Serving Others: An Emerging Emphasis for Youth

by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Elanah Dalyah Naftali, and Laura Musegades

Whereas adults may express concern that teenagers don’t have money to give, they celebrate the many ways young people contribute through service. Whereas members often think financial giving should be reserved for adults, they see young people taking the lead in service in their synagogues, churches, and temples—sometimes bringing the adults with them. Whereas church leaders often worry that asking young people to contribute money will scare youth away, they have seen how inviting teenagers to serve attracts them and keeps them connected.

Indeed, youth service (which we use as an inclusive term to include social action, activism, voluntarism, service-learning, and missions) has become an important part of religious youth work, public education, and the whole field of youth development. Young people have numerous opportunities to serve, and many are involved. However, barriers persist, and service opportunities within congregations sometimes fall short of their potential.


Many of the people we interviewed said that today’s young people seem to be more attuned to issues of service and justice. A survey for Prudential Insurance Company of America found that 95 percent of youth believed it was very or somewhat important for youth to learn the value of community service.1 Similarly, a Gallup Youth Survey found that nine out of ten teenagers say that doing charitable or volunteer work is an important or very important part of being a good citizen.2

Multiple factors may account for this interest. Thom Schultz argues that the high interest in service reflects "a counterbalancing effect with some of the other things that are happening in society today that are making service and helping others more attractive and more logical for kids to be interested in." He pointed to the effect of technology, which creates "a counterbalancing hunger for human relationships, . . . to reach out more in a personal and human way."

Another factor may be the increased emphasis on service in many parts of society. Widespread efforts to engage young people in service or volunteering developed in various settings in the last two decades of the 20th century. By the end of the 1990s, involvement in service had become something of an expectation for youth. Forty percent of high school respondents in the Prudential Spirit of Community Youth Survey said their school emphasizes volunteering. One-third of youth (32 percent) said their parents and other family members emphasized volunteering.3


Much of the growing emphasis on service in schools has been paralleled by a growing emphasis on service to others as an integral part of congregational youth work. It has also become a major part of the programming of denominations and national organizations engaged in religious youth work. Religious institutions provide a significant number of the volunteer activities for young people, and they are an important "entry point." Among young people who volunteer, 53 percent first learned about volunteer activities through their congregation. In comparison, 50 percent learned about activities through their school, 22 percent through a youth organization, 20 percent through a community group, and 47 percent through other settings.4

Many of the congregations we contacted are working to tap into this interest in serving others, making service a central part of their youth work. Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, a megachurch in Tipp City, Ohio, may exemplify the many ways service becomes integral to youth work. According to Efrem Smith, the youth pastor, the congregation sponsors at least four mission trips each year, as well as a local effort through which young people do mentoring, tutoring, and running Bible clubs with children. He explained: "Teens … can have an opportunity at least four times a year to go on national [or] international mission trips. And then they have opportunities all year round to serve communities. . . . Teens have been involved in refurbishing homes [or] have gone down and volunteered in soup kitchens. So we see mission and serving as vital. It’s like the heartbeat of the youth ministry here."

Service opportunities in and through congregations are widespread, but not universal. And, as in other settings where young people serve, not all young people who affiliate with a congregation are involved in its service activities. Yet many of the observers with whom we spoke said they’ve seen a noticeable increase in the focus on youth service in congregations in the past 20 years.

For example, one observer of the trends in youth service in Christian churches is Thom Schultz, president of Group Publishing, which has been sponsoring summer work camps for church youth groups since 1977 and included more than 12,000 young people in camps in summer 1999. "When we began, [service] was a natural activity for youth groups from mainline churches, because mainline churches have always had as a hallmark social justice kinds of things," he recalled. "What has happened over the 20 years is that mainline churches no longer have an exclusive clutch on it as they once did. Now everyone is just as interested in service, especially with kids."


Young people get involved in serving others or doing volunteer work through their congregation in many ways. These opportunities within congregations suggest how pervasive volunteering has become in religious youth work. They also raise important questions about how service is defined, what it includes, and how various types of service or volunteering have different kinds of impact.


Much congregation-based youth service centers on the congregation’s programs and members. Indeed, 24 percent of all youth volunteer work counted in Independent Sector’s research is service within the congregation. This category includes teaching in religious education (6 percent), being a choir member (4 percent), and being an aide to a minister or rabbi (3 percent). Furthermore, 37 percent of young people surveyed said they had done volunteer work at a church or synagogue in the past year, compared to 35 percent who said they had worked on a community service project.5

In some senses, this area of service within the congregation raises the same kinds of questions that surfaced when discussing young people’s financial contributions. How much should congregations distinguish between time spent in volunteer activities within the congregation and service involvement that addresses needs in the neighborhood, community, or world? How are the goals different for each kind of service? How should they be balanced?

