“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another…I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall love as Christ loved, I shall do His work.”
– John Henry Newman
There is something so empowering for children to know now, at their young age, that God has a job for them to do. They are called to love & serve others just as Christ loves & serves us.
The Discipline of Service “is a way of offering resources, time, treasure, influence and expertise for the care, protection, justice, and nurture of others. Acts of service give hands to the second greatest commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Calhoun, p 144)
Children’s Ministries love to find ways to involve children in service. Typical service projects include donation drives for food banks, VBS mission projects, and goodie bags for the homeless. I love all of these. I use all of these fairly regularly. But I also don’t believe these are enough to instill in our children a deeply rooted love for the discipline of service. Let me explain.
Our motivation for serving others should come from our love for God and for others and from our desire to be imitators of Jesus. Richard Fosters explains the differences in becoming true servants versus self-righteous servants:
- Self-righteous service prefers to do deeds of titanic proportions. True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large.
- Self-righteous service calculates results and expects reciprocity. True service delights only in the service itself.
- Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve, mostly because of gaining a coveted public image. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry and almost never notices whether others are watching.
- Moods and whims affect self-righteous service. True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.
- Self-righteous service is temporary. Having served, it rests easy. True service is an ongoing lifestyle.
- Self-righteous service puts others into the servant’s debt. True service quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for others’ needs, putting no one under obligation to return the service. (excerpt from Habits of a Child’s Heart: Raising Your Kids with the Spiritual Disciplines by Valerie E. Hess & Marti Watson Garlett, Ph. D, pg 124-125)
There came a day when I took a good, long, hard look at the “service projects” I was providing for my kids and I had to admit that I was mostly teaching self-righteous service. Not intentionally, of course, but it was true, nonetheless. Self-righteous service was not fostering in my children a love for serving God selflessly. Their motivation stemmed from what am I going to get out of this and how is this going to make me look and what recognition will I receive? That’s not what I wanted to nurture in my kids’ hearts. How was I going to create a ministry environment that moved away from teaching self-righteous service to one that fostered true, Christ-honoring service? Here are a few of the things I’ve implemented over the years:
- Children don’t always get to partake in the fruits of their labor. Kids don’t get to enjoy whatever food, toys, goodies, etc. they are assembling for someone else. For example, during Work Camp (a week long house painting service project for 7th-12th graders), I hosted Work Camp, Jr. for 3rd – 5th graders. We would create a gift for each home owner whose home was being painted and then we would divide into groups to delivery the gifts & take popsicles to the teens who were working in the heat of summer. I told our kids the Popsicles were not for them. They were to give them away freely without expectation of a reward for themselves. Some of our adults would balk at this requirement but the kids learned this act of service was not about them. It is not why we serve others. We serve others because we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and He taught us that service is not about me.
- Push kids out of their comfort zones. Most of our kids are still pretty fearless and unaware of comfort zones. Yes, there are shy, introverted children who need more coaxing but even they can learn to serve outside of their comfort zones. At Work Camp, Jr. the kids were given instructions to follow at each home they visited: greet the homeowner, introduce themselves, present the gift, ask him/her a couple questions and then pray with the homeowner. After that they were to go to the teens, give them a Popsicle, ask them a few questions and then pray with them, too. The caveat? The adults with them were not to do any of the talking. And all of the kids had to share in the talking responsibilities. The result? They encouraged one another. The outspoken child couldn’t carry the group and the wallflower couldn’t hide in the background. My prayer is that if I can get my kids comfortable living outside of comfort zones they will be a lot more equipped to serve God than I can even begin to fathom!
- Challenge kids to serve in secret. This one is fun and really pretty easy to incorporate into your ministry. Look at the groups you already have formed (Bible classes, small groups, groups at camp, etc.). Challenge each group to serve another group in secret. Think Secret Santa for service. I would highly recommend assigning groups so that way every group gets served by someone without getting left out.
- Stop thinking of it as a “service project.” The word “project” implies it is a one time thing that has an expiration date. Yes, some do (like Work Camp, Jr. or VBS mission projects) but we need to help kids see “service” as something they can do every day. When our attitude is one of humbly serving our neighbor like Jesus did there are thousands of things we can do daily to serve others: picking up trash, putting classroom supplies away, holding a door open, helping someone carry something, praying for someone, saving money for a tithe, making cookies for someone, visiting someone sick, being a friend to the new person, etc. Acknowledge these small acts of service and make this a part of your regular vocabulary.
- Let the children participate in the follow-through whenever possible. I could have had our 3rd-5th graders make a gift for the homeowners and then sent it with the Youth Ministry to distribute & deliver. It would have been easier but not as meaningful. Their participation in the delivery of the gift & getting to talk to the homeowner is so valuable to all the parties involved. What a HUGE teaching & learning opportunity would be missed if they weren’t able to be a part of the follow-through.
- Find a balance in acknowledgement. Our 450 VBS kids raised $9,000 for our VBS Mission Project this year. They went out and raised that money on their own. This wasn’t mom & dad writing a check for their child’s contribution. They deserved to be celebrated & recognized. However, we need to be intentional in also teaching that service needs to be done even when no one else is watching. Maybe all it requires is a quiet note from you when you observe a child selflessly serving someone else. When children are willing to serve without acknowledgement or recognition I believe they are beginning to fully grasp the difference between self-righteous service & true service.
The Discipline of Service is one of the most fun disciplines for children to participate in. It’s active, engaging and can be done in community. It’s a great discipline for families to practice together. Join us on Thursday as we hear from one family who regularly practices Service together. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. How do you have teach your children the difference between self-righteous service & true service?