Are service projects just busyness or meaningful acts?
The Christian life demands service. It requires faith to be more than just theological musings that are blogged about or even debated with others. Without action faith is, after all, dead. (James 2:26)
For this reason, throughout my career in youth ministry, one of my goals has been to help students engage in service. My first year in ministry, I intentionally scheduled one service project per month, hoping that students would attend at least one that was interesting to them. These service projects were often disjointed, seldom connecting with one another. This caused me a great deal of frustration.
My frustration was further heightened by two things: How difficult it was to find places that would allow high school students to serve in meaningful ways for only a few hours at a time and how reluctant my students were to engage in the service projects in the first place. Nonetheless, I carried on, convinced that teaching students to serve was an important aspect of faith formation.
Eleven years later, I'm still convinced service is an important aspect of faith formation. In fact, I'm actually more convinced of this than ever before. Perhaps that's why service projects no longer have a monthly place in my ministry's calendar; They have a weekly place in it.
Given the growing body of youth workers who advocate being less busy results in being more spiritual, I admit that scheduling weekly service projects appears at the very least, counterintuitive, if not all together counterproductive. And certainly, in a culture where most teens (and dare I say, we ourselves!) are often extraordinarily over-committed, there are undoubtedly numerous benefits to reducing our ministry's schedules and eliminating busyness from it.
Here's the things, though.
Adding something – even a weekly event – to a calendar isn't actually what constitutes busyness. What makes us feel busy is running from one disjointed event to another, especially when those events don't add meaning to our lives or anyone else's.
But that's not the case with the weekly service project my students are involved in. These weekly service projects are not disjointed or disconnected events. Instead, my ministry's service project is the same each week from mid-August to May when, for one and a half hours a week, my students run a Kids Club for refugee children. They help them with their homework, plan and play games, lead crafts, and help kids practice reading. While they do this, the parents of the refugee children learn and practice English, a skill without which they cannot possibly improve their family's life. As such, this weekly service project is one filled with significance. In fact, whenever a high school student serves for the first time, they're given a tour of the tutoring room so they can begin to understand how important what they're doing is to these families.
Beyond that, our weekly service project also connects students to refugee children in powerful relationships. Perhaps more than anything else, it's this relational emphasis that gives meaning to this weekly act of service and prevents it from being just another thing on people's calendars. Week after week, students serve at ESL Kids Club because they care about the refugee children who attend. What's more, though often reluctant to show their affection for people, week after week refugee children look forward to seeing students. I know this because refugee kids ask about our students when they're not there. Though two of our regular student leaders from last year have now been at school for four months, nearly every week, a refugee child still asks, “Where's Emily?” or “Where's Ryan?”
During a particularly stressful week prior to Christmas I was reminded of the power of these relationships when Ryan returned to ESL Kids Club for the night. As soon as Ryan walked through the hallway doors, a few adults from our congregation stopped him, eager to hear about his first semester at college.
Meanwhile, one of the refugee children spotted Ryan and a quiet buzz spread across the room. At first, I couldn't quite catch what was being said, though I caught the excitement in the air. I finally stood close enough to an older boy, Eju, as his younger brother, Edward, ran up to him and excitedly whispered, “He's back” while simultaneously pointing to Ryan, who was still talking in the hallway. As soon as Ryan walked in the room, an armload of boys jumped on him, excited to see their friend.
That night, I left ESL Kids Club thinking every youth ministry needs a ministry like this one because this kind of service is indeed more than busyness. It's this kind of service – weekly, ongoing, meaningful investment in the life of someone else – that changes people and truly helps students cultivate a lifetime of service.