For the past five years, teens from St. John, Wauwatosa, Wis., have hit the road each summer to drive across the country. What were they doing? Helping mission churches reach out in their communities through summer camps.
“It’s an entire vacation Bible school team in a box,” says Kyle Bitter, pastor at St. John.
The trips are no small task. In 2019, five vans took almost 40 teens and 15 chaperones to two locations: Rock Hill, S.C., to help Illumine Lutheran Church run a science camp, and Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, to help with a soccer Bible camp at Cross of Life.
The idea for these mission trips started when a group of parents at St. John asked about taking an overnight trip with a ministry focus for the eighth-grade class at St. John’s school. St. John had been wanting to do more youth ministry so decided to broaden the idea and offer the opportunity to all its youth from confirmed through high school.
“I was expecting 10 kids to sign up the first time,” says Bitter. “We ended up having 27 who wanted to go.” The group continued to grow and broadened its reach to include multiple destinations.
Ethan Rindfleisch, St. John’s member and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, has gone five times on these trips, serving in South Carolina, Georgia, and Ontario, Canada. He also started taking overseas mission trips through his high school. “Personally, I have grown so much in my faith and in my roles as an evangelist, a volunteer, and a brother in Christ,” he says.
Bitter says this experience encourages St. John’s teens—who are used to a congregation of 1,200 members with a large school—to look at mission and ministry in a different way. “For them to go and see what a mission church is like is a good experience for them,” he says. “They can see the camaraderie that small congregations have and the cool benefits in a church that is very different from what they grew up in.”
“The environment at these churches is very different from here at St. John’s or other local WELS churches, and it is really refreshing to see different styles of worship and fellowship,” says Julia Treichel, St. John’s member and a senior at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Milwaukee. “I always come home wanting to become closer to those around me and share God’s love with others because I had so much fun doing it on the mission trip.”
According to Bitter, teens also learn different ways they can serve at church. But that’s not only from their experiences on the mission trip. Teens must spend 20 hours volunteering at St. John—ranging from coaching grade school sports to working concessions at sports events to teaching Sunday school to helping with community events—before they can even go on the trip.
“We want to give them that experience of what kinds of things you can be involved with in a congregation as you are moving into being an adult member,” says Bitter. “We want them to view their relationship with church as an important part of life. It’s not a place my parents take me on Sunday, but it’s a place I’m actually a part of and a place I can live out my faith with other Christians.”
St. John plans to continue its annual teen mission trip this year. Teens who have attended in the past are encouraging others to try it as well. “It is an amazing experience where you not only get to help another church but also where you can cultivate skills for interacting with people from all different walks of life and for spreading God’s Word,” says Rindfleisch.
Learn how Bible camps provide community outreach opportunities in this month’s edition of WELS Connection. Want to see more about the 2019 mission trips that the teens from St. John participated in? Watch this video.
Christian Willick, a first-year student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis., went on three teen mission trips coordinated by St. John, Wauwatosa, Wis. On one trip, he helped with a science camp at Illumine, Rock Hill, S.C. Two other times, he served at a soccer camp at Cross of Life, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Here he shares some of his experiences:
Why did you decide to go on a mission trip through St. John?
The first time I went on a St. John’s mission trip was the summer after I had graduated from Luther Preparatory School. I jumped at the opportunity because the previous winter, I had gotten the chance to serve on my first mission trip to Trinity, St. Lucia, through Luther Prep’s Project Timothy. It had been such an uplifting experience—not just for those St. Lucian kids I got to meet and teach, but also for me—that I was eager to serve again on a mission trip with St. John’s!
For the same reason, I decided to go on subsequent St. John’s mission trips because every trip was so spiritually uplifting. Each was a unique opportunity to meet and work with brothers and sisters in far-off congregations, to meet and teach new children who needed to hear God’s Word and see God’s love in action, and to grow closer with my St. John’s family as we traveled to new locations and got to know each other better.
What were some of the activities that you helped with?
In 2018, I helped alongside other teen volunteers to serve as a soccer coach for the grade schoolers who came to our soccer camp. In addition, I resumed my role from the previous summer as a member of the “skit team,” helping every day to act out a biblical principle for the assembled campers with a simple and funny skit involving wacky characters playing in a choreographed soccer game.
What was your favorite part of these trips?
My favorite part might sound deceptively simple at first, but don’t let the simplicity of the moment hide the breathlessly beautiful impressions it left me with. That moment was when, at the worship service the day before the soccer camp began, we all took communion together—my brother Evan and I with our fellow St. John’s friends and chaperones alongside us, together with the members of Cross of Life and the volunteers from other Lutheran schools. It was a simple yet profound expression of the unity of faith with which we were approaching the coming week of service. It was the very gospel itself, as our Lord Jesus condescended yet again to enfold us in his full and free forgiveness with his very body and blood. It was also cool, then, to remember this moment when we gathered again for worship a week later and returned thanks for all the blessings of the week, this time with some soccer camp visitors in our midst.
What did you learn from your experiences on these trips?
I learned that the gospel ministry is being carried out faithfully by many different faces in countless different places—not just in the small area of southeastern Wisconsin with which I am most familiar. I also learned that though this gospel ministry may take many different outward forms there is a precious unity in Christ that connects us and enables us to serve together like this. Though we are scattered in various places, we as members of one church are all working together for one common purpose, and that is the forward expansion and spread of the gospel for the glory of God and the eternal good of his people. Called workers and lay people, chaperones and teen volunteers, St. John’s teens and teens from other schools, boys and girls, young and old, even volunteers and campers of all different skin colors—when we came together to plan and implement our service for those weeklong trips, these differences quite powerfully faded away and we were left with our common purpose and a mutual love and edification from the events of the trip.
I cherished that unity even after we returned home; it continues to motivate me as I study for the pastoral ministry.
How have your experiences encouraged you as you prepare for the public ministry?
As a future called worker (God-willing), I have learned various practical examples of how ministry can be done. I have also gained role models who exemplified faithful service, both in the form of called workers and in the form of lay leaders.
Would you encourage other teens to go on a mission trip in the future?
I would encourage every teen to look for an opportunity to serve like this. Yes, you will be forced out of your comfort zone, but it is in precisely those moments that I believe the greatest spiritual, personal, and interpersonal growth will occur for you. God has a way of using such challenges to make us rely more on him and on those he has lovingly placed in our lives.
Volume 107, Number 03
Issue: March 2020