Student.Go reports that volunteers are seeking longer-term mission projects that build relationships with those being served, like these children in Uganda. (Student.Go)
Student.Go reports that volunteers are seeking longer-term mission projects that build relationships with those being served, like these children in Uganda. (Student.Go)

Baptist ministries see spike in young applicants

Organization leaders say college and graduate students are more interested in longer-term, relationship-building projects than they are in quick-hit mission experiences. 

By Jeff Brumley

Leaders of student-based service programs across Baptist life are reporting significant increases in volunteers due, they say, to shifting attitudes among youth about missions and ministry.

From Atlanta to Texas and beyond, organizations that depend on seasonal and year-long ministry volunteers and interns report that young Baptists are becoming more interested in programs that encourage long-term, meaningful relationships with the communities in which they serve.

The trend is resulting in windfall recruiting classes for some ministries.

“It’s a huge percentage increase for us,” said Amy Derrick, field personnel selection manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and director of Student.Go.

Seeking ‘relational ministry’

At Student.Go, where college and graduate students can serve in short- and long-term mission projects in the United States and abroad, the number of applicants for the extended service opportunities increased 50 percent in the fall and this spring. As a result, CBF is considering making internal changes in order to accommodate the trend.

Derrick said young people are tuned into the current thinking in missions today, namely that quick-hit, short-term trips can actually be toxic for those they’re intended to help. Longer, relationship-building missions are now sought after.

“I think they really want to feel they went somewhere long enough to build a relational ministry,” Derrick said.

David Burroughs says the old-fashioned, week-long mission trip may deserve some of the credit for interest in summer- and year-long domestic and international missions.

“There was a huge upsurge in the last decade in young people doing short-term missions,” said Burroughs, president of  Passport, Inc., an ecumenical, Birmingham, Ala.-based non-profit that provides inspirational youth summer camps.

Many of its young camp staffers, Burroughs said, were campers once.

 “So you can draw a parallel: they did a mission trip or came to [Passport] for a week, had a good experience and now they’re a little older and would like to do this for a summer or for a year,” he said.

Another factor is that young people today are much more informed, thanks in part to the Internet and especially social media, about the variety of service opportunities available to them.

‘Staying the course’

Those who come back for longer experiences are reporting long-lasting spiritual benefits, said Nichole Prillaman, missions volunteer coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.

“Those that do engage in mission volunteerism are developing lasting and significant relationships with those they serve alongside,” Prillaman said. “What typically begins as an ‘us/them’ type of relationship quickly develops into more of a ‘we’ type relationship.”

As a result more are “staying the course” by committing to spending years establishing and nurturing those relationships, she said, adding this development is what matters most.

“It seems more significant to count the lasting transformation that comes from living life together.”

Discovery of callings

“We are seeing an uptick in the number of folks who want to give a summer or more than one summer to this,” Burroughs said. “We have had multiple interns for several years — it used to be we were scraping to find one intern.”

In Texas, representatives of Go Now Missions recently reported a record number of student applicants for that organization.

More than 200 students attended “Discovery Weekend” at First Baptist Church in Midlothian, Texas, an interview and application event for summer and fall student missions.

“This is the largest group of students we have ever had,” said Brenda Sanders, director of Go Now Missions, the student missions program of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “We have been praying that students would hear God and obey. This is the first step in obedience.”

During the weekend, students participated in activities ranging from interviews and team-building games to a missions fair. Worship services and discussion groups provided opportunities to seek God’s direction and make informed decisions about where to serve. 

“The purpose of ‘Discovery Weekend’ is to help students discover what God is saying to them, to hear his voice and to determine where he might be sending or calling them,” said Lee Floyd, Baptist Student Ministries director at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

Having the chance to see not only students from his campus ministry but also from schools across the state focus attention on God and seek his will made a deep impression on Floyd.

“We have students with an idea of where they want to go when they arrive,” he said. “It’s fun to watch the lights come on as they gain a better inclination.”

Kasey Chin, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Dallas, served as a summer missionary last year in Houston. She applied again for 2014.

‘Why am I doing this?’

“I really like building relationships and spending time with people,” Chin said. “My ultimate goal is for people to know Christ and to assist in planting and watering those seeds.”

Sarah Gates, an engineering major from Texas A&M University, initially rejected the idea of serving on a mission trip during her summer vacation, preferring instead to explore opportunities to gain work experience and make money.

“One question really convicted me,” Gates said. “I asked myself, ‘Why am I not doing this, if my main goal is to serve God?’”

Texas Baptists around the state have been praying for 500 student missionaries to serve through Go Now Missions in 2014. The record number of students who attended “Discovery Weekend” marks a tremendous step toward seeing that goal met, Sanders noted.

“We saw God answer so many prayers for the weekend, from clearing the weather to seeing students answer the call to surrender to his plan,” she said. “Now we begin the process of training and fundraising so they are ready to go.”

Kalie Lowrie of Texas Baptist Communications contributed to this report.