Within the congregation are also many opportunities to offer care or service to others—often by service to elderly or homebound members or caring for younger children. The annual Parent’s Day Out at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis is a good example. Each year, the congregation’s youth group provides child care and activities for children from six months old to sixth grade so that parents will have time to do Christmas shopping. The teenagers help the children bake cookies and make cards for homebound members. Then the younger children deliver the cookies and cards while singing carols. Adults and older teenagers take the fourth to sixth graders shopping to buy toys for children who otherwise wouldn’t get any (thus building a bridge to service in the community). The money comes from a fundraiser coordinated by the fourth graders.


Many youth get involved in service in their community through their congregation. Some volunteer on their own, asking for recommendations from leaders in their congregation. Others participate through service projects or activities operated or coordinated by the congregation. Examples of community service are plentiful: visiting nursing homes; providing after-school care to younger children; doing home repair, refurbishing, painting, and building; providing services for shut-ins; working in a food bank or soup kitchen, and tutoring. Many of these activities are tied to holidays, the ritual calendar, or the church year.

Most of these projects tend to be one-time or short-term commitments, particularly when they are done as group activities. However, some young people individually engage in long-term service commitments fostered through their involvement in the congregation. As one young person told us, "I have done a lot of community service through my synagogue, but most of the stuff I have done is just on my own."


Work camps, work trips, mission trips, and trips to Israel tend to be the most visible and enticing service experiences for youth in many congregations. Not only do young people have opportunities to serve, but they like the chance to get away from home. Furthermore, the intensive, retreatlike closeness within the youth group over several days or a week can have a powerful bonding effect.

The merits of these kinds of experiences and whether they exploit residents of the communities helped is hotly debated. Some denominations, organizations, and activists have discouraged youth groups from participating in work camps on both ethical and practical grounds. On the ethical side, they note that the service projects can be designed more for the good of youth than for the community members being "served." They also note that important needs could be met closer to home, saving the significant costs of travel and allowing for ongoing relationships between the young people and the community served.

While proponents of work camp experiences agree that poorly planned experiences can be exploitative, they also believe that work camps can be planned thoughtfully and respectfully by agencies and community members working together to identify needs and projects. They say also that the novelty and adventure of planning and going on a trip is a major incentive for young people. That appeal simply is not available in local projects. In addition, a work camp can expose young people to other regions and cultures.

Finally, proponents of work camps highlight the benefits of giving young people and their leaders experience in effective service-learning through the intensive work camp—experience that many groups then apply in their own community. "If kids are allowed to be exposed the first time around to something a bit more exotic that involves traveling beyond their own community," said Thom Schultz, "that turns them on to return home and serve at home."

Schultz also sees the experience having a powerful influence on the whole youth program. "When kids go out for one week of a concentrated dose of serving others," Schultz said, "what we have seen often happen is that that forms an engine for the entire rest of their ministry and for the entire rest of the year." The experience serves as a focal point for helping the group clarify "what they are about, what they stand for, and what they care about."

Tom Bright suggested the need for a more integrated understanding of the variety of service experiences and recognizing "what service outside one’s community or more extended service can do." He continued: "Sometimes the best way to view the service that needs to be done in my own community is to step outside and to serve someplace else—and then come back and recognize the parallels or the difference in needs."

These benefits and perspectives, do not, of course, directly address the concerns of the skeptics. As with almost any congregational effort to serve people in need, there is a risk of paternalism and misunderstanding if care is not taken to engage service recipients meaningfully in planning a project and in building mutually respectful relationships.


While service involvement is fairly widespread and diverse in congregations, it is by no means universal. The relatively low percentages of youth who are involved in ongoing, consistent service to others suggest that most young people are "exposed" to service, not "engaged" in it. Lee M. Levison of Nobel and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, explains the difference in a chapter about school-based service-learning:

Exposure is what most students experience during their involvement in community service. The vast majority of programs aim to expose students to people who are less fortunate than they are— people with whom they would not ordinarily come into contact. Engagement implies intensity. In such programs, students take service seriously, they are intellectually engaged, the school’s approach is multidimensional, and the school genuinely cares about service. . . . Engagement programs require more commitment from their students than just fulfilling the required number of hours.6

Despite the growth in commitment to and emphasis on service in congregations, leaders continue to encounter obstacles or challenges to engaging youth more actively or effectively in service to others. Ten barriers surfaced in our interviews and research.


