Teen Missions Int’l feature in Christianity Today

The print version of February’s Christianity Today arrived at my home. In it is a short story about Teen Missions International(TMI) based in Merritt Island, FL.  I can’t find the article on the web yet, but here’s why I enjoyed seeing the pictures and reading the short story:

24 years ago (1983) I reluctantly agreed with my parents to register for a TMI summer missions team. I would be giving up the summer between my junior and senior years in high-school to go with a group of teens somewhere in the world in order to do construction and evangelism. Why didn’t I want to go? I wouldn’t be able to train for the fall cross-country season and I was intent on being the #2 runner on the team (#1 was impossible since he was the New England regional champ). So, I set limits. I would go only if I got my first choice: Austria. Not sure why that was my first choice having never been to Europe. I would only go if the money I raised came in without me having to do much asking, since I hated sales. Well, I got my first choice and the money “magically” appeared within very short order. So I had to go.

I know that some have significant doubts about the value of short-term missions trips. Is it worth the cost? Who really benefits? And while the concerns are not without merit, I am fully persuaded that the summer of 1983 changed the course of my life. No, I wasn’t on the road to drugs and alcohol. But, the faith of my parents really hadn’t become mine. But by the end, I had begun to mature in my faith and committed myself to some sort of full-time Christian service.

So, what is this TMI, you might be asking. Youth and adults join teams at Merritt Island, FL. You live in tents for 2 weeks in a true bootcamp environment. The water smells like rotten eggs. There are chiggers and mosquitoes. Daily, you do bible study, learn construction skills (e.g., laying brick, mixing cement, digging footers), and train as a team on a serious obstacle course. No phones, no ipods. You wash in a bucket and you flush with a bucket. You wear work-boots all the time. Then after 2 weeks of work and bonding, you gather your army bags and travel with your team to your part of the world for the rest of the summer to do whatever your team intended to do. My team traveled to Austria by plane and train. We were to begin construction of a building for a ministry to addicts (if memory serves). We had all sorts of trouble with the site (mud slides) but accomplished building some of the base structure. We did some evangelism. But the largest construction was to our souls. I went from knowing about Christ to knowing Christ. When you are out of your comfort zone and away from family, you have the opportunity to consider your life, your values, and are primed to hear from the Lord.

There are a million great stories and experiences (e.g., riding the train across Germany at night only sitting on a jump seat, being accosted by a hoodlum in the train station, staying up all night to shoot scenes in a film called, “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers”, bathing in a ice cold stream and using pit toilets in the woods). I won’t bore you with them but they were life shaping. You cannot easily live the same once you see the world from the perspective of another. You cannot easily live the same when you expose yourself to the larger Kingdom of God.

I still have one friend from that summer who drops by this site.  Maybe Don will give his take on the time. Oh, I came back weighing about 25 lbs less due to a food shortage on the team and because of the muscle loss, I was fourth on the x-country team. Disappointing but in the scope of things, not important.

If you ever have the opportunity to send a youth to this (or go as an adult), take the chance. It will change your life.


Filed under missional, stories

16 responses to “Teen Missions Int’l feature in Christianity Today

  1. Don

    Hey Phil!

    Sure, I love every opportunity to talk about myself and my experiences! LOL!

    Seriously, it was an incredible adventure. My story started the year before when I’d learned about TMI at a Jesus Festival in Orlando (think Woodstock for Christians). In order to go, one must be sponsored by one’s church. For some reason known only to God, I did not get the church’s blessing. I was devastated. I did, however, get their blessing the following year.

    So, in 1983, I graduated high school, spent a couple weeks with grandparents in MD and then made my way to FL via TMI owned bus -of sorts- it was a retrofitted schoolbus with plenty of room for luggage and a few bunks for the long hours riding from FL to the cheapest airport they could find. It was painted red, white, and blue along the lines of the Partridge Family bus, not like a flag. Our airport was BWI. If you check your map, you’ll see that’s a long ride from the Space Coast to Baltimore in an old school bus. We were crowded, We stank (remember the bucket showers). It was a loooong ride.

