These days, young people do lots of mission work or community service. It might be for a church. It could fulfill some college entrance requirements. Or it could fill some idle time.
But at the Epic Youth Ministry, part of Carillon United Methodist Church in the Central Florida community of Oviedo, the goal is much more than just checking a box in a busy summer.
“We’re trying to teach our kids to live missionally, if you will, and that’s more of a lifestyle than just putting in a week of obligation,’’ Carillon UMC’s youth director Phil Coleman said.
|Converge participants work on landscaping at a local church.|
The Epic Youth Ministry recently completed “Converge,’’ its annual week-long mission retreat for youth (rising seventh-graders through incoming college freshmen). It was its biggest one ever with 120 participants (12 groups of 10) and 70 adult volunteers.
Working exclusively in Central Florida, they served in two places each day. It included yard work or landscaping at local churches, volunteering at youth camps, packaging materials at food banks and distributing soap products as part of the Clean The World program.
There were 40 locations served by the Converge volunteers.
That’s a story in itself, but it’s not the end.
Hopefully, it’s a beginning.
“Many teenagers, of course, will have the mentality that, ‘Well, this is the week that we serve’ and then they forget about it,’’ Coleman said. “They need to remember that this is how Jesus lived his entire life. Living with a mission mentality is not just a one-and-done deal. It’s embodying that example, not just serving a person and leaving.
“When you go to school, it’s seeing the person who no one ever talks to. In the neighborhood, it’s engaging with people, helping the neighbor who just had surgery. It’s being aware of what’s going on in the world and finding ways to help. When you’re a follower of Jesus, you do that. You don’t just sign off on your hours, pat yourself on the back and move along. Living like Jesus requires more than that.’’
Carillon UMC’s associate youth pastor Holly Fohr, who also participated in Converge activities as a student, called it “pigeon-holing.’’
|Students take a breather and pose with the fruits of their yard clean up.|
“It’s typical to hear about serving the homeless or going to a nursing home—and those things are beautiful—but the overall goal is to leave the week seeing everything as a potential mission,’’ Fohr said.
“You hear about fighting poverty. Well, there are so many different types of poverty. There’s material poverty, of course. We know that one. But there’s emotional poverty. There’s spiritual poverty. We want students to see poverty everywhere in a way that calls them to minister to it. Sometimes, it’s right in front of you.’’
Particularly striking was the work at a youth day camp for low-income families. It was held at a church about 15 minutes away from Carillon.
More than striking, it was jarring.
“Our people were used to camp kids running up to them, wanting to hug or high-five,’’ Coleman said. “Well, it didn’t happen here.
“These kids were cussing at them. They were calling them names. They were being violent. Whether it was because they didn’t know how to interact or because this is what they got at home, this was so different.’’
Coleman and the other adult volunteers had intentional discussions with Converge kids, who were confused in their reactions.
What’s going on here?
And what do we do about it?
“This was so different than doing your good deed, then going home,’’ Coleman said. “This stuck with them so deeply because they hadn’t experienced this before. I think it brought a lot of collectiveness to the entire group.
“There weren’t a lot of cliques going on, and that’s unusual for teenagers. Several staff members said it was rare to see the same two people sitting together. It was just a unique vibe. I think it brought about thoughts like, ‘Hey, we are the church. Instead of dismissing this or running from it, let’s find ways to help and break down these walls.’‘’
|Particularly striking was working with a youth day-camp for low-income families.|
Fohr said she was proud of the way the Converge kids recognized the differences, processed them, then looked for solutions.
“The initial reaction was not knowing how to come across to kids who were such a close drive away from their familiar area,’’ Fohr said. “At first, our kids weren’t ready to hear about the violence they experienced at home or how their parents had separated or how they had to deal with fighting all the time.’’
Ultimately, it reminded Fohr of a lyric in the song, “Jesus, Friend of Sinners.’’
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours.
“Hearts were breaking,’’ Fohr said. “Being able to speak on that and love on those kids, that was a pretty cool thing to see. It was real. And instead of traveling to a faraway land, it showed they could make a meaningful impact so close to home.’’
It was another example of “living missionally.’’
Converge was a one-week program, but there’s evidence that it met a larger goal—teaching students that it’s a way to mirror Jesus, living in meaningful service.
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.