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We have all seen our lives shift in countless ways over the past several months. We have also seen the way we do ministry make various changes. As I was working in youth ministry one of the biggest shifts we had to make was how we approached our mission weeks. At the beginning of each summer we dedicate a week for middle school students and a week for high school students to go on a mission trip. These weeks have been a staple in many of our students’ lives and played significant parts in their walks of faith. This year our mission trips had to adapt to the circumstances. However, mission is not a switch we flip on and off depending on the week and our circumstances. Due to the reality of COVID-19, we saw an opportunity to actively show our students what it looks like to serve even when expectations and plans change. After our usual Middle School Mission Trip to San Antonio was cancelled, we shifted to having a virtual mission week our students could do from their home with appropriate social distancing and safety precautions.
When others hear about the virtual mission week it is almost always received with a surprised face and many interested questions. How can you do a virtual mission trip? What does that look like? What did the students do? I had the same questions as I started planning the week and then slowly but surely the Lord opened doors and provided vision and guidance for the week.
So what does a Virtual Mission Trip look like?
The week was very reliant on the initiative of the students. Because we were not all together, it gave them much more responsibility. Here was the schedule for the week.
Sunday, May 31
10:45am – Supplies Box pick up at the church
(Includes a bag for each day with all the resources required)
Monday – Friday
9:30am – Morning Devotional (booklet provided)
10:00am – Join Staff on Instagram for Check in & Day’s Plan
10:15am – Begin the Day’s Mission
12:00pm Watch video on Instagram about today’s ministry partner
6:30pm – Evening Program
Our main way of engaging with the students was through Instagram Live and evening programming. Each morning after devotional time the youth staff would go live on Instagram and unpack the day’s bag and explain what the students would be doing. In the afternoon, we posted a video on Instagram which explained more about the Ministry Partner of the day. Then we wrapped everything up with evening programming. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we were able to have evening programming in-person while following specific safety precautions. We took the students temperatures, wore masks and sat socially distanced. These nights were a time where we could all come together to play games, worship, hear a message and have small group discussions. It also served as a time for the students to drop off the projects from that day and the day before. On Tuesday and Thursday, our night programming took place through Instagram Live and was a time for the students to get to know the college summer interns a little more through games and hearing their testimonies.
What did the students do?
One of the most important things as we were planning this week was to ensure that the students knew they were doing something that made a difference. Middle School students can distinguish between busy work and meaningful tasks better than anyone. The point of this week was to show students that they can serve in meaningful ways no matter what age they are or what is going on around them. This motivated the staff as we planned the projects for the week.
On Monday and Friday we partnered with the Fuente Food Pantry and ran a canned food drive. On Monday, the students were given fliers and bags to put out on their neighbors’ porches. Then on Friday the students picked up all the bags and brought them to the church. Due to the increased need during the pandemic the food pantry has been low on canned foods. This was a great way for the students to have a hands-on role in helping the community around them and providing opportunities for their neighbors’ to participate as well.
On Tuesday we partnered with Kid Meals. The students decorated brown paper bags and then packed them with snack lunches of peanut butter crackers, goldfish and a small water. Kids Meals then gave them out to children who do not always receive three meals a day. This was especially important once schools closed because it placed more need on families who rely on the schools to provide breakfasts and lunches.
On Wednesday we created a Bless Your Neighbor day. This was a day for students to go out and serve the people around them. We provided a list of ideas for them to choose from such as mowing their lawns, washing their cars, or weeding their gardens. We also encouraged them to be creative and find different ways to bless their neighbors (while socially distanced). As we debriefed this day with our small groups, one of the students mentioned how it changed her views of her neighbors. She used to be distant and did not want to interact with them but now she finds herself wanting to carry on conversations with each of her neighbors. Many other students chimed-in in agreement expressing their surprise in how friendly people are and their openness to engage with them.
On Thursday we partnered with Child Protective Services and put together gifts for children in the foster care system. Social workers have said it is nice to have something of comfort to give to children who must stay at the office overnight or are being removed from their homes. The days project included tie-dying 2 pillowcases, making a stuffed animal (from a kit) and writing 3 letters. This was my favorite day because we got to love on children who are often overlooked, and it helped our students learn more about what other people their age are going through. Our students mentioned how this opened their minds on how many resources they have available to them. In our girls’ small group, they talked about how deeply they desired the letters they wrote to encourage the recipients that they are loved by The Lord and are not left alone.
Overall the Virtual Mission Week was successful. The projects were carried out with good engagement and completion. In addition, the evening programing brought with it great discussions of faith and what it means to be a Christian in this world. The students had great insights as they interacted with their neighbors more than usual and truly cared about the impact that they were making on the people they were serving. At the end of our last day, as everyone was leaving night programming, several students asked if there was a way for us to continue the Virtual Mission Week throughout the summer. We had a great time serving our local community and we saw relationships build with our youth staff, students, and our summer interns.
I encourage anyone who is planning a virtual mission trip or interested in the idea to follow it through with great attention to all details. This week was very detail oriented and work focused on the front end. Communication between you and the participants is extremely important. The difference between in-person and online interactions is extensive (as I am sure many of you are learning). It takes at least twice the number of touchpoints online to result in a similar outcome as in-person. I urge you to find an avenue of communication that is the most accessible to all your participants. This could be email, YouTube, text, Instagram, or on a website. Having a common place for everyone to join and interact will help increase the unity and momentum of the week and improve the overall quality.
This is a time that is opening many doors to do ministry differently. A time to get creative and ask God to open our eyes to ways of doing things we have never considered before. It is an adventure and brings with it a lot of learning and experimenting. Knowing we are doing it all with God as our partner brings with it a sense of gumption and excitement. What more He might do at such a time as this?
If you are interested in learning more about what this Virtual Mission Week looked like or you are starting to plan one of your own and have questions, please feel free to reach out. I would love to help in any way I can.
Smile every chance you get,
Martha served with the youth ministry team at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston and now works part-time as the Assistant to the Director of Global Engagement for ECO