Joel Poppenbeck is the youth and young adult pastor at One Hope church, and the team leader of Schoolies Rev. The Schoolies Rev team takes a group of year 12 leavers on a three week visit to one of their overseas partners, where Australian young people can meet people from cultures and backgrounds different from their own, lend a hand in practical ways, and make connections that will last. Schoolies Rev connects the celebration of finishing school to experiences that help young people gain a greater understanding of how they fit into this complex global community of ours.
This interview is a transcript of episode one of Mission Unplugged. You can listen to the interview on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Mitch: Hey Joel, welcome to the podcast, thanks so much for being part of it.
Joel: No worries, Mitch, thanks heaps for having me. It’s a great privilege, I’m very excited.
M: It’s a pleasure. I’m really excited to ask you some questions and hear about your story and all the amazing things you’ve been involved in. So to start with, tell our listeners a bit about yourself.
J: Yeah, my name is obviously Joel, and I am the youth and young adults pastor at One Hope Community Church. Also I’m part of the team at Schoolies Rev. That's probably were the main parts of my time go, into those two places, but then also I play a bit of sport, a bit of music... still living at home and loving that! And, yeah they’re the main things at the moment for me.
M: Tell us a bit about your history and your story of faith. Did you grow up in the Church?
J: Yeah, I grew up in the Church. In fact, I grew up in a Christian family, probably most of my extended family are Christian, I’ve been a part of the Church, went to a Christian school played, soccer at a Christian club, so I think well and truly in that Christian bubble so to speak.
M: Yeah, you’ve been just immersed in it for your entire life, hey?
J: Yeah pretty much. And I think for a while in my teenage years I probably despised it a bit, I reckon. You hear the cool testimonies of these amazing transformations, and you know this instantaneous sort of thing, and I think there's always a part of you that goes, ‘Wow that's amazing, that’s so cool,’ and I think I wanted that. I was like, ‘I don't have that, that's not quite as exciting.’ But as I’ve gotten a bit older I think I look back and appreciate God’s faithfulness through generations and just the way he’s gently sort of revealed himself over the course of many years. I think that's a really gracious thing of God to do.
M: So as someone who probably doesn't have that intense conversion moment, or that one road to Damascus moment, in one sense, do you have a time or a couple of times in your history that you look back on as moments that God really revealed God’s self to you?
J: I’d say there's probably definitely a couple conferences and stuff that I went to where I encountered God in a special way. There's also probably just a few moments around church and youth group and different prayer nights and things like that where, you know, different prophetic words and things like that bring a bit of a spark to that journey that you're on. Those are the moments that stick out, but I think they spark something because there's been groundwork before that has been building towards that, I guess.
So yeah, definitely a few of those moments, and then obviously then heading overseas, probably, later on in my teenage years. I think there've been different moments around those trips and stuff as well that it really confirmed things and just opened my eyes to different sides of faith as well.
M: Do you have any moments that you look back and you can kind of recognise the times that your personal faith started to form independently of parents, home church, grandparents, soccer clubs?
J: Yeah I think it was around when I was fifteen or sixteen when I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to take this seriously.’ But there was the challenge of being at school and that just that not being the cool thing to do. So it probably didn't really happen until I was probably in Year 12 I reckon when it became a bit more my own, and a bit more like this is actually something I want to commit to and take seriously.
And then, of course, doing Year In The Son and then taking a gap year the year after, which is where I met yourself (Mitch) and had an incredible year just exploring faith at quite a deep level. I think that's where it really sort of solidified and probably became a bit more challenging in terms of how does this actually look, but it certainly became a bit more, ‘This is me.’
M: So as someone who's grown up in the Church, in a Christian family, and is still working in the Church... what is it about the Church that has kept you?
J: Yeah, it’s an interesting question, hey, because it's quite rare isn't it? Like I think as I have been doing youth work, the majority of people that grow up in the Church leave the Church. But I think for me, the times when I felt like I've wanted to leave, or I felt like it's dry and it's struggling, is when I've been disconnected from people, I think that has been the thing I've noticed in my life. So, you know, I can connect with God anywhere, but there's something special about the Church in terms of connecting with people at a faith level that's deeper than just the normal conversation you have. I think that for me is probably what has kept me going. You know, people can challenge you and confront you on things, and keep you accountable, but also really encourage and inspire. But yeah, it takes effort, I think, to connect on that level. But that for me I reckon is what's kept me going, kept me in and interested. Seeing God at work in the lives of people around you—there's nothing quite like that, really, when you really see it happening, and especially if you get to be a part of it, I think that's really, really special.
M: Tell me about your early experiences of mission. First of all, what does ‘mission’ mean to you?
J: I try to have a bit of a holistic approach to it, in terms of, like, this is about people, and helping people as best we can. Ultimately I think for me that's helping them know Jesus, whatever that looks like, whether that's having conversations, whether it’s sharing God’s word, or whether that is loving and helping practically. I think ultimately for me that's what mission needs to lead to, but there's many ways to lead to that. Yeah, doing what you can to lead people towards Jesus and show him, display him. Yeah, that for me is probably my understanding of mission and what I try to bring, not just overseas trips and things like that, but also just to everyday life and Church ministry and stuff as well.
