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A Boot Camp for Young Missionaries

At Teen Missions, campers give up virtually their entire summer for [a boot camp] on evangelism. They spend two weeks in Merritt Island, Florida, learning the work of a missionary before heading into the world in teams of about 25. They are schooled in evangelism, construction, and Bible studies. They don purple construction hats as they work the ground with hoes and wheelbarrows. They practice public speaking and learn to share their faith in ways that transcend linguistic and cultural barriers, such as through puppet shows. After their mission trip, they return to Merritt Island for a few more days to reflect on their experiences before heading home at summer's end. …

Campers…raise their own camp and travel fees, plus enough for another child (from $2,500 to $4,000) that funds 34 international boot camps where, for instance, an African child can train to be a missionary in his or her own country. "Peanut" and "mustard seed" camps also are available to train children ages 4 to 9 for domestic missions. Teen Missions sends adults on trips, too.

On an average day at a Teen Missions camp…the day begins with what's either lovingly or loathingly nicknamed "the OC," an obstacle course meant to build teamwork and mental and physical stamina. At running speed, the campers complete obstacles inspired by biblical stories. There is Mount Sinai, a pile of tires, and Jacob's Ladder, a rope ladder. They swing over a retention pond, wiggle through small plastic tubes, and climb wooden walls painted with words like "anxiety." Standing at least 10 feet high, the walls require an entire team working together to overcome.

At meals, campers must eat everything on their plates as training for the hospitality they'll receive in third-world countries, where some meals are prepared with the labors of entire villages in which many are starving. In their free time, campers rest and write friends and family back home. Some remove their shoes to give their feet air. One camper…suffers from jungle rot. Her skin is peeling from her feet. Campers quickly realize what they used to take for granted. Air conditioning is a big one here.

A plumber-turned-pastor, Bob Bland began organizing Teen Missions in 1970. He got the idea from a 14-year-old who told him at a religious conference that she wanted to be a missionary but complained that everyone told her she was too young.

"I want to do something for the Lord now," she told him.

In an early year of developing Teen Missions, Bland took a group of teens to Peru, and it went badly—one teen was bit by a poisonous snake and two others nearly drowned in a river. Bland believed the teens needed training and discipline, so he set up a missionary training camp in Greenfield, Ohio, at a campground operated by the Christian Union, a small evangelical denomination active primarily in the Midwest in which Bland is ordained. He and his wife began looking for property in Miami because of its proximity to Latin America, but in 1975 settled on 265 acres of much more affordable swampland in Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast.

Teen Missions has trained some 40,000 young missionaries, some of whom have gone on to become career missionaries. The rigorous training and discipline are for their benefit, Bland said. Campers are taught to follow rules no matter what, because when they are abroad, a simple misunderstanding due to cultural differences could endanger not only their mission work, but the lives of themselves and those around them.

"We tell kids this is a missionary training camp. This isn't pamper camp. That's down the road," he said dryly. "We can't teach all those [cultural] differences here, but we can teach discipline. You may not understand, but there is a reason."

Teen Missions is unique in the short-term mission world…because it was among the first to start a boot camp. Today it is among the most rigorous missionary training programs of its kind in the country.

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