While it is clear that engaging young people in service is fairly widespread in congregations, there is much less evidence that such involvement is consistently rewarding, enriching, or effective. Writing from a Catholic perspective, Thomas Bright and John Roberto (of the Center for Ministry Development) critique much of what they see in congregations:

No component or program in youth ministry is more maligned or misused than service. Too often service projects serve in the unrewarding role of a parish requirement for the sacrament of Confirmation or a school requirement for graduation or course grade. Service becomes another "must" in the lives of youth. Many service projects are so poorly planned that they do more harm than good to youth and the people they are trying to help. . . . It is hard to believe this is what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of serving the needs of others.7


As is true with all youth activities, a lack of available time is often seen as an obstacle to engaging youth in service. "Students today are just so busy with things that are going on in their lives," said Alan Ramsey of the Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. "They have extracurricular activities, major school stuff, sports, and various other Christian clubs that they’re a part of, and so time is a huge, huge issue. I think it is the biggest issue."

The levels of time pressure likely vary by community and youth subculture. For example, the Rev. Don Ng of First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco wondered if the traditions of Asian-American cultures may exacerbate the time pressures. "Many of our young people are looking for extracurricular activities for self-enhancement," he said. "They have this extra-credit mentality: . . . If I were to join this club or attend summer school or improve myself, I would have a better chance of getting into U.C. Berkeley, for example, or Stanford. So there is an academic success motivation . . . to accumulate enough of these extra academic enhancements to get ahead."

The challenge is not just young people’s time, but time to fit service within the scope of programming in the congregation. "Churches have too many things on their plates," said Jewell Dassance of the Congress of National Black Churches. As a result, she said, many use whatever time they have to teach the faith and "don’t engage children in other outside activities." Dassance also noted that the time pressures on adults also make it difficult to expand service experience for young people. "Many [service activities] require that children be in the church after church, after school, or Saturdays," she says. "And many churches just don’t have adult volunteers to supervise those types of activities."


In some cases, a lack of support from parents can become a challenge. One issue is the level of commitment. Rabbi Neal Gold said: "Sometimes the kids come to temple with much more enthusiasm than their parents do. . . . And sometimes kids who would want to be involved in anything and everything, don’t get 100 percent reinforcement at home."

One reason parents may be less supportive, Gold suggested, is that the temple, like many other congregations, has not adequately addressed parent and family education. "We’re just starting to talk about [more parent education], so I would want to figure out how to work tikkun olam . . . into the context of family education."


An important factor in shaping young people’s commitment to and engagement in service is having role models to emulate. The role model can be a parent or another adult or a peer. Yet it appears that many young people don’t have people they look to as role models in serving others. A 1995 survey of high school students found that only 50 percent could identify a particular person whom they admired for commitment to community service. Youth who volunteer are about twice as likely as nonvolunteers to be able to identify a role model (59 percent vs. 30 percent).8


While service has become more common in schools and other settings, some youth workers still see that asking young to commit to serving others is countercultural. The Rev. Cherie Smith of Kirkwood (Missouri) Baptist Church puts it this way: "I think right now they’re just so into being teenagers and doing what is cool and what is popular. And although their heart may tell them that this something they need to do, there’s a lot of pressure out there to make other things a priority."

While individualism may, indeed, be an obstacle, Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University notes the paradox that emerged after the publication of the seminal work by Robert Bellah and his colleagues, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.9 "It kind of struck me," Wuthnow recalled, "that there was something a little bit peculiar or paradoxical about the fact that his group argued that we were so individualistic, and yet we seem to have the highest rate of volunteerism of any country in the world—at least that was the thought at the time." That paradox drew Wuthnow into a deeper investigation of volunteerism. In Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves, he asked: "How is it that we as a people are able to devote billions of hours to volunteer activities, to show care and compassion in so many ways to those around us, and still be a nation of individualists who pride ourselves on personal freedom, individual success, and the pursuit of self-interest? How do we reconcile these paradoxical elements in our tradition?"10

By the end of the book, he concluded that volunteerism is "not merely the manifestation of our most compassionate impulses but also an expression of our individualism. It allows us to carve up our caring in little chunks that require only a level of giving that does not conflict with our needs and interests as individuals," which may speak to why it is difficult to engage young people in more sustained service projects.11


For the Chippewa-Cree youth of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Box Elder, Montana, race is the biggest barrier, said the Rev. Joseph Bailey, senior pastor. "It’s an issue for us, and it’s an issue for the people we’re trying to serve. . . . It’s an issue for our kids because they are unsure about moving out among white society. They don’t know quite how to do that real comfortably. It’s an issue for the people we’re serving—one, because oftentimes, they have never really dealt with Indian people. And, two, some of them are just plain outright racist. And we’ve encountered that."

