I looked over the crowd of students as they stared at me blankly. My hope had been for a reaction filled with excitement and wonderment, and that overwhelming number of students would raise their hands when we asked who would want to sign up for a local service opportunity to help our community. After the silence came excuses of why they couldn’t make it. It was disappointing at best that only five students out of a group of more than 100 wanted to give up a morning at a nursing home.
Not long after this, I heard a speaker discuss practical ways to get students more invested in their community. He said the key was to pinpoint their passions and offer opportunities from there. The question that boggled me was, “What if they don’t even know what they are passionate about?” Better yet, I had students who were excited about athletics, after-school activities, and video games, but I couldn’t figure out if they could use these to care for their community. This is when the idea for “Passion Projects” came to me. I had to believe students weren’t as apathetic and self-focused as I was starting to believe.
Students were asked to brainstorm causes that affected our community. Then at youth group, they presented the greatest needs they felt were affecting our neighborhoods. We picked a handful of topics, and every student in the room had to pick a cause like feeding the homeless, showing compassion to the elderly, and increasing self-esteem in schools. Working together in small groups for a month, we replaced our “regularly scheduled programs” with figuring out small practical ways each group could do SOMETHING for our community. Then we DID those things, and this time students were inspiring other students to serve. All of a sudden even the most lethargic kid was excited.
Here is what I learned about getting kids to invest in their own community:
1. Start with a spark.
Sometimes students don’t know how to put compassion into action. They know that they are passionate about watching television but don’t realize that might just be a conversation starter for someone who is lonely. The key is to somehow spark something within a handful of youth that will build momentum. You don’t need your whole group to have buy-in, yet expect a few will. Figure out a creative way to spark an interest.
2. Service is a lifestyle.
It can be overwhelming to believe you have to solve a whole problem in your community and too insignificant to show up for what you see as a random workday. This is the underlying buzz in the heart of teen. They don’t want to feel “awkward.”
Combat this by fostering an understanding with students that being a servant is an everyday feat. I love the saying from the movie Robots, “See a need. Fill a need.” When we start showing students this is not another program, but an extension of who they are, then they will be telling us ways they need to give back to their community.
3. Create ownership.
Every single time I have gotten students excited about giving into the community, it has been because they have had ownership of the opportunity. It’s important to allow them to either come up with the approach, the idea or a part of what will happen themselves. Sometimes, it’s simply about a sense of purpose.
Recently, we had a situation where we lost all of the volunteers for children’s church for a series of reasons. This meant there was one adult with a lot of kids. The children’s pastor and I came up with the idea for students to run children’s church, with a little direction. Many of the students who volunteered were there because they wanted a leadership opportunity more than because they loved kids. We gave the charge that if you “signed on,” this was a full commitment. Now they run a “stations approach” kid’s church with different students stepping into their passions with worship, crafts, games, and small groups. They do it ALL, and they are PHENOMENAL at it. Why? They know they are needed, and they own it.
The Bottom Line
Starting in your own backyard is really the bottom line. Many times we over-complicate this idea that students can and will care about their community. It gets stumped in our own belief that kids “just won’t care.” It’s not true, perhaps the real issue is we never expect them to show up. Try starting small, with a handful of students and see where momentum grows.