The following is a guest post by Aaron Kirkpatrick, youth minister in Little Rock, Arkansas:
I love teaching our teens to serve. Over the years, service has become ingrained in our group’s DNA, and our teens serve hard. They are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, and they are regularly challenged to press through their comfort zones when they are serving in the name of Jesus. Numerous teens have told me that the most impacting things they have experienced in our youth ministry happened when they were serving, and a few of our teens have even chosen career paths after an experience serving someone changed their worldview. So when I tell you to stop taking your kids to service projects, I am absolutely NOT telling you to make your teens stop serving. I’m asking you to consider reframing your service in a healthier way.
It should be obvious, but every service opportunity must have a human component. There must always be someone who benefits from your service, or else you’re wasting your time. If your teens visit cancer patients at the local children’s hospital, the human element is obvious, but even cleaning graffiti off an overpass, picking up trash at a local park, and painting government housing projects touches people in the name of Jesus. You don’t clean up the park for the park’s sake: you do it because it will benefit the children who play there. You don’t clean an overpass for the sake of the concrete, you do it because it blesses people on their daily commute. This is true every time you serve, and it’s important for your teens to understand who they are serving and how their service helps others. When we talk about doing a “service project” though, we immediately put a stumbling block between our students and what we want them to accomplish and experience.
A project is a job. A project is an assignment. A project is something that must get done, regardless of whether you actually want to do it. Cleaning the bathroom is a project. That fifteen page paper your seniors have been putting off doing is a project. My honey-do list is full of projects. But we’re calling our students to serve people, and people are not projects.
When we refer to these times of service as “service projects” we immediately cheapen what our teens are doing, we limit the ministry our teens will do, and we hinder our students’ ability to be transformed through the experience of serving. At best, our words frame their service in terms of what they do instead of who they touch, and at worst they cause our teens to view people in an impersonal way that removes the love and compassion that is at the heart of Christian ministry.
So the next time you call your teens to serve, find a more positive way to discuss what they’re doing. In our ministry, we have started referring to times of service as “service opportunities” because an “opportunity” is a positive thing that you don’t want to miss. This puts everyone in the right mindset from the moment they are asked to serve.
When it’s all said and done, any time a teenager serves, it’s a win. But if we, as youth workers, help our students frame their service in a way that clearly places the highest value on the people we serve, our students will come away with a deeper appreciation for the work they accomplish and the lives they touch, and they will be more likely to jump at the chance to serve again in the future.
Aaron Kirkpatrick has been leading the Chenal Valley Youth Group in Little Rock, AR for seven years. He is passionate about relational ministry and connecting with teens outside the walls of the church building. This has led to countless hours at basketball games, plays, recitals, Sonic parking lots, Minecraft servers, and anywhere else teens are congregating. When he needs to recharge his creativity, you'll find him haunting a local Starbucks, Panera, or Baskin Robbins. You can follow Aaron on his blog and catch up with him on Twitter .