Learning From the Experts

Insights from Youth Workers Effectively Engaging Students in Service and World Issues

Photo by Eddie Kopp

“An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body, and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul.  One is a ghost and the other a corpse…”  E. Stanley Jones 1

You walk into your youth room with two sign-up sheets.  One is for your upcoming weekend trip to build a house for an inner city family; the second is for Magic Mountain (or substitute your closest theme park here).  At the end of your meeting, which sign-up sheet will students gravitate towards?

If you’re like most youth ministries, you’ll have three – maybe even four or five – times as many students sign up to spend a Saturday riding roller coasters as will sign up to spend a Saturday riding to an under-resourced neighborhood to build a house.

While perhaps it’s not all that unusual for teenagers to choose fun over service, it’s worth pondering:  Why is that?  Given what we’ve heard about this generation’s desire to make a difference around the world, why do they tend to choose a day of self-indulgence over a day of sacrifice?  Equally important, what can we do in order to engage them in service and social justice that not only impacts them for a few hours or days, but transforms how they view the world and the part they play in it?

A little history…

In the summer of 2005, Youth Specialties and World Vision contacted the Fuller Youth Institute (formerly the Center for Youth and Family Ministry) to write a curriculum for the One Life Revolution campaign, designed to raise awareness and funds to help those affected by AIDS in Africa.  In order to write an effective curriculum, we at FYI felt we needed to find out what kinds of teaching and activities help motivate students to engage in social service projects and issues of justice.

A little methodology …

Two primary research questions guided our study:

  1. What motivates high school students to be engaged with service and world concerns?
  2. What type of curriculum facilitates such engagement?

To answer these questions, we developed a list of discussion questions that we then explored with three types of youth workers.  First, we conducted focus groups and e.mail surveys with 20 youth worker “exemplars” identified by key mission and service organizations (World Vision, Compassion International, Center for Student Missions, Amor, National Network of Youth Ministries, and Presbyterians for Renewal).  Second, we conducted a focus group with ten urban social justice exemplars nominated by FYI, Urban Youth Workers Institute, and World Vision/Vision Youth.  Finally, we dialogued about these questions with over 40 youth workers who attended the Los Angeles Youth Ministry Network hosted by FYIin November 2005.

Some significant findings …

In order to help you benefit from and apply what we have discovered during the past year of research, we’ve grouped these findings in a format that we hope will be helpful to you.  You might want to consider reviewing this list with those who are helping you plan your next short-term missions trip or justice project as a way to recognize what is going well, and what you might want to do differently in the future.

1. Students’ Motivation and Experience

How do you know when students have increased their motivation and commitment to service and social justice?

  • When injustice gets a face and a name they can recognize.  When they can identify the pain of the person sitting across from them.
  • When they start asking themselves good questions, such as where their clothes are being made, and by whom.
  • When they participate in justice work in some way, and then are confronted by mental dissonance – that’s when they experience the “aha!” moment that transforms their categories for thinking about people in need.
  • When they seek out leadership roles in service projects, or initiate service on their own.
  • When they stop participating in certain types of jokes (ethnic, degrading, etc.) or negative activities.
  • When they begin moving beyond a “those poor people” motivation to “this is what it means to follow Jesus and be part of His Kingdom and love with His heart” motivation.

What changes do you notice in students’ attitudes and perspectives when they are motivated to get involved?

  • They move from pity to compassion in their responses towards the hurting people they encounter.
  • They notice the needs of people around them more often.
  • They exhibit more “holistic” thinking about themselves, God’s concern for the world, and others.  They begin to understand that service is more a matter of who they are, not just what they do.
  • They recognize that God loves everyone, not just them, or people like them.
  • They begin to understand that loving God means loving people, which leads them to think about practical ways to demonstrate that love.
  • They are drawn to action more by conviction than guilt.

How can we motivate students?

