The Unexpected Prairie

When asked to think about cultural diversity, most people understandably think about urban communities with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. But increasingly, this same diversity can be found in the rural communities out on the northern plains as well. Many of our neighbors come from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and they bring with them a wealth of diversity, cultural strengths and Kingdom cooperation.

The native people settled here because they loved, even worshipped, the sun. They took advantage of the natural resources the land provided. Today, the descendants of these people are still here wrestling with the challenges brought on by the near destruction of their way of life. European settlers came here in the 1800’s and established communities grounded in farming and faith. Today, people still come from around the globe in search of opportunity.

While there is much about rural life that is good, as with every other place in the world there are significant issues and problems to overcome. There are kids who go hungry, and there are men and women without good jobs. These people, our neighbors and family members, struggle with disabilities, extended sickness, addictions and all the financial, emotional, and relational needs that go along with that.

While urban and global poverty get much of the attention, rural poverty represents a unique challenge. It is pervasive and destructive to families and communities, and yet many of the resources and networks needed to address the significant issues associated with rural poverty (physical and emotional abuse, substance abuse, etc.) are under-developed, under-funded, or non-existent.

What’s unique about the rural setting is that there’s often a stoic pride and stubbornness that masks how significant these needs can be. Some small communities don’t have all the resources they need, while many of the people who could benefit from the resources either aren’t sure how to ask or aren’t willing to.

The Prairie Project is a four-day Serve project at Dordt College in which students will immerse themselves in the issues facing rural America.

When you come you’ll meet some of our hardworking, wise neighbors. You’ll experience the issues and struggles that are unique to this people and this region. You will also find that many of these problems affect us all regardless of where we live. We invite you to come, not just to give, but to receive. We invite you to open yourself up in generosity and love to the people and the land and see what happens. Hear God speak to you in the wind and the blue sky, and let Jesus meet you in the people you encounter.

You’ll experience both diversity and poverty here along with the rolling hills, big skies, river valleys and vistas that allow you to see for miles—all part of the beauty of the plains. You’ll also experience a Divine Normal that followers of Jesus Christ are ushering in by his grace.

What Youth Leaders Really Want in a Mission Experience

With the goal of continual improvement in mind, Youth Unlimited asked ten Sending Church youth leaders to explain what they hope for in a North American mission experience. Here’s a glimpse at their answers.

  1. TRUST: Taking a group on a trip means that you must trust the leaders who will guide you through the experience once you arrive. It’s nearly impossible to have a great trip without a good host organization or church to guide you. That’s why Youth Unlimited is dedicated to building strong Host Church teams. A new Host Church learns the best practices of short-term missions and hosting. They consider how the Serve week integrates with their ongoing home missions and community outreach efforts. Resources and ideas are shared across an extensive network of Host Churches across Canada and the U.S.
  2. SIMPLICITY: Missions is never “easy.” The very nature of missions demands that we grapple with spiritual battles and issues of injustice. However, by providing administrative help and an excellent Digital Resource Box, Youth Unlimited seeks to make the mobilization of students for the cause of Christ as simple as possible for church leaders. Clear communication is also important here. This is the difference between a smooth and simple experience or one in which groups feel confused and lost. Youth Unlimited encourages Host Churches to communicate clearly and often.
  3. THE GOSPEL: Youth Leaders want their groups to experience a Gospel-filled week. The Speaker, the Worship Leader and the Adult Leaders at Serve are urged to make the Gospel the center of everything that happens. Students will be reminded of the good news and that the death and resurrection of Christ is our motivation for serving in the community.
  4. A CHALLENGE: At the end of the week, participants ought to be saying, “I worked hard, played hard and thought more deeply about my walk with Christ. I was stretched out of my comfort zone.” That’s the ideal. Now, a brief reality check: There are always a few students and even adults who do not want to be challenged. Sending Churches want Host Church/Ministries to use grace and love when confronting behavior problems. Also, not all worksites will lead to amazing and fulfilling experiences. The Host Churches strive to connect the work to the need and the need to a person and their story. Even when that person or story is not obvious, however, students are still urged to serve with perseverance and a good attitude.
  5. LEADERSHIP ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND ASSISTANCE:Some youth leaders are veterans and come with years of experience. Others are recruited at the last minute and need almost constant guidance. Host Churches/Ministries can assess adult leaders’ abilities and help them out as needed.
  6. INCLUSIVE TRIPS: Youth leaders and students work hard to raise the money for a mission trip, so hidden costs are not cool. Sure, an extra $5 for the day away is reasonable. But an extra $15 is not going to happen. Sending Churches shouldn’t have to pull out their wallet for anything except to purchase fuel for their vehicle.
  7. A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF PROTOCOLS AND INSURANCE IN CASE OF AN INJURY: If there’s an incident, adults want answers and not confusion. Youth Unlimited has procedures in place to make sure students are cared for and God is glorified in the process. Youth Unlimited also has excellent secondary insurance with Mutual of Omaha, but there is paperwork to file and the parent/legal guardian must be proactive after the student returns home.
  8. LONG-TERM IMPACT: Youth leaders want to know that their group’s work mattered. They also want to help their own students integrate what they learned into their daily lives. In the Student and Leader versions of the Spiritual Life Guide and in the Digital Resource Box, Youth Unlimited supplies a Post-Trip Plan to help with follow-up.


