Spiritual Growth Through Missions

What I like about Jesus is that He didn’t try to recruit people or use spin. Neither He nor His disciples ever said they were going on a mission trip, because they weren’t. He just invited everyone and said they could follow Him. – Bob Goff, Love Does


Throughout my high school years, mission trips looked very homogeneous. They only happened in the summer and involved a long van ride with my youth group friends to Tennessee. Even today the thought of such trips brings to mind the smell of old vinyl. Our church wasn’t strapped for cash, yet we were transported around in a long string of hand-me-down 12-passenger vans. You know, the kind of vehicles that have since been outlawed because of safety concerns.

Every summer our ritual was the same: to collect tools from supportive congregants and load up for a 9-day mission trip adventure. The van ride to and from our location itself was a rite of passage, like bookends on some of the most defining experiences of our youth.

I love this quote from Bob Goff because it removes all of the clichés surrounding the phrase “mission trip.” Though we used the same phrase, my introduction into the world of following Jesus through service to others was one of the most formative times in my faith. If I think hard about those experiences, they were beyond clichéd.

Our faith forms around following, and what we follow will form (or un-form) our faith. Following Jesus can take so many forms; it’s not just traveling overseas to build a school or to Tennessee to build a house. Beyond the service itself, the most important activity is taking time to be with God. Intentional, focused, faith-forming activities should not be an afterthought or even assumed. This is what the data tells us.

Mountain T.O.P. isn’t Mountain T.O.P. without faith activities. After spending a few years researching Christian camps, Jacob Sorenson writes in the Journal of Youth Development, “Our findings indicated that this aspect was not simply an extra element of the camp experience but rather that faith permeated all aspects of camp. If the faith-centered characteristic was absent or broke down, the experience was no longer recognizable as camp to the campers and staff members.” Mountain T.O.P. has decades of stories that speak to the truth of this data.

At Mountain T.O.P. we know that an overwhelming percentage of our participants (96.1% in the summer of 2017) say they learned something about their relationship with God after a week of service. Almost the same percentage said that they are more interested in service and missions because of their experience. It’s not that we do a few faith activities sprinkled throughout the day. Rather, faith permeates camp.

And I think Mountain T.O.P.’s specific formula of service plus other spiritual practices results in a huge impact. We practice receiving God’s grace through scripture, worship, prayer, solitude, service. Scripture, worship, prayer, and solitude are just as intentional as service in a Mountain T.O.P. experience.

The impact of this formula is repeated year after year: “I came to serve and found myself receiving more.” Unlocking the impact of holy habits through a week at camp can have a profound effect on us. For some reason sitting on a mountain in Appalachia, we welcome the excuse to spend dedicated time with God. We dive right in with worship on the first day of camp. This rhythm becomes ingrained in the community, a part of our identity. We follow this rhythm into the deepest places of ourselves and realize God’s presence, a presence that extends beyond the mission experience.

Getting our hands dirty not just with service, but also with spiritual disciplines keeps us real, grounded and focused. Wayne Meisel, Executive Director of the Center for Faith and Service says, “There are few places in our society where conversations around spiritual exploration and faith formation can happen in such deep, meaningful and lasting ways. The camp experience invites young people to discover and begin to define the spiritual side of themselves.” At Mountain T.O.P. we are not ashamed of repeating Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples to “Follow me, and I will teach you to fish for people.”

Our following extends beyond a camp experience. We have come to appreciate “camp’s role not as a stand-alone experience but rather as part of a much larger ecology of faith formation and character development in partnership with families and congregations.” We are here to accompany one another along in this journey. The real challenge in following is continuing what we’ve learned at camp when we go home. A Mountain T.O.P. experience is most impactful when it is synthesized within this “larger ecology of faith formation“ that includes home churches, families, and the places we do service on a day-to-day basis.

We do a disservice to our young people when we fail to recognize that a one-week mission trip – while potentially huge on impact – is just a small amount of time in an annual calendar of faith formation activities. Our faith forms around following, our following God into an ever deepening relationship. And helping our young people embrace spiritual disciplines along with service will provide the opportunity for a transformational experience that extends well beyond a mission trip experience!

(P.S. In writing about following, I have decided to follow God into a new role at Mountain T.O.P. I will be working part-time, remotely, on a couple of projects that are important to my heart! Some of my responsibilities will include leading our day camp programs, strategic planning, and community development partnerships. Mountain T.O.P. is an important presence in the communities in which we serve. You can still reach me at julie@mountain-top.org.)