Simple Service

For three years, I’ve ignored the pleas of my students to serve at Feed My Starving Children, a non-profit Christian organization committed to feeding God’s children in body and spirit by hand-packing meals specifically formulated for malnourished children and shipping them to nearly 70 countries around the world.

My reasons for ignoring this plea are complicated.

In general, I’m not a fan of service projects that involve little or no contact with the people you’re serving. To me, these types of projects overemphasize the result at the expense of the people served. When this happens, I think it’s too easy to forget that we serve because when we do, we encounter Christ IN the poor, the orphaned, and the oppressed. When we forget this, service tends to become about giving ourselves an “atta boy” rather than about Christ.

There’s also a tiny bit of me that resents these projects because when I ask my kids why they want to do them, their response is always, “It’s fun.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that serving people can and should be fun. But it also bothers me when that’s the primary reason why kids want to serve. God can use anything for his glory and he certainly does, but sometimes I wonder if, when we do things primarily because “they’re fun”, we’re encouraging people to become shallow Christians.

I also really struggle with the fact that it’s actually HARD to find a date and time to serve at Feed My Starving Children because SO many people serve there. Shouldn’t we be serving places that are struggling to find volunteers? Isn’t the need greater there?

Despite all these concerns, after having students ask to serve at Feed My Starving Children for three years running, I relented, figuring that I needed to set aside my own concerns and honor their desire to serve.

So last Monday, I served at Feed My Starving Children with some of my students and I must say, I can understand why this place appeals to teens.

Upon your arrival, you’re ushered into a room in which you watch a sleek, graphic-filled, fast moving video inviting you to be part of the “movement” to end hunger. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Then you’re ushered into a room with stations set up. Feed My Starving Children is a well-oiled machine and immediately, you’re put to work. As you work, music is blaring and you’re encouraged to create a cheer with your team to alert the warehouse runners every time your team has finished packing a box of food.

You’re also encouraged to keep count of how many boxes you pack because here, results matter. For that reason, I can tell you that at the end of our two hour shift, we packed 104 boxes. Since each box contains 36 packets of food and each packet of food is 6 meals, that means we packed 22,464 meals for starving children – a figure definitely worth celebrating.

And I won’t deny it. When you leave knowing that figure, you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile. That makes you feel good about yourself, especially since there’s a clear ending to the project. You walk out of the warehouse, able to give yourself a pat on the back before resuming your normal life, without ever having to think about starving children again.

This kind of service is uncomplicated.

In contrast, service that involves direct contact with people is inherently complicated.

For example, my students also run a weekly Kids Club for local refugees. A few weeks ago, while at Kids Club, one of the refugee kids jokingly told one of my students, “Someday, I’m going to take you to Africa.”

Upon hearing this, my student, who we’ll call Jane, responded, “Wait! Did you know we’re going to Africa? This summer, we’re going on a mission trip to Rwanda.”

Immediately, a hush fell over this room of kids who are NEVER quiet.

And then slowly, one child after another started to tell Jane about how she couldn’t go to Africa because “People die in Africa.” Each seemed to have a personal story about someone from their family who was killed, forcing them to flee to a refugee camp.

That’s hard to hear – especially for someone who’s a 15 or 16 year old, whose brain is just beginning to be able to process complicated, abstract, multi-layered ideas.

No matter how much you may want to, those are the kinds of comments that you never forget. Those are the kind of comments that keep you awake at night, trying to figure out how to change the world so that no one else will have to know the kind of pain that that room full of kids had to experience.

That kind of ministry is on-going.

It’s heart-wrenching.

It can even be life-changing.

But it’s complicated and complex and let’s face it, sometimes, it’s just too much.

Which is why, I think, teenagers love Feed My Starving Children. It’s neatly packaged and completely uncomplicated.

And though it may not change the lives of those who serve in the same way that the on-going, heart-wrenching, complicated ministry I described earlier does, it still makes a difference.

Just ask the 22,464 kids who received the meals we packed.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

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