How to Engage Youth in Service

Several years ago I called our town hall to inquire about getting a parking sticker for my car. As I was listening to the menu options, I heard, “For the Youth Bureau, press 4.” Our town has a youth bureau? I thought. Forget the sticker! As a youth pastor, I was so intrigued that there were people in our neighborhood working with teenagers, so I pressed 4. Within a couple days, I was having lunch with the director.

“What is the name of your church again?” she asked. I repeated the name for a second time.  “And where is it located?” “Just a half mile up the road from here,” I replied. “Huh, never heard of it.”

Her words made me realize things had to change. I serve at a church of over 2,000 people on a given Sunday. We have been in the community for over 50 years. We are involved in missions and our youth ministry and church are known all over the world. But the director of the Youth Bureau in our town had never heard of us. It was at that moment I knew God was challenging me to change the way I was doing youth ministry. Without realizing, we had given our students the impression that missional work was something done once or twice a year. It was time for a culture change. We needed to rediscover the call of Jesus to be missionaries every day. So, I began intentional teachings on living with a missional mindset, helping students understand that service is about taking Jesus wherever we go and working to advance God’s kingdom through our actions. I don’t know who first coined this phrase, but it became one I began to inject into the language of our ministry: The light that shines the farthest shines the brightest at home. I soon joined the Youth Bureau in our town. I don't believe I brought God to our city; God was already at work. But if we would choose to pay attention, He would show us how we could partner with Him to advance His kingdom. So, I went to meetings and listened to what was happening in our community, asking God how He wanted us as a youth ministry to serve. At one of the meetings someone suggested having a program at the beach on Friday nights so kids would have a safe and fun place to hang out during the summer. I asked if our youth ministry could come and give away free food. Everybody loves food, and our offer was met with great enthusiasm. We didn’t go preach with words, we just showed up and preached with our actions. The coolest part was that when people asked us why we were giving away free food, we were able to tell them we were doing it because we had experienced the love of Jesus, and in turn, we wanted to share it with others in practical ways. Soon, I began to build service into the rhythm of our youth ministry. I launched a service opportunity called "Serve and Swim" during the summer. Rather than our usual midweek gathering, we had students meet in town and engage in simple service projects, followed by a pool party. A few years later I created, "Love Long Island." Each year, for two days during spring break, we took students to do service projects for families and organizations in our community. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for homeless shelters, sorted donations at community thrift shops, repaired fences, helped with yard work, painted, and worked with organizations that help people with special needs. By building local service into the rhythm of our year to complement our annual mission trips, I noticed a significant shift.

While we haven't solved the crisis of American self-centeredness, we did experience a noticeable change in our students’ mindsets and attitudes, which transformed the culture of our student ministry. Where once we were begging students to help with things like cleaning up the youth room, or serving at church functions, now, students seemed eager to help. They began seeing needs they were once totally oblivious to, and they started taking the initiative to be a part of the solution (or at least not complaining and dragging their feet when we asked them to help).

Some things that help engage students in service:

  1. Model it. Don’t ask your students to be servants if you and your leaders aren’t serving yourselves. Leaders, by definition, go first. Set the example. Show them, and do it with them.
  2. Make it a big deal. If you want serving to become a lifestyle for your students, you need to talk about serving…a lot. Spend time exploring topics of love and service in Scripture, particularly in the life and teachings of Jesus. The Bible is clear that we cannot say we love God and ignore the daily needs of others. Serving is how we put our beliefs to the test.
  3. Make it fun. If serving is a drag, students will not want to do it. It can be hard and challenging, but it's never dull. Find ways to make service fun. Build fun competition, crack jokes when things aren’t going as planned, give them fun incentives, etc. Give students shirts when they register. Host a swim party after a long day of serving. Take students out for a Slurpee or a burger on the way home. Be creative and show them that serving, especially together with their friends, can be fun.
  4. Make it short. The best way to introduce healthy elements into your ministry is by starting small. For "Love Long Island," I knew that if I asked students to sacrifice their whole spring break, our participation would have been minimal. By making it a two-day commitment on the front-end of the week, they still had five days to sleep in, play video games, or whatever they wanted. Our service days were only 9am-3pm so they still had their evenings on those two days.
  5. Make it affordable. Service projects are built into my student ministry budget. I purchase needed supplies, etc. using those funds. For "Love Long Island," I just charged students $25. For the two days that covered their t-shirt, bag lunches, chaperones, and transportation. Even if you don’t have a budget, you can keep the cost low. Again, be creative. Have students bring personal work gear, tools, and even their lunch.
  6. Make it regular. Through the years I have always looked for ways to make service a constant on our calendar. In addition to our annual events and mission trips, we also designate monthly or bi-monthly "Serve Nights" for our small groups. On those nights, rather than having regular small group meetings, they plan and implement service projects as groups. Through the years they have made care packages for kids with cancer, wrote Valentine’s cards for veterans, visited nursing homes, cleaned the church, delivered goodie bags to local business owners, and picked up trash around town.

Discussion Questions:

* What are the challenges you face in getting students involved in service? * What are some things that have worked for you to engage students in service? * What are some of the needs in your local community? How might your group be a part of meeting those needs?