Service Learning & (Progressive) Youth Ministry

While in undergrad I completed over 1400 hours of community service through Americorps and earned money to help pay for graduate school (the first round at least). It was an awesome opportunity to learn all kinds of things that I had not been exposed to like social justice, California, and atheists.

There were two catch phrases that were used until you started repeating them in your sleep: “servant leadership” and “service-learning.” Everything was (and I think, still is) all about service-learning. Pfeiffer had all kinds of service-learning requirements of certain classes. This whole idea was about learning as we serve; serving others in the field we are learning about; exploring various layers of the field we study while offering our gifts in service to others.

I LOVE IT! It’s a big part of why I went to Pfeiffer – to participate in the Bonner Program and because of the whole focus on servant leadership. I had never heard about service-learning before, but now I’m a huge proponent, and incorporate the whole idea into my ministry with youth.

This Sunday evening at Youth Group we are going to dig up some old, dead trees and plant a new one. There are so many awesome lessons we could explore as we complete this project. So many agendas and theologies that could pervade a simple task of caring for creation. It’s tempting to go for one, to talk about death and new life; getting rid of dead things in our lives that keep the Spirit from breathing new life through us. I could get away with any of it, especially a simple lesson on the importance of caring for creation.

I may still do something like it, if the Spirit leads me to, but a lot of times when it seems like there is an “easy lesson” or “teachable moment,” I think our youth are bright enough to dig deep (pun intended) into their own minds, hearts, and souls and offer up a lesson themselves.

I’ve done it before, after reading a scripture passage. Instead of me offering a quick moral point to be absorbed (and indeed, quickly forgotten), I offer up space for collective wisdom to be shared…with a question like, “what lessons, images, themes, ideas, words, feelings, senses do you experience in this passage; in this moment?”  or “How is God speaking to you through this project/activity/passage?” And the most amazing thing happens…they speak. Sure, some will share silly things, like “dirt is gross” or “what she said.” …But some…will say things that stir up the Spirit in ways you as the leader never could have planned for. Profound, amazingly wonderful things that challenge, convict, and inspire. And when it comes from their peers instead of adults, it means so much more, because it’s in a language that’s more familiar to them, easier to accept as their own (and even if you’ve said it before, they won’t necessarily remember that YOU said it, but they’ll remember if the shy little 7th grader next to them says it).

I believe youth are amazing creatures with a whole lotta knowledge and emotions and ideas just processing in their heads like bees buzzing around a beehive. They have so much to say, so much to offer to a world that for the most part is so busy telling them what not to do, and what they should believe, that it’s just more noisy buzzing.

Progressive youth ministry has potential to make meaning out of the buzzing. To give space for youth to say things out loud that they may not believe, but may just need the space to say out loud. To explore various ways of saying things, language to articulate an array of beliefs and ideas…words that the youth themselves can choose.

I believe that when we create that space and encourage exploration and dialogue (as opposed to pushing dogmatics and moralistic objectives), we offer youth a space to really develop their faith in ways that are meaningful to them, in ways that ultimately will help youth own their faith more fully…because it will be THEIRS (not yours).

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