Somewhere in a suburb of Phoenix, AZ in the middle of June, I found myself lying on a thin cot and sleeping bag alongside two dozen teenage guys. I woke up before most of my fellow youth group missionaries and stepped outside in the bright desert morning. I thought about the excitement of the upcoming day, playing with kids at a sports camp, teaching a Bible lesson, and visiting local neighborhoods. This trip was going to be one of the best weeks of the summer. I stepped back inside the big room where everyone was sleeping and stumbled to my cot. I sat down in a stupor and decided to grab a few more minutes of sleep before the long day began. And there it was, staring up at me on my pillow––the scorpion.
Youth group can be the best of times, and it can be the worst of times. Thankfully, I had more good times than bad. My high school years in church were filled with mission trips, summer camps, and weekend retreats. I got to travel. I built friendships. I made memories. But a lot of those experiences now strike me as strange and almost ill-suited for church.
Like the time a few of my friends and one of our favorite youth leaders decided to Saran wrap the van of the worship band at a winter retreat. The pranks were endless. Someone had their hotel door duct taped shut. However, there were some baseline rules set by the youth pastor. There was to be no messing with people’s stuff. No theft or destruction of property. (I think the rule was implemented after shampoo was poured into someone’s suitcase. I was not involved.)
Besides the adolescent fun, I had great ministry opportunities. Summer camps are some of my happiest memories from high school, and camps were also the place where I was first a part of gospel work. I got to help run worship nights and huge game days for other kids. I also counseled campers after sermons. In the evenings, our youth leadership team would usually go to Sonic, a traditional drive-in restaurant which only offered outside service. One girl didn’t realize that you aren’t supposed to walk inside, so she barged through the door into the middle of a Sonic, foraging for straws.
And that big room in Arizona where I met my scorpion was basically a giant shed a few hundred feet from the real house where the girls were sleeping. They all got to enjoy the comforts of a bathroom, running water, and electricity while the fellas were brushing their teeth with a flashlight in hand and surrounded by cacti. But I signed up for a mission trip, not a vacation to the southwest.
There was an exceptional moment during that trip when we were doing a sports camp for young kids. After running around in the hot sun, we finally managed to wrangle several dozen five-and-six year-olds to listen to a Bible story. It was about God’s love for us as a father’s love. One kid named Daniel started crying because he didn’t know who his biological dad was.
Probably one of my wildest experiences involved monkeys and zip lines in Costa Rica. The last day of the mission trip, which had involved sharing the gospel with people on the street as well as handing out food to the homeless, was dedicated to R&R for our thirty-member team. We went zip lining during the afternoon. I managed to get stuck on the line halfway across a deep forested valley, but thankfully, one of the guides came out and pushed me the rest of the way.
After that adventure, we had an outdoor dinner under a big wooden pavilion. As soon as we started to eat, we saw monkeys start crawling on the tree branches and jumping into the pavilion! They scurried around, grabbing pieces of food and knocking a few dishes onto the ground. It took the dinner staff a good ten minutes to kick them all out. Although a unique memory, I’m reminded more of talking with my youth pastor after dinner about what it means to be called to ministry and having a vision for your life. It was one of the most important conversations I had as a teenager.
In some weird way, all of the memorable and exciting things on missions trips actually help me look back and think about sharing the gospel, feeding the poor, and watching God do amazing things with people. Perhaps without these experiences, I would have forgotten many of the powerful conversations I had with locals, young kids, and friends. The funny and crazy moments seem to be God’s way of helping me remember what it was like to begin growing in my own walk with Him.
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