Why Our Youth Ministry is Rethinking Service Projects


By Morgan Schmidt

Rethinking Service ProjectsIt’s October, and it’s avalanche season. The seasons are changing, and well-intentioned adults in congregations around the country begin their mad dash to request and secure teenage bodies for their various organizations and causes. There is so much good work to be done, and the assumption is that teenagers will be chomping at the bit to join in and help make the world more whole. And, since most adults in our churches don’t actually know our youth, they come to the be-all-end-all-gatekeeper-of-volunteers-and-free-labor: the youth worker.

What an amazing problem to have. Seriously. How great that there are so many people doing so many cool things that they want to invite young people to participate with them. Practically speaking, however, it can be a problem.

It usually goes like this:

The phone rings. “Hello?! Youth worker?! We have this (insert project/event) coming up for (cause/organization/committee). We need (number of students) on (insert date) to volunteer the whole day! What a great service project, right? The kids will LOVE it!”

Will they, though? Will I?

I find that many don’t understand the realities of youth ministry, the limitations of teenagers’ schedules, and the awkwardness our youth experience when they’re used for someone else’s agenda, as good as it might be. To top it off, often my youth simply don’t care; they are doing these projects out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or to fulfill their service hour quota for graduation.

Service is a natural part of youth ministry. I want to form students into the kind of people who are on the lookout for ways to be creative in love and participate in the restoration of all things. The question I’ve been pondering is: does every one-off service project really help us achieve that goal? Will my teenagers be more compelled to follow in the way of Jesus as a result of this volunteer work? I’m sure any volunteer opportunity won’t hurt; but I also don’t want to spend anyone’s time simply doing things that won’t hurt – I want to invest all the energy and resources of our ministry in gatherings, practices, and experiences that are meaningful and formational.

So we’re rethinking service projects.

Instead, I’m taking what I’ve learned from the Do-Nothing Mission Trip and my work with the Global Immersion Project, to create Flourish, a series of immersion tracks with our students. We’ve found that the most impactful experiences – the ones that aren’t just memorable, but formational – are ones that connect our creative acts of love (service) with the stories of actual people affected by the injustice which necessitates the service. Justice, for us, is founded in the belief that everyone is good, and made in the image of God, and deserves to be treated with dignity. Any service experience which keeps people at arms length, which doesn’t allow us to see the faces and learn the names of those we’re serving, only serves to affirm our preconceptions, biases, and keep the other person as just that – other.

Once there is a relational connection, a chance for us to meet other human beings face to face, hear their story, and recognize their dignity as people created in the image of God – then we can truly imagine ways to respond in love and serve in ways that are appropriate, contextual, and self-sacrificial. Over and over and over, when my youth group has had the chance to look someone in the eye and listen to them – we find ourselves changed.

We’re setting up opportunities for our youth to learn from peacemakers already at work in our community, whether they’re connected with the church or not, so that they can learn best practices that actually make a difference over the long run. And only after we have set aside our anxiety about getting too close, getting too involved, getting our hearts broken – then we dream together about how to get creative in love and respond.