Group Magazine: January-February, 2011
By Laura Widstrom, Ph.D.
Over the last decade service experiences have morphed from a powerful “sidelight” in youth ministry into an expected staple—it’s now rare, and even concerning, to find a youth group that doesn’t have service somewhere on its schedule. Whether it’s a weeklong workcamp or a half-day “community makeover” project, service opportunities are now a given in most youth ministries. But with all that time, money, and energy poured out in the cause of service, the elephant-in-the-living-room question is simple: What’s the “return on investment”?
According to a GROUP Magazine survey of more than 23,000 Christian teenagers attending one of the 40-plus Group Workcamps summer programs (groupworkcamps.com), four out of five teenagers (82.1%) say their service experience’s primary “outcome” was that it “made me feel closer to God.” (See the full results of this “outcome” survey question in the box “The Fruits of Service” on page 68.) That’s a profound statement, and suggests that service experiences offer kids a deeper “collateral” impact that we sometimes give them credit for.
To probe this question of collateral impact, I decided to focus on service learning in the context of a weeklong workcamp as the topic of my doctoral dissertation at Trinity International University. I know, you’re in no mood to read my dissertation—that’s why I’ve extracted 14 “takeaways” from my explorations that are crucial for every youth leader to know…
1. Service leverages deep and enduring relationships.
Threaded through every interview I had with kids participating in a service experience was a focus on the relationships they formed and nurtured, and how those relationships fueled their growth. The unique social construct that is normal in workcamp settings—young people paired with older adults in close, dependent relationships—makes them powerful multi-generational experiences. Service-learning offers a context for people who ordinarily would be separated from each other to interact on a common project. The adults and teenagers I interviewed described how their conversations with fellow crew members pushed the boundaries of their thinking and opened them to new viewpoints.
Many of the kids I talked to described their adult leaders as “friends”—they weren’t obliterating the “gap of respect,” they were describing a rich relationship that was not bound by hierarchy. And even though they didn’t dress alike or use the same words to describe a situation, they found great value in their conversations. Youth came to understand that adults brought experience and grounding, while the adults came to value the perspective and energy of the youth.
2. Service is a powerful catalyst for community.
A typical workcamp experience involves traveling to the site in caravans, sleeping on classroom floors, participating in an evening program, and eating in a cafeteria—all catalysts for intense community-building. One camper told me about the time a big storm threatened the exposed roof of a house at one of their worksites. It was evening and the kids were enjoying their free time, but leaders got all the volunteers they needed to help cover the roof before it started raining. The community had a need, and the community responded with self-sacrifice and tenacity.
Service experiences are hothouses for learning how to live in community. One teenager told me that an 11-year-old boy in his resident’s home continually ate the food that was packed for the crew’s lunch. Initially, the guy was bothered by the boy’s behavior, but he quickly realized that his “mission” included giving up his lunch to bless a hungry boy who rarely ate enough to satisfy his stomach. So he sacrificed his lunch to build a deeper relationship with his resident family—and that gave him a powerful opportunity to worship God through a small “death to self.”
3. Struggles and crises expand teenagers’ capacity for overcoming hardship.
One-quarter of the kids and adults I interviewed told me they’d experienced some kind of significant struggle as part of their service-learning experience. In short, workcamps are very efficient producers of hardship—while that’s not an explicit goal, psychologist Daniel Goleman’s research makes a connection between kids’ ability to move forward through adversity and future success in academics and life. And because these struggles are produced within the context of a nurturing community, the challenges are real, but so is the safety net.
4. Service offers teenagers a context and process for “owning” their faith.
Faith development is fueled, primarily, in the midst of a community of believers. And a service-learning community that nurtures relationships, then provides ways for those relationships to continue after the experience, is a tasty recipe for a deepening faith. One workcamper girl who would soon graduate from high school told me that she left her final camp in tears, realizing how significant her faith community had been in shaping her soul. As she described her impending transition, she matter-of-factly “owned” the responsibility for nurturing her faith going forward.
5. Relationships formed during workcamp experiences form the most powerful context for learning.
Several workcampers told me they learned new skills as part of their service experience, but the deeper learning they gleaned from their new connections overshadowed everything. In a way, you could say that a service project is merely an effective excuse to gather in an intense, interdependent environment where deeper life purposes are discovered and deeper questions are asked. The service experience opens the soul’s door, and the Holy Spirit moves through it to minister in the area most relevant to the life of the participant.
6. Service projects enable leaders to go in-depth on one biblical theme.
In most weeklong workcamp settings, numerous aspects of the daily routine are built around a biblical theme that is reinforced and targeted in both formal and informal contexts. Teenagers are exposed to the theme during intentional aspects of the event such as the evening program, and in casual conversations at the cafeteria dinner table. It’s an immersive experience in biblical truth. And learning in a real-life context offers boundaries as broad as life.
7. Service projects are “bait” for enticing the entire congregation into a closer relationship with teenagers.
When youth ministries are intentional about incorporating a week-long workcamp experience into the fabric of their ongoing ministry, they loop in the congregation to their mission and purpose. For example, many churches invite workcamp participants to tell their stories in the main worship gathering. The congregation gets a taste of the heart behind the service, and the kids get a taste of their role in the larger body. And often youth ministries invite their project’s supporters to join them for a special reception, where they tell a longer version of the story using PowerPoint slides and even video.
