Youth Ministries: Building Young Believers Through Serving

In this series we’ve been addressing strategies for advancing healthy youth ministry in and through congregations. This ministry is far more than programs—it involves personal relationships, where young people come to know and embrace a living person—Jesus, our Savior and Lord.

We have written about nurturing young believers using the model of CANS. This acronym stands for:

Community: where young believers are embraced by and included in a body of believers who are committed to Jesus’ mission.

Adoration: where young believers are led to be passionate worshipers of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Nurture: where young believers are helped to feed on the living Word of God present in Scripture, in the Spirit’s presence in that young person’s life, and in the Spirit’s ministry through other believers.

We come now to the of the acronym, which stands for Serving. Why is serving an essential part of nurturing young Christians?

Jesus’ example

The first reason is that Jesus is our example, and he came to “serve and not be served.” Many theologians refer to Jesus as the “suffering servant.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus subordinated his own desires to those of the people around him. Whether it was the healing of a leper (unthinkable to even get close to a leper in those days) to the willingness to stay up into the late hours of night to heal those in Capernaum (Mark 1:32-34), Jesus reached out to and served others.

Jesus’ own example shows that he served believers (his disciples) and nonbelievers. The miracles he offered—healings, casting out of demons and feeding hungry people (to name a few) showed a care, concern and compassion for others that was born out of love and was expressed in acts of service.

One of the best known of these acts of service is found in John 13, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. He tells them: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master.… Now that you know
these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:14-17).

The most remarkable act of service was that Jesus would come to this earth at all. Paul writes that Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). But Jesus went further, laying down his life at the cross in the most remarkable act of service imaginable.

We learn from Jesus’ ministry that he engaged his disciples in acts of service as well. In Luke 9:10-17, we have the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. The disciples were not simply spectators of the supernatural. Jesus asked them to participate. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (verse 16).

Why serve?

It is important for several reasons to engage young Christians in acts of service. As already explained, serving models the very life of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus did not ask us to simply be converts. He asked us to be disciples, following his example. Jesus set an example of service.

Second, the nature of God is paradoxical to the nature of humans. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither my ways your ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). Human nature prefers to be served rather than to serve. We prefer to do the eating rather than the feeding and the washing of dishes. Yet something amazing happens when you reach out to serve. It is inexplicable, but a remarkable feeling of fulfillment washes over a person who has served someone else. This is especially so for one who has Jesus living in him or her. Why? Because it reflects the nature of Jesus to lay down one’s life for others (John 15:13).

Third, acts of service lead to a sense of ownership. If I serve in my family, I have invested in my family. It feels more like my family after I have served in it. The same is true for serving in my church, school or community. If I serve in my church, it feels more like my church. I become more aware of its needs and more interested in its development. We do ourselves a disservice when we only serve our young people instead of letting them serve one another and the church at large.

Fourth, one of the great ways to develop a sense of community is through acts of service done together. Having young believers serve together is a powerful way to build their sense of commitment and connectedness. This also can aid in the development of intergenerational

Where to invite acts of serving

A vital part of a child’s development within the family includes his or her acts of service to the rest of the family members. Whether it is washing the dishes, mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom, acts of service help our children feel more invested in our own families as well as
teaching them important life values.

We may also consider ways to get our young people more involved in serving within our congregations. Perhaps it is helping with the sound system, serving as an usher or greeter, or creating a service function of their own. Each of these forms of serving will help strengthen a young person’s conviction and commitment.

A word of caution on this—forcing people to serve against their will may easily alienate them. A better approach is to encourage their involvement, and to model humility by being willing, as an older adult, to participate in service alongside them.

Doug Fields makes an interesting observation about youths serving within the church in his book, Purpose Driven Youth Ministry:

The more our staff focuses on teaching students about service, the more I am surprised at how open students are to the concept of ministry.… [However], in some churches, getting students to do ministry isn’t as big a challenge as convincing the church congregation and leadership that teenagers can play a vital role in the body of Christ.

Paul wrote Timothy and said, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12). Congregations seem to retain young Christians when they are nurturing them by getting them involved in serving opportunities.

One of the reasons our summer camps are successful in nurturing young believers is that young campers and young staff members are instrumental in pulling together all of the activities, programs and facilities. They become passionate about their roles and soon have a more firmly and deeply held passion about what Jesus is doing in their lives. This passion is a function of their investment in camp, which is a function of their serving there.

The serving continuum

Serving can be tricky. Pushed into serving in a role where a young believer does not believe his or her service really made any impact can lead a person to become jaded. For this reason, it is helpful to start service opportunities that are relatively small in scope and have a good chance of being successful.

In addition, it may be useful to start by serving with projects that do not involve serving people. Road clean up, dish washing, food preparation and yard work are examples of service projects where there is no direct interaction with a “customer.” As a young believer becomes more
committed, it is important that they are given opportunities to move up the continuum toward service projects that involve direct interface with people and that ultimately include sharing the gospel with unbelievers.

There is another reason why serving can be tricky. It can become a form of works-based religion. An unhealthy approach to service is when a believer begins to think that the only way to get favor with God is through service. We serve because we are already favored by God. Because of his grace and the lead of the Holy Spirit, we are disciples of Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. Service is an outward manifestation of love—not an attempt to get more gold stars with God.

To help nurture young believers, we need to develop a sense of community, lead in the adoration of our Lord, nurture those who are babes in Christ, and find ways to invite them to participate in serving. Creating an environment where these elements exist will enhance the likelihood that young believers will become more firmly established in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Author: Jeb Egbert

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