Cultivate a Culture of Service in Youth Ministry – Thomas Walters

“It’s great to see the kids out giving back to the community.”

“You don’t see a lot of young people doing stuff like this these days.”

Even in the church, when we see young people serving occasionally, we think of it as an unusual act. Youth groups may plan service projects twice a year, and when they do, we think that they’ve done their Christian duty. But in a Christ-centered youth ministry, serving is more than that.  

Serving the community together is not an add-on to your youth ministry. It’s an indispensable fruit that grows from the roots of a church that prioritizes God’s mission. Here are three ways to cultivate a culture of service in your student ministry. 

1. Cast a vision for service.

Culture is crafted through communication. After all, we talk about what we value. Serving should matter to the church because serving matters to Christ. It’s part of why he came to earth. In Matthew 20, James and John’s mother asks Jesus if her sons will sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom. Christ corrects the other disciples who are indignant and frustrated by this request when he explains, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26–28). Christ teaches his followers to serve because it’s his aim.  

Serving the community together is an indispensable fruit that grows from the roots of a church that prioritizes God’s mission.

In student ministry, we must talk about service and call our students to serve regularly.

The events we calendar and plan also communicate what we value. If we value service as a joyful expression of obedience to God, then we shouldn’t let the games and fun events we plan crowd service out of the schedule. We must put it on the calendar as a priority. Do you plan to serve? Do you intentionally block out time for students to serve both the church and the world?

2. Prioritize togetherness.

We aren’t calling students to individually log community service hours. We’re calling them to sacrifice and serve others together. Not long ago, our students had a Q and A session with some of our staff members. One student asked, “What do I do to find community in the local church?” Our staff member responded, “In a word: serve!” In student ministry, serving together isn’t the only factor in connecting with others, but it’s an essential one. 

Community is romanticized as a state of perfect friendships we stumble into. But real community isn’t found; it’s forged. Community is built when students move in the same direction and unite on one mission.

Real community isn’t found; it’s forged. Community is built when students move in the same direction and unite on one mission.

Deep and lasting friendships take hard work. But over time, regular serving together on the common mission of exalting Christ builds lasting bonds of gospel community. 

These bonds extend beyond the students because a healthy student ministry is part of a larger church. Intergenerational serving is a powerful tool in cultivating the rich soil of community. When high schoolers serve as greeters alongside older saints, when middle schoolers sing alongside middle-aged dads in the choir, when an entire church leads a vacation Bible school outreach together, students find real relationships based on serving. 

3. Raise your expectations.

To have a culture of students serving, you need a culture of students leading. So raise your expectations. The student initiative I’ve been involved with for the last seven years has demonstrated this principle. The initiative is called Project 1:27 and the idea was born out of James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  

In this project, a team of students takes the lead in contacting widows in our congregation to find out how the team can serve them. Students paint, rake leaves, spread mulch, clean windows, move furniture, and sometimes just visit. Our students have also been able to serve in a variety of ways at a nearby crisis pregnancy center.

These students also reach out to parents to ask if they’d lead a group of students in service. Successful student ministry champions parents as primary disciple makers, not only in teaching and Bible study but in serving as well. Invite parents to serve alongside students and lead them, and never underestimate the gospel witness of families serving together.

People love seeing young adults serve and give back. But Christian service is unique because it reflects Christ through following his example. As we sacrifice together in obedience to Christ, we’re witnesses to the way of Jesus. We love because he first loved us, and we serve because he first served us (1 John 4:19). Ultimately, serving follows the sanctifying heart of Christ for his Bride and the missional heart of Christ for the nations.

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