If you’re one of the more than 200 Sending Churches working with Youth Unlimited this summer, please add your thoughts to this list by sending your comments to

Finding My Own Faith

I grew up in a tumultuous home. My family was lower class, and I was the middle child of a somewhat recovered alcoholic father and a mother who was trying to piece together what her newfound faith in God meant for her and for her household. As a child and well into my teen years, my mother’s journey toward God was a hodgepodge of regurgitated televangelists’ theology. Our family bounced from church to church, receiving offerings of extreme grace one Sunday and being pelted with hell-fire-and-brimstone the next.

I learned about Jesus at a young age. This foundation of knowledge was important, and along with my mother’s expanding journey, led me to say prayers I think I meant, ask Jesus into my heart (on a regular basis!) and feel the pricks of a guilty conscious when I was sure I was not doing what Jesus would like. During my early teen years I thought this was all there was to faith.

Thank God for my late mother, but thank God also for youth group leaders and the opportunities they gave me to explore my own faith among my peers and among adults who felt called to foster the faith of young people. I would not be who I am today without having had the chance to escape everyday life to a safe place where I could learn to cry out for God in my own way.

If you are a youth leader, take heart. Sometimes the smallest acts of care can change the trajectory of a young person’s life. While on a youth outing, my youth pastor, on a sudden whim of inspiration, gathered every available pot and bucket and turned them upside down for me to drum on as hard as I could. Banging on pots and pans at 13 or 14 to Wes King (showing my age) may not seem like a big deal, but it was the first time I felt like someone had taken the time to see into me, recognize my desires and encourage them. I still play the drums, and I still remember that it was my youth pastor who first took the time to foster my passion and taught me to use my gifts for Christ.

Then there was the camp week where I finally felt the freedom to say that “I just must not feel it as much as the other students” because my emotions and reactions to the week’s teachings and worship were just not like the rest, and I felt so guilty. One dear, elderly lady sat me down and said that I was just trying too hard. Her words finally released me to be myself, because not all faith journeys should look alike. What a release from such simple words. For the first time, I quit overthinking and trying to mimic what other’s faith looked like, and I cried out to God on my own. She probably had no idea what freedom she gave me that day, or that I still hear her words when I feel out of place or am striving too hard to reach God when he is always right by my side.

I needed escape from routine, home and everyday life to discover who I was in Christ. As an adult, I still need that. We are a people made for God’s whispers and shouts. Sometimes we just can’t hear them when we are surrounded by everyday life and all the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

This is why I work at Youth Unlimited today; students need time and space to begin forging their own journey with Christ. They need to receive care and mentoring from other adult Christians who love them. They need opportunities to get out of their comfort zones and make their faith their own.