There are many other connection points with the congregation. For the camp I studied, many in the supporting congregation came alongside participants in significant ways. For example, a group of older women made lap quilts that the kids later gave to the residents they served—the quilts helped them make amazing connections. In addition, church members contributed additional vehicles, ladders, tools, and food supplies to be given away. The Sunday before the team left, the participants wore their camp T-shirts to each morning worship service and gathered up front so the congregation could pray for them. Afterward, many church members took a personal prayer card with the name of a specific camper or leader, committing to pray for the person on their card for the week. In addition to prayer, most sent care packages to the young person on their card.
8. Service events offer teenagers many opportunities for taking on significant responsibilities.
In most workcamp settings, adults and teenagers share leadership responsibilities. While adults oversee the environment and maintain safety, project leadership is shared amongst all of the participants. Shared leadership is a crucial aspect of experiential learning, and few contexts offer more potential for leadership roles than a weeklong workcamp. And it’s a safe experiment in leadership because there are always adults present who can step in if needed.
9. Teenagers learn many new skills, increasing their sense of mastery.
Leaders at workcamps and service projects not only encourage kids to learn new skills, the success of the work depends on them learning new skills. In most service-learning settings, the tasks are important but the doing of the tasks is less about efficiency and more about skill-building. In Benjamin Bloom’s research into the true catalysts of learning, the educational psychologist affirmed what we all know experientially—that learning is tied to what the learner accomplishes, not what the teacher teaches. And few experiences offer more opportunities for hands-on learning. One girl I interviewed told me she’d read a whole book to prepare her for her assigned project, but she didn’t really begin to learn until she started working on her site tasks.
10. Service-learning makes a profound connection between our heart and mind.
Author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer describes a pervading “norm” in our world that pits our heart against our mind—we’re forced into a tension between “heart knowledge” and “head knowledge.” In most situations, that means heart and mind are not allowed to function together. But service-learning reconciles both—it engages the cognitive and the emotional in a highly physical setting.
11. A workcamp is, most often, a learn-from-your-mistakes environment.
In school, kids most often have to “pay the piper” for their mistakes—their grade represents their performance, not necessarily their courage. But the teenagers I interviewed told me that their workcamp environment was “a safe place to make a mistake”—they knew the leaders were giving them a safety net, and that encouraged them to try new tasks.
12. Service environments “scratch the itch” kids have for social justice involvement.
Many of the teenagers I interviewed talked about the impact poverty had on them during their experience. Their exposure to the hardships of poverty challenged their perspective and prompted a deeper understanding of the complex forces at work in impoverished homes. Often, they admitted that they’d made many assumptions about their work-site resident on the first day they arrived. But as the week progressed and they had opportunity to engage with the people who lived in the home they were working on, the assumptions fell away. Through this experience they could see that life is messy, not black-and-white—families can’t always foresee unemployment, disability, or a retirement savings account that falls far short. The workcamp experience gives kids a chance to not only learn about social justice issues, but do something tangible and valuable about them.
13. Teenagers learn what St. Francis meant when he said: “Preach the gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.”
Many of the kids I interviewed described the unique way their service-learning experience “set the table” for the message of the gospel to be presented to residents—more through actions than words. Often, as they got deeper into the week, the conversations that naturally developed between their resident and crew members funneled toward what was motivating kids to do this work. That open invitation gave them a chance to share their faith.
One resident who’d received beautiful white siding that covered what had been an eyesore in her community brought out a permanent marker on the last day of the workcamp. She insisted that each member of the crew sign the siding in a prominent place near her front door. Initially the crew hesitated to do anything that would deface the amazing transformation their work had brought about, but the resident explained that she wanted their names in that place so that when people came to visit, she could share the story of how God had brought that crew into her life to repair her home and to serve as an example of Christ’s love to her.
14 Teenagers grow a lot at a workcamp, but their growth is accelerated when they go back, year after year.
Workcamps are a building-block experience. Each time teenagers participate in a service event, the experience they have further enriches, broadens, challenges, and nurtures their growth. That means there’s value in repeating experiences of service-learning because the impact continues and expands through each opportunity.
Dr. Laura is an assistant professor of youth ministries at Spring Arbor University in Michigan.
Sidebar: The Fruits of Service
In a GROUP Magazine survey of more than 23,000 Christian kids attending one of our summer workcamp sites (groupworkcamps.com), we had them complete this sentence:
“Service to others has…”
• Made me feel closer to God. 82.1%
• Made me feel better about who I am. 80.0%
• Created new and valuable friendships in my life. 74.0%
• Increased my compassion for people in need. 70.0%
• Made me more likely to serve others in my everyday life. 69.2%
• Showed me I can make a significant impact on the world. 68.0%
• Deepened my relationships with existing friends. 66.4%
• Made me less self-focused and more others-focused. 62.3%
• Developed leadership abilities in me. 61.3%
• Humbled me. 60.4%
• Made me more confident as a person. 60.1%
• Permanently changed the way I think about “what I deserve” in life. 55.2%
• Taught me to rely on God’s guidance in my life 55.2%
• Helped me make deeper relationship connections with other adults. 51.9%
• Helped me to actually share my faith in Christ with more people. 50.2%
• Made me pray more than I did before. 49.6%
• Helped me understand better what “the good news of Jesus” is really all about. 40.4%
• Pushed me to my limits as a person. 38.2%
• Helped my relationship with my parents to grow and get better. 26.3%