“The soul needs amazement, the repeated liberation from customs, viewpoints, and convictions, which, like layers of fat that make us untouchable and insensitive, accumulate around us. What appears obvious is that we need to be touched by the spirit of life and that without amazement and enthusiasm nothing new can begin” – Dorothy Soelle
This quote heads the chapter “Hanging Loose: The Art of Detachment”. Detachment is the “disentangling ourselves from whatever distracts us from Jesus Christ, so all of our attention – and all of our lives – may be fixed upon him” (159). This sort of detachment is vital in the spiritual growth of people as it opens us up to the Holy Spirit in ways we are not normally open. Throughout the chapter Dean uses mission trips as a central place this happens in the life of teenagers.
Admittedly, short term mission trips offer much to criticize (tourist aspect, the fact mission is not merely a “trip”, etc.). That aside, such trips do “open many teenagers to the Holy Spirit’s transformation and often provide appreciated, if limited, assistance to people in need” (159). The most fun thing in this chapter was reading the journal of a teen, reflecting on her trip to Mexico. This demonstrates that short term mission trips are important ministries more to the teens who go on them than anything else.
I was never blessed to go on a mission trip while in high school, or while a teen. I went on my first cross-cultural mission trip, to the Dominican Republic, at the end of my junior year in college. Much of what Dean talked about in this chapter rings true as I recall my experience on that trip.
We went to serve the community there. We worked on building a new church, we did a bible school for the kids in the morning and outreaches in the evening. Perhaps some lives were changed in that community because of our presence. But I know all of us on the trip were affected greatly during our time there. It was an eye-opening experience, seeing poverty as I had never seen before but also seeing many who lived in that poverty having a joy unfamiliar to many Christians in my home community. I recall feeling closer to Jesus Christ and more filled with the Spirit than any other time in my life. Returning to America was culture shock. It was harder to complain about things in my comfortable life when I recalled the experience in the Dominican Republic.
I have seen the same experience repeated over and over again in the lives of the college students I work with. It is not just mission trips where this happens. Retreats are similar in some ways, as we get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with the Spirit. For me, it has also happened on trips that cannot really be called “mission” trips. I think of chaperoning a school trip to Guatemala with a group of Mennonite high school students. The leaders of the trip continually reinforced that we were not tourists, we were pilgrims. If you go with that attitude, hoping to learn about both yourself and the culture, you may be surprised by what you learn.
But Dean cites statistics that show millions of kids have gone on mission trips and not all of these kids end up as committed Christians as adults. Likewise, four out of five teens report having religious experiences. Dean notes that “having a spiritual experience or a sense of personal closeness to God – and choosing to relate to society as someone changed by this experience – are two different things” (164). While mission trips can have a great affect, it is the home congregation that will prove more crucial to the development of students than the time on the trip. Coming home, the passion and excitement fade. The students need to be given tools to interpret what they learned on this trip and how it applies to their daily lives, they need social relationships with other Christians to make sense of these trips.
Thus, while experiences like mission trips, retreats and pilgrimages can be greatly forming, they are not magic wands to ensure religious growth. Instead, they exist in the context of an entire life. Compared to such experiences, living in the mundane of daily life is often disappointing. Sometimes people end up seeking to constantly recreate this experience, to gain that feeling again. The solution is not to try to create a life constantly lived on high action (Dean actually talks about this, contrasting youth ministry focused on action which leads to anxiety with one rooted in love and compassion which leads to focusing on the presence of Jesus). This would be like trying to make your entire marriage like the honeymoon! It might be fun, but it is impossible and if you try it you will be disappointed in marriage.
Life with Jesus does include amazing experiences where you feel like God is right there. But that life also includes mundane things like going to work every day and paying your bills. The goal is to integrate these two and to realize the presence of Jesus in everyday life, even when you do not have those warm feelings you have on a mission trip or retreat.