M: What do you consider to be one of your first experiences of doing that?
J: So I think growing up at church, which was always pretty keen on, like, especially local mission and also some stuff nationally, it was always just a normal thing to do. My parents were involved in the community programs, and there were people older than me, young adults, that were going on mission trips to Indigenous communities. There's always something that sounds cool and intriguing, but it never really happened [for me].
And so it was until probably the start of Year 12 where my Dad and a few others from our church were involved in starting a non-profit organisation. And so our family went to Uganda for, you know, one of the early teams there and helped get started. I was 17 and experiencing just this complete other side of the world where there was a guy my age who, you know, had to finish school in grade 3 because they had no money to get the education and no idea of where to go from there. And it was pretty confronting for me as a 17 year old, but also to see just the potential change that was happening and the way that, yeah, God answered specific prayers that we were praying on that trip. And the way things were happening was like, you know, it's not just doom and gloom, there's something happening here. So that for me was probably my first experience in the overseas mission context that had a significant impact on my life for sure.
M: You touch briefly on your church being involved with mission trips and exposure things in Australia with Indigenous communities. Tell me a bit about those, because I think a lot of people think about mission as something that we do overseas, like we send people or we send money or we send resources to all corners of the world... what are the differences and what are the similarities in the ways that churches and organisations have approached mission with our Indigenous brothers and sisters?
J: Yeah, so we tried to have a local, national, and international focus in terms of mission. So we had an Indigenous community that we worked with, and a local church in South Australia that we sort of worked with and partnered with, and that was really, I think, great for a season there. I think having that sort of partnership is really key; having people even within your own community—different organisations, different churches that you're working with—to help us do what we can at every level, because there's need everywhere. And it might look different, but there's need practically everywhere, but there's also need for Jesus everywhere, and so finding, as a church or as a community or as a ministry, whatever it is, finding the best ways to use your gifts and resources and to partner with people to, you know, to bring that Good News everywhere. I think it's a challenge, but it's an exciting one as well to go, ‘Okay, what does this look like for us, and what can we do?’
M: You used the word “partnership” a couple of times there. What does it mean to partner with another community?
J: I think it's really about, what can both or multiple parties bring to a situation? So particularly for us when you think about this stuff we are doing overseas with Schoolies Rev, we run a trip that goes for 3 weeks once a year, you know? We're not going to change a country in that time ,we're hardly going to make a significant impact, really. But there are organisations there every day who are doing fantastic work, who could use some encouragement, who could use some extra resources, or could use a little bit of funds to just push that project over the line that they've been working so hard on. And that's where, you know, for us we go we can bring something here, and they can do something.
But in that partnership there's also this sort of learning that happens as well. I look at us and our teams when we go, we get such a bigger picture of God and his Kingdom, and what life looks like. We can learn about community and time, which operates so differently in a different context than it does to ours. Yeah, I think that mutual benefit of being in a partnership, I think if there's that humility and service in that, you go, ‘Look, we’re going to bring what we have, but we’re also also going to learn what we can.’ That can be a really beautiful part of mission, I think, whatever level that is at.
M: So tell us a bit more about Schoolies Rev. What's it about?
J: Schoolies Rev is essentially an opportunity for young people to do something positive with their end of school experience. We offer a chance for young people to head overseas for usually three weeks, head to a developing nation or community and have a chance to learn: to learn from different cultures, to get involved in some long-term projects, and organisations that are beneficial to the local community. It’s also a lot of fun getting to celebrate school, but also doing that with a group of people in a different country. It’s a bit of an adventure, there are lots of cool things to see and do. It's essentially that: a three week trip overseas focusing on having a positive impact on individuals, but also then having a positive impact on the places that we go to. Schoolies can sometimes be the opposite for some people.
M: Yeah, I live down on the Mornington Peninsula. When schoolies time comes around, all this temporary fencing goes up everywhere, you see the council puts up all sorts of stuff.
J: yeah, it is an interesting time, but there are so many good things about it. It's a good time of celebration, it's a good chance to do something different, to explore this sort of newfound freedom, to connect with people. So there’s a lot of good, and so we sort of try and capture that in a sort of holistic and Kingdom focus.
M: How did Schoolies Rev come about?
J: Yeah interesting, it actually started out as an answer to a project in our gap year, in our Year in the Son program. So originally that was sort of the idea, it was just to help kick off this assignment. And yeah, it was something that we'd sort of thought about, and a few people had mentioned. We had run a few trips already…
M: And who's “we”, there?
J: Yeah, good, the non-profit organisation HopeBuilders International, we’d run a few trips. That was the trip that I was a part of at the start of Year 12. They had run a few trips, and I was getting interested in youth work and youth ministry.
