It’s a sentence many parents dread: Mom, I feel like God is calling me to go overseas on a mission trip. But the truth is, your teen wants to change the world—and God wants to use them to do it. If you find yourself a little freaked out by the idea of letting them go, think instead about how it might change their life.
We desire for our teenagers to grow as disciples and mature in their faith. We just prefer that they stay within our zip code to do it! That sentiment describes the inner tension most parents feel when their teenager says, “I want to go overseas on a mission trip.” We want them to follow Christ, we just want to control where they do it. It’s not that we don’t believe in the Great Commission—we do. We’re just not certain we want our teenager to participate in it. And that’s the tension that we feel. This tension between gospel confidence and parental caution gets stretched when all of a sudden the little hand that we once held while crossing the street, now wants to cross borders into a foreign land.
THEY WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Our first response is to bring some common sense to their excitement to travel around the world. We respond with mathematic questions: “Do you know how much this is going to cost? If we invested that money, in 10 years you could eradicate world hunger…”
Or we respond with geography questions: “So you want to go to Ouagadougou. Can you even find that on a map?”
Or we eventually revert to cynicism: “You can’t remember to pack a change of clothes and now you want to pack a suitcase and go change the world?”
And that’s the point. They do want to go change the world. The same little girl that carved her name in the backyard tree and the same little boy who wrote his name in the wet concrete, both desire to leave their permanent mark in this world.
They don’t want to talk about changing the world at some high-impact youth conference; they want to go get their hands dirty attempting to do it.
As a parent of three children whose passports have multiple stamps in them, I understand the heaviness of the decision to let our teenagers go overseas. We don’t make such a decision with naïve optimism. There are wise questions every parent should consider: Is the timing and location right for my child? Who is leading the trip? What will they be doing? Who are they partnering with in the country?
But once we get answers to these types of questions, then there is only more question that remains: How do I as a parent resolve to boldly let my teenager go?
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE THEY GO
To answer this question we won’t run through a checklist of how to pack their bag, take passport photos, raise funds, or what immunizations they need. Rather this is a checklist that you need as you continue to hold your teenager tightly in your heart, and learn to hold them loosely in your hands.
1. Recognize that the opportunity for your teenager to go on a mission trip is an invitation for you both to participate in what God is doing.
Letting our child go overseas and enter into a different culture forces us into uncharted territory as parents. We want the map, the schedule, the itinerary—and a check-in-phone-call every five minutes would suffice, too!
We want these because they make us feel more secure. God gives us direction and as we step out in obedience. He doesn’t immediately fill in all the blanks. It’s being obedient in the unknown that will shape both you and your teenager. While God desires to expose your child to the world that He loves, God also desires to enlarge your faith by trusting Him with the child that you love.
While God is enlarging your child’s worldview, He is also expanding your faith. You’ve been given an invitation to participate in God’s mission, which is much larger than your teenager’s two-week mission trip.
2. Resolve to never underestimate the power of God to shape their zeal.
What if your teenager’s motives to go on a mission trip aren’t completely spiritually pure? Perhaps the reality of their zeal to go around the world is because it’s an adventurous journey with their friends.
Trust in the reality that God’s mission isn’t new. God has from the beginning of time sent people to declare His name. As they move forward in obedience, He reshapes and refines the motives and intentions of their hearts. God may be changing your teenager’s perspective of the world and of unreached people who have never heard of Him, but He’s also changing their personal perspective and passion for His glory.
3. Risk letting them be exposed to God’s world, knowing that it will expand their understanding of His Word.
My 17-year-old has heard Bible stories thousands of times, but it took traveling thousands of miles for those stories to come alive. We sat on the back porch together as he unpacked the wisdom he brought home from his global experience.
“The world is not the same everywhere, mom,” he told me. “I’ve learned that God doesn’t just work in an American church on Sunday mornings, but God is moving all over this world all of the time. I walked through villages, talked with people and made real friendships. I sat eating with people in their homes and I found myself thinking, ‘This is exactly what Jesus did.’”
As he talked, it reminded me of what Luke wrote about the disciples, that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” (Luke 24:45).
4. Dare to raise them today in way that they will live on mission tomorrow.
Discipline and practice—these actions will shape our kid’s future, whether it’s in their studies, learning an instrument, or on that sports team. A mission trip is an opportunity to learn to practice the rhythm of being aware of what God is doing in the world.
We must raise our children to understand that they are part of a bigger God story. What if we taught our teenagers to not only consider what they will be when they grow up and think about what they will major in, but also to consider how they could use their skills and passions for God’s global purpose? When they learn this, a mission trip is much more than calendared event; God’s mission becomes the rhythm of their life.
5. Take the risk of moving your kids from the sidelines to playing in the game.
Let’s just be honest—we prefer that our little sheep stay in the herd and not move beyond the church wall into an unknown world. It feels risky. And perhaps, somewhat it is. We the church, and parents, have the responsibility of training the next generation of disciples to not just be church consumers, but Great Commission contributors.
It is certain that God’s mission will continue and the gospel will move forward. Mission trips are not the answer, but they are just one opportunity for teenagers to learn to play their part in the Great Commission.
Yes, mission trips might be packed with fun, but they are also opportunities for teenagers to learn to become a formidable force in God’s mission. The more they see the world, the more they understand God’s Word. The more they understand God’s Word, the more they understand His mission. The more they understand God’s mission, the more they understand they have a part to play in that mission. And the more they play their part in His mission, the more they live their life with purpose.
Lori McDaniel is a mom, pastor’s wife and Church Initiatives leader at the International Mission Board. She served with her family as a missionary for several years in Africa before returning to plant Grace Point Church in Bentonville, Arkansas. You can find her on Twitter @lorimmcdaniel.