All Ages, One Mission

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This article is featured in the Generations (Feb/Mar/Apr 2009) issue of Circuit Rider
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Ginghamsburg Church is a United Methodist congregation in Tipp City, Ohio, a small city of 9,300 people just north of Dayton. In the summer of 2008, Forbes magazine gave Dayton the dubious honor of being named one of the fastest dying cities within the U.S. Yet, this largely blue collar congregation, hit hard by manufacturing layoffs and the current economic crisis, is a mission-driven force serving locally, nationally and globally to change the world for Christ, one life at a time. And, that mission-driven focus isn't just for “grown-ups.” In 2008, nearly 3000 adults, teens, and children served on off-campus mission experiences via more than sixty offered mission opportunities. What makes it happen?

Adults on mission

For Craig Maxwell, Ginghamburg's global missions director, recruiting adults begins with two guarantees he can easily make to prospective short-term missionaries: 1) you will experience personal life transformation and 2) you will have the opportunity to change the lives of others. He hasn't had a disappointed customer yet. In fact, once a team returns, Craig finds himself with a group of “evangelists,” eager to share their experiences with others and invite friends, family, cell group members, and maybe even their dentist, to join them on a future trip. In large part because of the viral nature of returnees “telling the story,” Ginghamsburg has sent close to fifty teams to the Gulf for Hurricane Katrina relief since August 2005 as part of the Extreme Makeover: Neighborhood Edition initiative.

It is important to give adults multiple levels of commitment from which to choose. We offer “service adventures,” a local mission project lasting from a few hours to one day; “ministry blitzes,” a short-term trip of two to five days with overnight stays; “mission treks,” a week-long trip either within the U.S. or a foreign destination; and “global expeditions,” which include overseas travel for up to ten to fourteen days. These options represent varying levels of time, money, and risk, making the trips accessible for all types of adults with all types of budgets and varying appetites for adventure.

While some trips do require specialized skill sets, such as the medical teams traveling each year to Jamaica, there is always room on the team for people who simply want to assist the doctors or dentists, entertain patients while they are waiting for long overdue care, or paint the structures used to host the clinic. Regardless of the type of trip offered, the teams usually meet one or more times in advance to begin bonding, understand their roles, meet the trip leader, and learn how to raise funds for their travel.

What about the teens?

Students in sixth through twelfth grade can also make incredible contributions in serving “the least of these” around the world and in their own backyard. In 2008, Ginghamsburg student teams traveled to New Orleans, New York City, North Carolina, Haiti and Mexico. During week-long trips into Dayton over the summer, what we call “Urban Plunge,” student teams cleaned up debris, hauled trash, and spruced up homes and rental properties in an old North Dayton neighborhood, in addition to partnering with local soup kitchens, elderly care centers, daycare programs for disadvantaged children, and other community organizations dedicated to making a difference in Dayton.

For teen mission trips, Student Ministry Director Ken Overholser considers the following components crucial: carefully chosen and trained trip leaders, clear-cut guidelines that both students and their parents understand, time for both working hard and playing hard, relationship-building among the teens, and an intentional focus on spiritual growth as a result of the trip.

Take, for example, the Urban Plunge trips. To include and balance these important elements, each day opens with early devotions, a morning service project, a brown bag lunch the students pack themselves, an afternoon service project, followed by dinner out and some fun on the town in Dayton. The night wraps up with debriefing and prayer before the exhausted teens fall into bed, refueling for the next day. On one day of the trip, the students experience what is affectionately called “two-dollar day.” That day, each teen receives $2 before making a trip to the local grocery store. The food that they purchase will supply the only breakfast, lunch, and dinner they will experience for the entire day—helping develop keen empathy for the homeless who live in that world daily.

Another key component for making student ministry trips powerful is keeping the teens unplugged. The “not allowed” on the packing list includes MP3 players, hand-held video games, portable TVs or any other electronic gadgets—including cell phones! Students are even discouraged from wearing watches. Eliminating the electronics keeps the teens on each trip tethered to each other and reliant on God. It's also a great way to ensure the teens develop the deeper relationships with one another that really create a “band of brothers"—or of sisters—by the trip's end.

Can't forget the kids!