Issues of race and culture can become serious barriers to service on several levels, particularly for youth from minority communities. Several factors come into play.

Donald Ng described a culture clash that grows out of socioeconomic and generational differences within his congregation and between the congregation’s youth group and its community. "We’re a church that is made up of a lot of middle-class members," he said. "We’re still located in a downtown neighborhood. In fact, we’re right in the heart of Chinatown. . . . We have, on a daily basis, new immigrants coming to America and so it’s a crowded place. But our young people, because they grow up in suburbs, . . . live outside of the center city. They want to serve, but there is a cultural clash. People who are economically or culturally or linguistically different from those who want to serve find this cultural chasm difficult to bridge."


As with so many other things, congregations often find that it’s the same young people who are involved over and over. It can be very difficult to engage young people for the first time in service. "It’s so frustrating," said Iowan Mary Kohlsdorff, "because you can’t get kids to just do it once. . . . It’s just getting kids to commit and take that first step. The ones that have taken that step, I have really seen their lives change."


Young people in middle- and upper-class communities where a veneer of self-sufficiency is a cultural norm can too easily lose sight of the need to serve others. Even though his temple is in an urban area of New Jersey, Rabbi Neal Gold described "living a sheltered suburban life" as an ongoing challenge. He noted that "we kind of mitigate [the isolation] a little by the fact that we’re not a suburban shul—that we are in an urban setting. But, that doesn’t mean that when you drive to temple that you necessarily see hungry homeless or desperate people on the way."


Many youth workers and other leaders point to a variety of logistical issues that get in the way of actively engaging young people in service. These include:


While Jewish and Christian traditions clearly emphasize the religious roots of serving others, it’s much less clear to what extent young people are motivated by the specific challenge of faith versus a general humanitarian sense of generosity or compassion. While basic generosity and compassion are worthwhile, they may not be adequate for transforming service into a faith-shaping, formative experience for young people.

Thom Schultz noted the missed opportunity when congregations "take their kids off and do a service project and perform some good work, and then simply go home." In his experience with Group Publishing’s work camps (supported by research on effective service-learning),12 an opportunity to reflect is essential for growth and learning, allowing young people to "reflect on what they have seen and what they have heard and what they have felt, and tie it back in to not only the rest of their lives, but also tie it back in . . . [to] our role as Christian people to serve others."


We began by noting the disparity between how giving and serving have taken root in congregational youth work. And, indeed, the commitment to youth service in congregations is much deeper than the commitment to financial giving, particularly in Christian churches. However, the differences may not be as polarized as we suggested. Consider, for example, the following:

Adapted from the book Growing Up Generous: Engaging Youth in Giving and Serving by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Elanah Dalyah Naftali, and Laura Musegades (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 2000).


1. Wirthlin Group, The Prudential Spirit of Community Youth Survey: A Survey of High School Students on Community Involvement (Newark: Prudential Insurance Company of America, 1995), 14, 16.

2. George H. Gallup, Jr., The Spiritual Life of Young Americans: Approaching the Year 2000 (Princeton, N.J.: George H. Gallup International Institute, n.d.), 73.

3. Wirthlin Group, Prudential Spirit, 14, 16. 9. Hodgkinson and Weitzman, Volunteering and Giving Among Teenagers, 1996 edition, 56.

4. Hodgkinson and Weitzman, Volunteering and Giving Among Teenagers, 1996 edition, 14, 30.

5. Lee M. Levison, "Choose Engagement Over Exposure," in Jane C. Kendall et al., Combining Service and Learning: A Resource Book for Community and Public Service, vol. 1 (Raleigh, N.C.: National Society for Experiential Education, 1990), 68-75.

6. Thomas Bright and John Roberto, "Introduction to Action and Service Programming," in Michael Moseley and John Roberto, YouthWorks, revised edition (Naugatuck, Conn.: Center for Ministry Development, 1996), section 11, part 2, p. 3.

7. Wirthlin Group, Prudential Spirit, 17.

8. Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

9. Robert Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 17.

10. Ibid., 281.

11. See, for example, Alan S. Waterman, ed., Service-Learning: Applications from the Research (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997).

Copyright © 2000 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.