I had a pretty average schoolies experience. I wasn't bad, but it just wasn't great, and I was kind of ‘bleh’ about it. A lot of these things combined, as well as the stuff we were learning at Year In The Son, and, you know, what if we could do something different for schoolies? My original experience over in Africa had been so significant in my journey, and what if that would be the case for more people? That's what sparked the idea. We went to a couple of schools, spoke to them and spoke to students. My sister was in that age as well, so she was locked in, and she got a few of her other friends locked in. Before we knew it we had a group of about 22 students preparing to go to Uganda for their schoolies. And it was a pretty special time, and it's sort of evolved and grown since then. And it’s been a pretty cool journey, I think for me personally and also for other people.
M: How many years have you been running, and how many trips have you done?
J: This is our tenth year... and I actually don't know how many trips we’ve done... I should know that... We’ve done 19 trips over the course of ten years.
M: Wow, that’s big.
J: I know! I haven’t actually thought about that… So that’s over a couple hundred people—students—and obviously a group of leaders each year. So that’s been a bit of fun. We’ve had a lot of people involved.
M: How many countries, how many partners... where do you go?
J: So we’ve done a trip to Uganda most years. The last few years we’ve also had a trip to Cambodia. We’ve done a trip to the Philippines a couple times. We did a trip to India and Sri Lanka a couple of times. We’ve also done a one-off trip to the Solomon Islands.
Each year of that, sorry for each country, we find partners that we work with locally. In Uganda that's HopeBuilders, they have a Uganda arm that does all the stuff there. We’ve partnered with YWAM [Youth With A Mission] a number of times and done stuff with them in different countries, and other organisations that we’ve met on the ground who are doing great work, and get an opportunity to come alongside them to see what they are doing, to help out where we can. And then hopefully, you know that's the big, I think, encouragement for us, to stay involved once we get back home and figure out what that looks like, whether that's sponsoring or raising awareness or whatever it is, and I think that's been a cool part to see that side of things grow a little bit.
M: What kind of impact have you seen come out of these trips, both for people who participated in the trip but also for your partners who you visited?
J: I think the partners it's an encouraging time for them to be able to host and receive a group of young people who are passionate and excited to be a part of it. I think that's always a special thing. And, you know, we always try and raise a bit of money as well to sort of help a project that we're getting involved with, and maybe even get our hands dirty and help build it or whatever. And it’s always cool to be a part of that, but I think the people interactions are way more valuable for some sense, just being able to encourage staff, to hear their stories, to give them a couple of hours off while we play with the kids or whatever it is. That's always just a nice time of connection, and then being able to pray with them and share God’s word and just encourage, and hopefully leave just, you know, that sort of positive fragrance there.
As for the students coming home, it's always a tough one to see the impact. Usually it's maybe like a year later where young people look back and notice the difference that that trip had. But, you know, certainly I think the immediate results are usually focused around people being a bit more grateful for things they have, the opportunities that they have. Some people come back and start to take their faith a bit more seriously, you know. They sort of had these questions, they had these experiences that sort of [make them say], ‘Wow, I really need to explore this for myself and dive into that.’ Other people get involved, or might shift their career focus a little bit.
It’s a bit hard to tell, ‘cos I think it's just three weeks where this seed is planted, and you're not quite sure how that impact looks moving forward. But yeah, I think most people have a positive experience, and a lot of them come back as leaders which is being cool, and people want to be a part of it again. So it was exciting, but I think it's always a challenge to figure out… I've had this great experience, what does this now look like in my day to day life here in Australia? That's the charge for all of us, really.
M: What's in the future for Schoolies Rev? Looking forward towards, I assume the end of this year, but even beyond. Like , what’s next?
J: That’s a very good question… It’s one we’ve often struggled with in terms of, like, the immediate sort of thinking just seems to be, well, you just keep adding trips, and you just keep getting bigger, and you just keep growing it like you would any other business. But it's always difficult when it's all volunteer-based, and it's focused on students and numbers fluctuate each year and stuff. So at this stage it's just to continue running our trips as best we can, whether that's one or two, or potentially three. We are really trying to focus on developing leaders as well, that's probably become a lot more of a focus for us, making sure people like me who are nearly 30 years old don't have to be on a schoolies trip, that starts getting a bit weird…
M: That’s a whole other thing. [Laughs]
J: [Laughs] That’s a whole other thing that we’ll just not worry about… So yeah, developing the next bunch of leaders to sort of take it on and take it further I think is the big focus. And yeah, then seeing what happens this year, who knows what will happen. But I think into the future, yeah, keep the schoolies trips going and maybe exploring different ways that we can potentially run other trips or, you know, use the resources we have to help other overseas trips or anything like that. There’s a few ideas around all that, then we'll see how things go.
M: if people want to connect with Schoolies Rev, find out a bit more, where can they go?
J: Yep so we're on the Instagram, Facebook channels, just @SchooliesRev, super easy. And then probably the website as well, SchooliesRev.com.au, that's where you can find out different things. There’s information about trips, different videos and stuff.
M: Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy week to be on the podcast, I really appreciate it and it's been great talking to you, and great catching up.
J: No worries, thanks heaps, Mitch, much appreciated. We’ll have to do it again sometime.