Perhaps the most amazing thing that Ginghamsburg has learned through the years from its mission-driven focus is that even the smallest members of the kingdom have huge contributions to make. In fact, the kids at Ginghamsburg Church often set the pace for the rest of us. In 2008, third, fourth, and fifth graders served hands-on in overnight or weekend trips to Indianapolis; Louisville; East Liverpool, Ohio; Cincinnati; and Columbus. In addition, Children's Ministry led two parent/child, multi-day trips during the year—one to Chicago and the other to Tijuana, Mexico! How do children become engaged in this level of service?

First, Children's Ministry Director RaNae Street emphasizes the “five rings of service,” with the center ring being God. If kids miss out on the “God-experience” and God-focus of doing good works, they are simply going through the motions. The mission experience may prove fun or exciting, but it certainly won't grow a servant's heart in these young missionaries. The second ring, closest to that inner circle, represents friends and family. Service begins within the home as children serve those closest to them and contribute toward the overall good of the family. The third ring is serving the church family, the fourth is our neighbors and local community, and the fifth is the world.

To begin growing young missionaries for Christ, it's important that your mission program for kids also create awareness within them. Design curriculum that helps them explore stories of the apostle Paul, one of the greatest missionaries of all time. Instead of shielding children from “bad neighborhoods” or unpleasant people, take a tour or do a prayer walk— always, of course, keeping safety in mind and having parental permission and participation. Don't worry at first about attracting large numbers of children to your first forays. Just as it is for adults, mission is also contagious for kids. Those who do go in the early days will become change enzymes when they return, creating almost a chemical reaction in other kids they encounter following a powerful mission experience.

As with adults, it's important to offer kids (and their families) options reflecting various levels of commitment. RaNae calls these levels of commitment “step,” “walk,” “jog,” and “run.” Each month, the Ginghamsburg Children's Ministry selects a family mission project for the month. Past mission project partners have included our own New Path Ministries (food pantry and car, furniture, clothing and medical equipment ministries), a local soup kitchen/homeless shelter, the Humane Society, and an inner-city community center. Cards are distributed to each child (and posted on the web) indicating the different ways a child and his or her family can participate during the month in support of that mission focus.

The “step” commitment generally means that the child and family commit to praying faithfully for that partner's area of need. The second level, “walk,” involves some sort of donation from home: canned goods, toys, clothing, crafts, or more. At the “jog” level, money is involved—some sort of financial sacrifice. This might include penny drives, selling a cherished toy or gadget to raise funds, or giving up part of a weekly allowance. Of course, the ultimate commitment level of “run” means that the child and his or her family will actively be the hands and feet of Jesus, spending a day serving food, sorting clothing, or cleaning kennels. This hands-on work is where kids truly connect into Jesus' mission for their lives.

All Together Now

One mission initiative that has been incredibly transformational for adults, teens and children, getting entire families focused on one mission, is The Sudan Project (www.thesudanproject.org). Since 2005, Ginghamsburg is approaching a $4 million investment into three humanitarian projects in Darfur, Sudan, identified by the U.N. as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Each Christmas, Lead Pastor Mike Slaughter asks families to honor the Birthday Boy rather than themselves by spending half as much as they usually would on presents and giving the other half to the Sudan Project. Adults, teens, and children have all enthusiastically sacrificed to help those suffering in Sudan through this annual “miracle offering.” Adults, of course, are the primary financial givers, but younger members of the family get in on the act as well.

Monthly, it seems, at least one child foregoes presents at his or her birthday party, requesting invited guests instead to bring a donation for the people of Darfur. In both 2007 and 2008, Children's Ministry staff hosted a “Sudan Week” in late fall, featuring a curriculum for all ages in all classes for the entire week, teaching kids about the culture, people and needs in Darfur and The Sudan Project. In early December, the kids host a Sudan Christmas Bazaar, featuring their own handmade items, treats and talents, raising approximately $6000 each time to serve their Darfuri sister and brothers.

No matter how productive the trip or mission initiative, however, the cornerstone has to be how the experience takes each participant on a spiritual journey. Many of us will never have a greater opportunity to draw closer to God than when we are on a grand adventure, living minute-by-minute within the center of his will. Children, students and adults who go on mission are always provided with carefully planned and prayed-over spiritual journals, used daily in team devotional times. These journals are essential tools that take us daily into God's word, causing us to seek his face while we act as his hands, giving us a special place to note all of the incredible God encounters that transform the lives of those we are serving—and, just as powerfully, our own.

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