  • By providing experiences, not statistics.
  • By putting a face on the problem/issue – personalizing it by introducing them to relationships with real people if possible.
  • By grounding service experiences in solid teaching about the Kingdom of God.
  • By providing consistent opportunities for social justice, not random, detached service projects.  That requires moving your ministry’s approach to service and justice from a “special-event thing” to an “all-the-time thing”.
  • By empowering students to use their gifts, enabling them to see God work through them.  That happens when you give them a way to make a difference – even a small difference – and that may spur a new motivation to serve.
  • By linking kids to God’s bigger story throughout all of Scripture, and the place of the poor/sick/widowed in that story.
  • By engaging their parents in some way to get involved in service and discussions about social justice with their kids.

2. Teaching that Increases that Motivation and Engagement

Content is grounded in these theological truths:

  • The Kingdom of God is present here and now – in our midst, and through our lives.
  • As followers of Jesus, we can participate in His work.
  • Service is who we are, not just what we do.
  • We serve God by serving others – not objectifying them.
  • The good news is not a “me”-centered Gospel, but a “God”-centered Gospel.
  • Social justice is not just something we do a few days a year; it’s something God calls us to every day.  That means that after those social justice experiences, we help kids begin to engage and integrate their insights with their everyday life.

Teaching and Experiences

  • Teaching should include hands-on, practical experiences that transfer the concepts into real-life encounters.
  • Teaching should weave in consistent local service opportunities.  Service must be local and personal before it can be global and general.
  • Teaching can use the seasons (i.e., winter, spring, summer, and fall) as a means to talk about what is happening across the globe.
  • Experiences that include journaling opportunities so students can reflect.
  • Experiences that include life-on-life modeling from adult leaders.  We can’t top the power of our lifestyles to teach far beyond our words.
  • Experiences that include intergenerational relationships within your church, engaging kids and adults in service together.

A Little Practical Ministry Help…

Most youth workers we talked to agreed that service and social justice should not be a week- or month-long focus, but a year-round theme that continually pervades our youth ministries.  But how do you facilitate this in your own ministry?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Establish a core team of adults and kids who seem interested in the idea of social justice and social engagement with the world.  Begin to study together about the Kingdom of God and its meaning for us today.  (resources:  Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, or Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus).
  2. Ask this group to focus on a country in great need (i.e. Uganda, given the AIDS crisis).  Perhaps your church has missionaries you support in a particular country that you could contact and use as resources.
  3. Create regular experiences that immerse your students in some of the realities of poverty and begin engaging these issues through the lens of the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps set up a “hunger banquet” (see the website listed below for more information) or a prayer room that includes multi-sensory ways to pray for those who suffer injustice in your community and worldwide.
  4. Look for local service projects that reflect similar needs to that of the country you’ve chosen.  Is homelessness an issue?  Unemployment?  Orphans?  Find ways you can engage these issues locally on a regular basis.
  5. Take time regularly to read the scriptures together in a way that students see the context in which Jesus lived as a context of social justice.  He lived as an oppressed, marginalized human who nevertheless carried out social justice.  What did He do when He walked the earth?  How would He want us to live out those principles today?

To see more of how FYI’s research can be integrated into your youth ministry, check out the [intlink id=“950” type=“post”]One Life Revolution curriculum[/intlink] on the FYI website.

Some More Resources…

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/bononationalprayerbreakfast.htm (Bono’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Feb 2006)

http://www.30hourfamine.org (The campaign in partnership with World Vision and Youth Specialties to engage North American high school students with the AIDS pandemic in Africa.)

http://www.oxfamamerica.org/whatyoucando/act_now/student_action (Resources for fasting and hunger banquets)

http://www.purposedriven.com/en-US/HIVAIDSCommunity/Welcome.htm (Saddleback Church’s new AIDS initiative, with ideas for how churches might engage their congregations)

http://www.worldonfire.ca (Free Sarah McLachlan video, for which the usual $150,000 to produce the video was given to fight hunger)

http://www.mtv.com/thinkmtv/research/pdf/Just.Cause.FNL.APX.pdf (MTV’s recent research into why students get involved in social activism and how they define it)

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Times. NY:  Penguin Books, 2005.

Footnotes
  • 1. ^ E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 386. (1 instances in the document)