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Lending Hands and Changing Hearts

It’s amazing how events that take place in your youth can carry on far into adulthood — or be totally forgotten by the time you’re 25.

On the one hand, the teenage years seem made for frivolity, and most people’s adult lives rarely turn out the way they expected. Plenty of people dabble in high school romance, but it’s rare for the girl or boy on whom you had a crush in school to still be the love of your life 20 years later. We groan at the embarrassing haircuts and clothes we sported when we see pictures from our teenage years.

On the other hand, the deepest experiences we have as young people can have profound and lasting effects on us far into our lives. Research has consistently shown that people who discover faith in their youth are more likely to carry their beliefs into adulthood than others who convert at different ages. And we can all think of pivotal events in our own teenage years that helped shape who we are as adults.

Understanding this duality is important for anyone involved in youth and student ministry. Some things we do as teens are forgettable at best and embarrassing at worst. Others are lasting and meaningful. Youth leaders should be focused on minimizing the former and maximizing the latter.

I’m not a youth pastor, but I was deeply involved in my church’s youth group all through high school. We had one meeting a week all year round, plus more parties, camping trips and lock-ins than I can count. I attended every one of them, and yet for all that time, there are few fun experiences that I remember vividly today.

What I do remember vividly, though, is the mission and outreach work my youth group did. My first trip out of the country was on a youth group mission trip to Mexico when I was 13. We spent our days hiking to mountain villages with backpacks full of medicine and medical supplies for the indigenous people who lived there. A couple of years later, we put together a pantomime routine and took it to Costa Rica, where we performed evangelistic dramas in churches, village squares and a major college campus.

The people I met, the scenes I saw and the work I did on these trips made a major impact on my life. In a real sense, they helped shape me into the man I am today — much more than any game night or group trip to the movies did.

The young people in our churches are capable of doing great work that really serves the world, and those experiences will be much more fundamental in their lives than the week-in, week-out proceedings of their youth groups. That’s why we’re highlighting missions and volunteer experiences for youth groups in this issue (see “Serving Meets Learning” on page 26).

Our youth groups represent the future of our churches and of the church at large. Teaching them to serve is one of the best ways to make a difference in their lives and in the world.

You’ll only get to take your students on a handful of trips before they graduate. See to it that some of those trips make a long-term difference on their hearts.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.