Bob Bland, an evangelical pastor who trained and sent tens of thousands of teenagers on short-term mission trips, has died at the age of 92.
Bland founded Teen Missions International in 1970 after a 14-year-old girl at a Youth for Christ event in Southern Ohio broke down in tears because she had been rejected by a missionary organization. She said she didn’t want to wait. She “wanted to do something for the Lord now.” Bland, moved by her passion for Jesus and lost souls, conceived of a program expanding the then-new concept of short-term missions to high school students.
Today, Teen Missions is a $3.7 million ministry that has sent more than 42,000 American teenagers to 19 countries. In 2021, the organization is planning trips to build classrooms in Zambia, a missionary house in Uganda, a security wall in Malawi, and a training center in Ecuador.
“Get dirty for God,” one Teen Missions slogan challenged young Christians. “Lay a brick!”
According to Bland, however, construction work was never the main goal of the group’s short-term missions.
“We tell the people who are leading our teams that we’re building kids, not buildings,” Bland said. “These kids go overseas and with their own hands build a place to worship or an orphanage or a school for young people, and they come back different.”
Bland was born on December 8, 1928 in Chillicothe, Ohio, the youngest of four boys. His father, Jay, was a farmer and contractor. His mother, Blanche, worked at a laundry.
After graduating from high school in nearby Waverly, Bland went to work as a carpenter and trained to be a union plumber. But the day he was set to take his plumbing test he read Matthew 22:29 and it changed his life. In that verse, Jesus is challenged with a tricky question about the afterlife by the Sadducees. He rebukes them and says, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (KJV).
Bland realized his life plan aslo erred, since he wasn’t focused on the gospel. “God had spoken to me out of his word,” he said, “showing me that day I was not to be a plumber.”
Bland left construction work to study at Arizona Bible Institute in Phoenix and became a minister in the Christian Union, a Wesleyan denomination sometimes associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement. He pastored a church for a few years in Hennessey, Oklahoma, but then decided to focus his ministry on children.
Bland went back to Ohio to work with Youth for Christ in 1964, and also served as a recruiter for the Christian Service Corps until he started Teen Missions.
The first year, Teen Missions sent 83 young people on four teams to Mexico. It was a resounding success, and the next year they sent young people to Mexico, Columbia, and Guatemala. The ministry’s slogan, painted on the side of a blue and white bus, was “Missions Now for the Now Teens.”
In 1973, however, the ministry almost ended in catastrophe during a troubled trip to Peru.
“Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” Bland said in an interview years later. There was an encounter with a snake, a near drowning, dissension on the team, outright fighting, teenagers who refused to work, and cancelled airplane flights, stranding the group in the Amazon.
“So many bad things happened. Kids could have lost their lives on that trip,” Bland said. “We needed some training and discipline.”
He made the decision to start a missionary boot camp. It would prepare young people to live in undeveloped and underdeveloped parts of the world, build cohesive teams, teach practical skills, and show young people what they could do. Teen Missions bought 250 acres of Florida jungle from the Girl Scouts on Merritt Island, Florida, just west of Cape Canaveral, and accepted 500 teenagers—some as young as 13—in 1974.
Every morning for two weeks, the young people got up at 5:30 and ran a Bible-themed obstacle course in groups—crawling through Ten Commandment barrels, sorting heavy crates into the order of the books of the Bible, and swinging across a mud bog nicknamed the Red Sea.
After, they learned skills like how to build a stone wall, how to dig a well, and how to ride a motorcycle. They also learned to evangelize and memorize Scripture.
“This is a missionary training camp,” Bland told a documentary film crew in 2007. “This is not pamper camp. If you’re looking for pamper camp, that’s down the road.”
There was no running water at the camp, so if kids wanted to get clean they had to swim in the lake everyone called “the bathtub.” And there was no “lights out,” since the camp had no electricity and everyone went to bed at dusk, except during a final, candle-lit commissioning ceremony.
In the early years, teens struggled to go without TV and soda during the boot camp. In later years, they were deprived of their cell phones and social media. But they learned things about themselves and, as Teen Missions would explain to reporters who regularly turned out summer stories on “The Lord’s Boot Camp,” the teenagers grew up a lot.
While some campers hated the training and the missions trip and called the experience manipulative and oppressive, more loved it, and talked for years about how it shaped them.
“You learn you can survive without an electric light,” one teen said in the 1980s. “And it strengthens you inside to go back into the world. It gets you in tune with God.”
According to Teen Missions, many of its thousands of alumni are in full-time ministry today, both as missionaries and pastors.
Bland continued to work at the camp into his 80s, wearing a polo shirt and jeans, riding around the grounds on an old bicycle, and saying a blessing over the thousands of young people going all over the world to “serve the Lord now.”
Bland died on Good Friday, April 2, after several years of ill health. He is predeceased by his wife Bernice, who died in 2016. He is survived by his daughter Cathy Stringer and son Robin Bland. His funeral will be held Saturday, April 10, at Mt. Tabor Community Church in Chillicothe, Ohio.