As summer youth mission trips end and fall service projects begin, it’s difficult to ignore the buzz of excitement they generate. Stories are shared of houses painted, meals served, parks cleaned, food collected and more. However, it’s important to remember that service is about more than projects and trips.

Beyond an event

The key to avoiding “mountain top” experiences, where inspiration and commitment can quickly fade, is to emphasize that service is not an event but a lifelong practice of living out one’s faith in Jesus Christ. It’s also important to consider that service isn’t only about projects where youth get their hands dirty. Conversations with senior citizens, listening to stories of experiences different than our own, or examining ways a community might respond to a local issue also demonstrate the spiritual practice of service.

Service learning as a process

Leaders can transform service experiences into lasting impact through adopting a model called “service learning.” Distinct from “volunteering,” service learning is a process that incorporates intentional elements of preparation, action, reflection and celebration. For example, in preparation, groups are encouraged to work with community partners to determine priorities so projects are decided together (not chosen based on faulty assumptions of what’s needed).

Service learning also incorporates reflection, a time to debrief the experience through conversation, journaling or creative expression. Reflection can produce fresh insights and inspire changes in a young person’s attitudes and behaviors, emphasizing service as a continual process of learning and growing as followers of Jesus.

Where to start

These resources can help plan service experiences that are life-changing, have a lasting impact for the community and encourage lifelong service:

  • Service And Learning Leadership Training Project offers free resources based on the service-learning process, including videos, phone app, planning guide, reflection exercises and training materials.
  • Digging In: A Leader’s Guide to Service Learning is a free, downloadable comprehensive planning guide.for youth-oriented service related to food, hunger and poverty issues, including a project planning worksheet.
  • Locate a service experience for youth at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries’ Servant Journeys’ page.
  •  “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday Toolkit can assist leaders in planning, carrying out and celebrating successful service experiences for “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, or any other time through the year.


Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson is professor of children, youth, and family studies at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, Wash.

Read more about: