I’m a firm believer that in a youth ministry setting, unless we process service projects with our students before, during, and after we complete them, they’re a waste of our time yielding little, if any, long-term impact in either the lives of our students or the lives of those we seek to serve.
So in planning a service project for both our junior high and high school students, I made sure to allow ample time to process it with our students in order to help them relate it to the context of their everyday lives.
In this case, our youth came together and fixed two meals: A simple sandwich lunch for an organization that serves the homeless in our community and a slightly more complicated hot dinner for a ministry within our church that connects teen parents with older mentors.
After 30 minutes of organized chaos, the meals were complete and our processing began.
To do this, I broke students into small groups and had each group work together to build the tallest, free standing structure they could using the materials I gave them. While some groups got only scraps of paper, others got cardboard boxes, scissors, tape, staplers, and clothespins.
As you might expect, the group with the most resources easily won the competition to cries out of outrage from their competitors who claimed, “That’s not fair!” We then used those cries of outrage to spark a small group conversation about the “haves and have not’s” in the real world; About those things in our world that aren’t fair or just.
I expected these small group conversations to go quite well.
Unfortunately, as I strolled around the room, I had a sinking suspicion that most group’s were NOT going well at all.
In one group, I was quite sure that one of my high school student leaders was going to throttle a particularly aggravating junior high boy.
Another group was led by one of my most extroverted leaders, yet contained some of our most introverted students. It was a recipe for disaster with this leader doing all the talking while the students quietly sat there, overwhelmed and afraid to speak.
Another group was dominated by an eighth grade girl who talks constantly but has trouble reading social cues from her peers. Within minutes, everyone else in her group had tuned out, leaving her to ramble on without actually contributing any meaning to her group.
Another group had some students lying on the stage while others sat indian style on the floor and their leader stood with his back against the wall, desperately trying (and failing) to get their attention, but refusing to get down on their level and force everyone to circle up and look at each other during their conversation.
In another group, I watched as the leader tried to facilitate his discussion while one particularly restless seventh grade boy rolled around the floor, seemingly oblivious to what was going on. Every once in a while, the leader would reach over, grab the boy’s leg, and physically pull him back into the circle.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand watching what appeared to be a train wreck any longer. So I called everyone’s attention back to the front of the room and asked each group to share what they had talked about.
Surprisingly, every group had something of substance to report.
Then I transitioned into leading a large group discussion about the two organizations that we had served that night and their role within the community. As part of this, we talked about why people are homeless; The stereotypical image of a homeless person verses the reality that most homeless people look just like you and I; And how the organizations that we served impact our community.
Finally, one of my student leaders closed the night by reading a chapter from My 30 Days Under the Overpass: Not Your Ordinary Devotional – a book written by Mike Yankowski chronicling his time intentionally living on the streets as a homeless person.
Even as my student leader read this chapter, I second guessed my decision to use it. It felt long and I was quite sure that the students were tuning out, one by one.
Yet, the second we prayed and ended the night, one of our 7th grade boys came bounding up to the front of the room and said, “That was neat. What’s the name of that book again?”
I told him and then asked, “Wanna borrow it?”
Without hesitation, he said, “YES!” and happily left, book in hand.
Later that night, I logged onto Facebook to get my report card from the night – the real reactions of students as revealed in their status’.
What I saw was this, posted in one of my seniors’ status’: The average age of a homeless person in DuPage County is 8.
That’s a fact that I had shared with the group during the large group discussion that I was sure NO ONE was listening to.
As I logged off Facebook that night, I wondered if perhaps something from the night had gotten through to our students after all.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
Despite the time spent processing it with the kids, our service project last week probably still didn’t transform any lives.
But it did lay a foundation. It planted some seeds – In the kid who asked me for the book; In the senior who changed his status to reflect the reality of homelessness in our community; Maybe even in the students who were utterly annoying and restless, who leaders had to physically yank back into their circles.
And maybe, just maybe, planting seeds is what youth ministry is actually supposed to be about.
Maybe youth ministry is not about all that I can accomplish in one night, week, month, or even year.
Maybe youth ministry is instead about what God is continually doing in the lives of our kids.
When that’s what youth ministry is about, then it’s enough…
It’s enough for me to plant seeds.
It’s enough for me to allow someone else to use their gifts to water those seeds.
And above all, it’s enough for me to trust God to grow those seeds.
In fact, it’s more than enough.