    Phil’s right about the bootcamp. Even tho’ I’m a southern boy, I was not used to Florida swamp heat. The kind you can taste, see and smell. Phil summarized that episode pretty well but I do need to correct him on the film. It was Mud, Sweat and Cheers. I’ve actually seen the film and it’s ok, part documentary, part story. Of interest really to no one except those in it. At the end of Boot Camp, all of us weary, starry eyed kids gathered in a circus tent and experienced a very moving candle lighting ceremony. It was very cool. A lot of decisions were made that night that I have wondered how have played out in the various individuals’ lives.

    Austria was not my first choice. I wanted a French speaking country, but I was able to learn some of the language and had some good experiences. For me, the physical labor was the biggest challenge. I can still remember Linda out-working me while digging a trench for a drain around the main house. Flashbacks of that have driven me to go another mile and not give up. I’m not necessarily chauvinistic, but I figure if a girl can do it, so can I.

    I think of many of our teammates often, but Phil’s the only one I’ve managed to stay in contact with. Besides him, I have visited with team members in IL, BC, and FL. TMI hasn’t been my only experience travelling and ministering, but it was my first. At Bible College, I met a girl who I faintly remember was at our Boot Camp, her name is Donia. I remember her partly because her name is unusual and similar to mine, but also because her personality is as big as Texas, her home state. She is a mom and lives in the Charlotte area, but we haven’t been in contact for about 10 yrs. She briefly lived with my wife and I during a hard part of her life. Another person I’ve met who is a former TMI’er is Martha, she’s now Co-Pastor with her husband at the fastest growing church in NC. I bring these two up because they both shared with me their candle ceremony experience. It still affects them.

    I have encouraged my boys to explore doing a summer ministry experience. So far, they haven’t, but I hope the opportunity arises soon. As Phil said, getting out of your comfort zone and doing something with temporal and eternal impact, especially at a young age is absolutely life-altering. Every person has their own experience, but the outcome is most usually positive. For me, I’m not in full time Christian work. I participate in church leadership and I give so others can go. This was not my decision during the candle ceremony. I often wonder if I’m out of God’s will, or this is just a season I must pass through. For me, for now, this works, but I hope to go somewhere to help someone sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll do my part in my community. May the flame never die!

    Sorry for the book, but there was so much on my mind about it. 🙂


  2. Anne (Tuttle) Ling

    I was on a TMI team that went to Egypt in 1983, and I, too, have to say that Teen Missions changed my life. Like Phil (actually, WITH Phil), I endured a long, non-air-conditioned, bumpy bus ride all the way from the Boston area, not knowing what my summer would be like. I returned home a completely different person.

    During the two summers I spent with Teen Missions (I went to Yugoslavia in ’84, too), my eyes were opened to the financial and spiritual poverty in areas of the world that I never would have seen otherwise. I slept in a barnyard (complete with chickens, dogs, and a pair of VERY LOUD whooping cranes) in a tiny village on the Yugoslavia/Hungary border, on the street corner in downtown Belgrade, and on the side of a mountain in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. I met fellow Christians working in their native countries, surrounded by people who mocked them for believing in Christianity. Our team helped local churches build clinic facilities (in Egypt) and a rehabilitation center for drug addicts (in Austria). This is real Christianity being lived out! Most importantly, I saw how God takes care of His people when they’re committed to doing the work He calls them to do. Through TMI, I learned the value of teamwork, came face to face with my own materialism, and realized that, with God, I COULD do things that I thought were beyond my abilities.

    As an adult, I returned to Teen Missions with my five-year-old son to spend a week at “Mustard Seed” boot camp. Wow. The memories came flooding back. Very little has changed on Merritt Island since 1983. Boot camp is still steaming hot, mosquito infested, and smelly. Teams still run an obstacle course every morning at dawn. Everyone washes their clothes in the water that comes from the swamp, and then they sweat in them all day. Oh, and they still have to move that errant alligator out of the swamp periodically so teams can go swimming. (How long do alligators live, anyway?!)

