By Rev. Dr. Claire Annelise Smith, Director of youTheology Institute, home of youTheology Journey with High School Students, April 15, 2016
If you’ve been around young people for any length of time, by now you know that they like to help, don’t you? Activities that involve service are high on their approval list. In addition, many schools give credits for community service that go towards graduation. When you factor in how community service hours look on the college application, programs that involve helping others is a winner.
At youTheology Institute, service, or “hands-on ministry” as we term it, is an important part of what we do in our program with high school students. This is fed by our theme which captures the essence of who we are as Christians. Our theme is, “Loving God, Loving Neighbor.” Since young people already lean towards service, and are “herded” towards it we find it important to establish the connection between service and the Christian faith. How do we do this?
Starting With the Name
The very terminology, “hands-on ministry” is a way of making this distinction. It is a signal to students that this is not another community service project for points. Rather, they will be engaged in active service that is connected to their Christian witness. It is another way of loving God and loving neighbor. Thus, what they do, they do in the name of Jesus Christ and out of the love that God has given them. They follow the way of Christ and the example that Jesus Christ has left them. Therefore, reaching out to alleviate the suffering and/or condition of others is intrinsic to who they are. But is that all?
Moving With Awareness
When we do hands-on ministry in our program with high school students, we share in the ministry of a church or order that is already serving in a community, Ideally, we would serve where we have a longstanding connection. However, since this is not a viable option, we work with a church that is already in such a relationship. In this way, the church is the host through whom we serve. Students learn about the community and the witness of the church in that community and why the ministry activity which the church has chosen for them to participate in is important. Thus, in doing hands-on ministry, they move with awareness in love for God and neighbor.
Ending With Theological Reflection
After we have concluded the particular hands-on ministry component, students engage in theological reflection. The framework we use in youTheology Institute for theological reflection is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This reflection is carried out in the light of our theme, “loving God, loving neighbor.” In this way, students are able to connect what they have done with the witness of the Scriptures, the tradition, and experiences of God at work in their lives and the lives of others. In addition, they will see the radical and complex nature of what it means to love God and others.
Why does this matter?
Here are three important reasons why it is important that we move from community service project to loving God, loving neighbor in youTheology Institute and other Christian programs with high school students:
1) Students can expand their understanding of what it means to follow Christ. Discipleship.
2) They can better see the connection between their faith and living in the world. Relevance.
3) They can move with love of God and neighbor rather than good feelings and/or the need for credits. Loving commitment.
Thus, while on the surface the hands-on ministry we do may seem exactly the same as community service projects and produce the same results in a community, it’s deeper. It is a call to grow in love for God and love for neighbor. This has spiritual results and impact for the students, the churches and communities they serve in a way that can only happen when we serve in the name of Jesus Christ.