The Fort Bend Austin High School student must raise $1,550 to go on a mission trip to Guatemala with her church. Her youth group at Houston’s First Baptist Church will head to Guatemala in July to teach Bible school classes to poor children. She’s raised $300 so far.
"I’m so excited," said Tezzo, who has never ventured out of the country. "I’m a little worried about the language barrier, but it is going to be awesome to see God move."
In the weeks ahead, thousands of Houston-area teens will embark on short-term mission trips to places such as Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Religion scholars say such trips have never been more popular among Protestant denominations, estimating that about 3 million 13- to 17-year-old Christian youths nationwide will serve on a religious missions project this year.
Youth with a Mission, a popular missions training organization, reported that 396 people downloaded applications to attend their training center in Tyler this year, a tenfold increase over last year.
But just as parents sign consent forms and make frenzied, last-minute applications for their kids’ passports, the spiritual value of these trips remains in question.
Youth pastors, such as Lakewood Church’s Tom Elmore, say short-term missions offer youths the opportunity to test the evangelism waters through real mission experience.
"That’s where they get their first taste, that’s where their worldview opens," said Elmore, who will lead a group of about 50 Lakewood youths to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in early August.
There, the teens will stay at a local hotel with few air-conditioned rooms, Elmore said. Their dining options will be local restaurants or food prepared by local churches.
"Our pastor says we are blessed to be a blessing," Elmore continued, referencing one of Joel Osteen’s mantras. "And if we can hand out Bibles, hug children, play with them and build local churches overseas, then we can be the hands and feet of Jesus."
Youth pastor Doug Bischoff, of Houston’s First Baptist, said the trips can be a "strong training tool" to prepare youths for mission work in adult life. Youths can start serving as early as age 10 in their neighborhoods and serve on foreign missions starting at age 15.
Some, however, question the effectiveness of youth summer mission trips.
Such trips can be little more than self-serving vacations with a Christian label, said David Livermore, author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence.
The trips have become a rite of passage for Christian youths, Elmore and other critics contend, in which too many romanticize the "poor, but happy" foreigners in third-world countries.
And in most cases, they argue, the much-hyped spiritual growth of the participants is prioritized above the actual needs of the community they’re supposed to be serving.
"Is there a better way to serve them without actually going" Elmore said, such as raising money to support locals and to not have the trip experience?
Church leaders and youths say missions can come in different forms — from working at a soup kitchen in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood to helping teach vacation Bible schools in Latin America.
"There’s a huge difference from a vacation," said Luke Newman, 18, as he prepared arts and crafts for the classes his First Baptist team will teach in Guatemala. "You’re going for a purpose and it is not to have fun; it is to share the love of Christ with the people."
Historically, much of the foreign mission work has been carried out by career missionaries who undergo extensive theological training and dedicate much of their lives to mission work.
In 1960, Youth With a Mission, an organization dedicated exclusively to short-term missions, began sending youths on brief missions to foreign locations.
The trend has since taken off, experts said, and youth mission trips have become a phenomenon in the past 10-20 years.
There is no central clearinghouse tracking the number of those who go on such trips each year.
Some churches, including Lakewood, operate through Youth with a Mission, and others, such as Grace Presbyterian in the Westchase area and St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Katy, have individual relationships with churches overseas through their own longtime missionaries in that country.
Meanwhile, youth pastors across the region are conducting a bevy of meetings with youths and parents, some still anxious about their children leaving home for the first time.
"I didn’t want her to go," admitted Mona Cantalemessa, motioning to her 13-year-old daughter, Alana, after a recent youth group meeting at Lakewood Church. "I thought she was too young. But I prayed and God said, ‘Don’t stand in the way.’ "
Cantalemessa said Alana has changed over the past year, and is no longer the scared girl who clung tightly to her leg outside of her Sunday school class.
Another Lakewood parent, Susan Cain, said she knew her daughter Teri was ready to go on a mission trip by the friends she chose at school, her respect for adults and her awareness that the trip was not a "joy ride."
"I want to be a full-time missionary," said Teri, who is a student leader for Lakewood’s junior high trip to Mexico. "This is what God is calling me to do."
Although children as young as 11 can start to think critically, said Johnny Derouen, youth pastor of Houston’s First Baptist from 1984-1995, he prefers to take those who are at least 15 on foreign mission trips. And, he argues, teenagers are more effective than adults at ministering to their foreign peers.
"As an adult I have to earn their respect," said Derouen, now a professor of adolescent psychology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. "When I have a teen with me, they gravitate toward them and ask about movies, celebrities, American culture."
But even with this connectedness, he said, there are chances for pitfalls.
"One of the biggest dangers would be for my youth to feel like they are bringing Jesus to that country," Derouen said. "You are not bringing Jesus or God there, he is already there."
Of course, even with the best of intentions and preparation, those familiar with youth missions said, the unexpected can happen. Youth director Sandra Roberson, of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, recalled that six years ago in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a student lost his birth certificate before the group was to return to Texas.
Teenagers losing their passports or getting ill do happen, said officials with the Tyler chapter of Youth With a Mission. Teens used to having access to friends and family through the Internet and cell phones might have a rude awakening in a developing country, members said.
Grace Tezzo is awaiting responses from the relatives and friends to whom she mailed letters seeking donations toward her $1,550 mission trip.
She isn’t stressed about the money, she said, and is trusting that God will provide.
Once in Guatemala, she hopes to use her passion for theater to reach children who do not attend church or school.
"He’s using us as tools to teach them," Grace said. "And he’s using them as tools to teach us."