    Returning as an adult, I had the chance to see boot camp with different eyes. I now appreciate how well thought-out that two-week experience is. Individual kids come in as strangers, but the teams leave as well-oiled machines. This is not summer camp. It’s not supposed to be comfortable, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But that’s the point. If you can’t get through boot camp with a smile on your face, you’re not going to be able (or, perhaps more importantly, willing) to do what’s asked of you when you get to your work project. TMI’s motto is “Get dirty for God. Go lay a brick!” They’re not kidding. Many teams spend the summer building concrete block buildings and other basic structures. The teams I worked on mixed and poured concrete, tied steel foundation footers, hung a ceiling, plastered walls, scraped and painted gutters, loaded and unloaded dump trucks full of rocks, built a sidewalk, painted railings, put in a septic tank, hauled hundreds of hand-made buckets full of dirt, and moved a huge pile of corncobs from one side of a barnyard to another!

    Not necessarily the way you (or the teenagers you know) would like to spend the summer? I don’t know that I would sign up for those tasks, either, if I were just going to work at a construction site or barnyard around the corner. The work itself, though, is only one part of the experience. Being away from parents and friends for an entire summer, living with a team of like-minded kids, doing daily Bible study, meeting Christians from very different cultural backgrounds, and practicing memory verses as you hammer those nails make it an experience that is practically impossible to replicate. Believe me, it’s a great way to invest a summer. Every year when the new team descriptions arrive in my mailbox, I look back wistfully at the summers of ’83 and ’84, and think about the fact that, as demanding as they were, those were two of the best summers of my life. The main thing that sticks with me is the joy I felt as my exhausted body fell into bed each night, knowing that I was part of a team doing something that mattered very much to God. That’s a feeling I still think about often as I assess and reassess my priorities in life.

    I, too, hope that my sons will have the opportunity to be part of Teen Missions teams when they’re teenagers. (We’ve got a few years to go, since they’re only six and nine.) Once our children are older, I hope to go myself on one or more of the three-week adult teams serving in Africa. In the meantime, we’ve been supporting the ministry by making wordless bracelets, which TMI teams distribute as they share the gospel. Our family goal is 1000 bracelets this year. It’s not as dramatic as mixing concrete and hauling dirt, but it’s one small way for us be involved in what God continues to do around the world through Teen Missions.

  3. Anne, I sent you a private email but thanks so much for you added insights and re-connecting with me. Its a pleasure to hear hwo you are already planning on your kids’ missionary experiences. I’m counting the years when I can take my kids abroad but I’m hoping to get to Africa in the next year myself.

  4. Stephanie Kaufmann Cook

    Hi Phil,

    I don’t think I know you, but I do know Anne Tuttle from the ’84 Belgrade team! Would you mind passing on my e-mail to her? Gr8lander (at) aol.com; would be fun to re-connect!


  5. I went to Spain DVBS in 1983. During Boot Camp I worked on the Mud, Sweat and Cheers movie, since it was my third go-around at TMI.

    I really enjoyed my missions, 1980 Porvenir, 1982 England Canal, 1983 Spain VBS. My son went to Siberia 2006 (Russian Boot Camp). He had a terrible experience. I was very disappointed in how TMI had changed. He’s relatively strong in the Lord, but TMI turned him off. It was a mix of power-hungry leadership (I saw that on one trip too) and an impromptu visit by Bob Bland that did it for him. Mr. Bland handed out “SBTs” like candy and the team was completely demoralized.

    My son disliked it so much, I’ve never been able to get him to show me the pictures.

    It’s no coincidence that my home church stopped sending youth to TMI in favor of home-grown missions. It’s really disappointing to see them go down hill.

  6. Melody Mitton

    I went on a mission to Kenya through T.M.I. thirteen years ago. I am forever changed by that experience. Enough so that maybe someday I might end up back up in Kenya as a teacher(if that is Gods plan). I am waiting and listening.

  7. Steve

    Phil…If you were on the Austria trip in 1983 then I guess we were there together. I think I held the record for “special blessings”! It was definitly a growth experence for me personally however I did experience a few of the same issues brought up by Dan. Drop me an email and let me know how you’re doing!

