only consideration. Support from parents and other adults is a key to giving teens a meaningful mission experience. Michelle Pearson, whose daughter Mallory has participated in several short-term urban missions trips, suggests several ways parents can make the urban youth experience more meaningful for their youth missionaries. "Explore all the options available for teen missions," she says. "Talk to the adult leaders. Make sure you know the group's itinerary and get involved as much as possible in your child's training so you can talk to your child about his or her experiences when he or she returns."

Eller agrees. "Support them always. Short-term mission trips have the opportunity to change your teens' whole world. It expands their horizons, both in terms of perspective and of the world around them." Of her daughter Melissa, Eller says, "There is a depth to Melissa that has only come from walking outside of her limited world of school, family, and church. You can't be involved in missions on a regular basis and it not affect you spiritually and in maturity."

Yocum concurs. "Personally, I learned that when you go on a trip like this, you really have no idea what you are signing up for. You just go. You've signed up for 'whatever' and in many ways we should take this attitude toward our everyday lives as Christians. Whatever you have for me today, Lord, count me in!"

Taking the gospel to the inner city requires as much planning, preparation, creativity and follow-up as foreign missions. Count the cost before committing to an outreach. Consider if this is the right season to invest your group's time, talent, and money to urban youth missions. If so, go for it, and expect the unexpected.


Lisa Crayton is a freelance editor and writer and a deacon at her church. She writes columns, essays, and features for numerous magazines, e-zines, and Web sites.

The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published.

 

This article first appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Youthworker Journal. Used with permission of CCM Communications. For information on how to subscribe to Youthworker Journal, please click here.