For some it is personal meaning. Their experiences cause them to evaluate their lives differently. It creates some sort of a change. For others it is the external result. They built a house, planted a church, christened a boat. Yet another person may just enjoy the travel, the experience of going somewhere they’ve never been before. Whatever the endeavor, during my time as a Christian youth, my impression has always been that students my age always find success in the missions field. Very rarely, if ever, did my friends walk away from a large-scale trip feeling disappointed. This is what made my experience in Germany unique.
My first two years of high school, I did smaller-scale trips to Toronto and Minneapolis, doing what I described as “glorified charity work.” We helped in a factory, baby-sat some kids, and made some meals. Obviously, there is a lot of value to this kind of missions work, and the people whom we helped were very grateful. But I had family and friends who were doing trips to La Paz, Mexico and Bogotá, Colombia. I wanted to do something big, something evangelistic, something risky, possibly even dangerous. As a shy, somewhat sheltered junior in high school, I felt it was time for me to be kicked out of my comfort zone.
In March of 2010, I learned that I would have the opportunity to do just that. My church was offering a missions to a small town in Germany called Pohlheim, about an hour outside of Frankfurt. The trip would be far more evangelistic than my other two trips. The primary focus would be an English summer camp we would run which would double as an opportunity to teach young Germany kids about the Gospel. Other events included a sports day that would also be Christian-themed and various other events involving local churches. It seemed like the perfect plan for what I wanted out of my first trip overseas.
Unfortunately, things began falling apart before we even got on the plane. We were to leave in July, but in May, we learned that not enough kids had signed up for the English camp and we would have to can the idea. Considering that was both the majority of our trip and the majority of our evangelistic opportunity, it served as a huge blow to our psyche. We filled in the gaps of the trip as best we could with church events, but already, the disappointment in the back of my mind was increasing.
A couple of months later, I sat sweating in a window seat on an American Airlines flight headed for Frankfurt. It was my first time on an airplane, and an eight hour overnight flight was a tough way to get my wings, but that was not where my nerves were coming from. I feared that the trip which I had anticipated for so long would be a dud. That was all I could think about the entire trip, even as we got in the air and everyone around me drifted off to sleep.
After landing, we met our contact at the airport in Frankfurt and he took us to our host homes around the village. After a long, jet-lag induced sleep, we met up with everyone with whom we would be working and set about planning our patch-work trip. That night, as we hung around the church after a day of shaking hands and sharing names, the adults in our group went into a meeting. Nothing seemed odd here, until my youth pastor kept leaving and re-entering the room with a very serious look on his face. Eventually we were all called together and were told that the man who was our contact and leader had apparently touched one of the girls in our group inappropriately and would no longer be working with us. This added another hitch in the trip that now seemed doomed to fail, as we were going to be led by our own chaperones. Though I was happy with the way that my pastor assumed an important leadership role despite the circumstances, I could not help but feel that the remainder of the trip would be very safe; it was not going to be the risky, life-altering experience I had hoped for.
The highlight of the trip was the sports day, as I met a few younger kids who I would spend time with the rest of the two weeks. One of the kids was a boy named Nico, a kid who was one of the best young soccer players I had ever seen. He shared my love of sports and he seemed to like my sense of humor. The thing was that he was also both a Christian and fluent in English, so there was not exactly a way to reach him in a deeper way. But nonetheless I was glad that I connected with a kid, as my whole life leading up to that point I had struggled to get along with younger kids.
The patches in our trip were mostly comprised of “coffee houses,” which were hangout times at the local church for us and the kids to connect. Like Nico, all the kids we interacted with spoke English better than the adults and were Christians, so evangelism seemed to go out the window. However, at one of the last coffee houses, I finally got my opportunity to share my testimony and maybe reach the kids at some deeper level. I told a story of when a friend of mine died and my difficulty dealing with it. It was a story that had defined me up to that point in my life and I tried to convey that in my telling of it, but as a gazed across the faces looking up at me, I saw little more than disinterest. Even Nico, who I thought I had connected with, was slumped over, face in his hands, eyes half-closed, mouth agape, drooling a little. The tepid claps that escorted me off the stage sealed the deal for me: this life-altering mission was a total bust.
I coasted the rest of the way. We visited a concentration camp that did little to affect me. We visited the castle where Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin, and that seemed like little more than a vacation day. As I stepped off the plane two days later and met my family, I told them stories of how amazing the trip was, how God reached me, and how I wanted to go back some day, but the truth was that it was lip service, to myself as much as anyone else. I tried to convince myself that I felt God move through the trip, but truth was I had never felt further from Him. It seemed like the perfect storm had hit to disintegrate whatever expectations I had.
I suppose if I learned anything from my time in Germany, it was this: the distance out of your comfort zone does not determine the effectiveness of a mission experience.