  8. Tracey DeLitta Tousley

    Phil??? Is this Phil from my team???? WOW…. Do you remember me?? I was the youngest member of 8343 Graz, Austria! Loved your article. I made contact with a girl from 1983 India… they were with us at boot camp. She sent me a message and told me about your article! How wonderful! I have fond memories of TMI… what an adventure. Scary, crazy, hard, hot, sweaty and a whole lot of fun! Would be so great to hear from all of our team members! 3 of my 6 children also attended TMI… They didnt seem to enjoy it as much as I did…. but they have luxuries nowadays, that didnt exist when we were kids. I lost all of my pictures in a flooding from TMI… do you still have some?? I would love to see them again! Hope you are well… lets stay in touch! u on facebook?? Tracey DeLitta Tousley

  9. Another ’83 TMI Graz alumn here. Thank you, Tracey, for clueing me into Phil’s article. That summer was one of the best summers of my life. Funny that it definitely was the most challenging one as well.

    Like you, Phil, I believe my life’s path was changed through the experience. Not only spiritually, but in my world outlook. I came from a family who never left our small Colorado town unless we were visiting family in Kansas. Even Florida seemed foreign to me, never mind Austria, Germany and Belgium. Now I try to visit a new country every year if possible… definitely was bit by the travel bug that summer.

    Oh, I had completely forgotten about “Mud, Sweat & Cheers” — that was a tough night. There are SO many things I remember about that summer — too bad we can’t all meet to rehash.

  10. Deron McMaster


    Deron McMaster here. I remember those days with our team going to Graz. I haven’t had contact with anyone since. As a consolation, my senior cross country year was horrible as well. Unlike you, I actually put weight on (probably those chocolate covered peanut butter cookies and all the baked oatmeal I could eat in addition to hard labor that puts muscle on the bones) and was a tad too heavy to run the times I had as a junior. I often miss that summer and how easy it was to be committed to the Lord without a lot of other distractions. I hope others will read this and remember me as well. It’s good to see you are doing well. I just got on facebook recently. I hope I can reconnect with others.

    • Deron, Fondly remember trying to run with you in boots! Hey, I still eat the baked oatmeal. Got the recipe back then and cut it down to family size. Tons of oil and brown sugar in it!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Deron, agreed with you about how easy it is to see good/evil and commit to God when the world is black/white as it is on missions trip. My recent trip to Africa is a testament to that same feeling.

  11. Becky Price Spies

    Thank you for putting into words what is so hard to explain! I went on TMI in 1985 (Cap Haitien, Hait #8501). It changed my life forever. Living through Boot Camp was a major accomplishment. Now, any time that I am uncormfortable or in a tough spot, I think “I lived through Boot Camp, I can make it through this!!”. (My two sisters and two nieces who went on TMI say the same thing!!
    I am not in full-time Christian ministry, but I don’t think that was the point of the summer for me. That was the summer I KNEW that God was real, and that He was MY God.
    Your blog post was a nice stroll down memory lane. Thanks for sharing it with me.

  12. I too was with TMI in 1983, on the England Canal I team. It changed my life too! Since then I was involved in inner city ministry in high school and college. I met my wife on a mission trip to New Orleans in college and even though I spent 15 years as a police officer, I did bi-vocation ministry doing youth ministry, pastoring some and currently have a Christian counseling practice working with teenagers and families.

    Recently I have gone to Guatemala with my daughter and to Uruguay with a buddy from high school. TMI was responsible for putting the missions bug in my spirit!

    I would love to reconnect with anyone from the 1983 England Canal I team!

  13. A went with Ann to Egypt in ’83. What a powerful experience serving the Lord. I’m a pastor now in Long Island, and have the daughter of one of my Egypt team leaders in my student ministry. When I look back on that summer, I’m thankful for the opportunity to connect with so many other believers…and more than a few fence-sitters, to talk about life and faith.

    I never did see the movie “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers”
    Here’s a boot-camp photo from 83 http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1116819323427&set=a.1116816283351.19214.1315304364&type=3&theater

  14. Terra

    I went on that same trip in 1975. Was trying to remember some names of folks I traveled with. It was fun reading your post. I clearly remember those ice cold streams we used to bathe in! If nothing else, the difficulties made it memorable!

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