03 Service & Youth Ministry

Service & Youth Ministry


From car washes and mission trips to Bible donations and neighborhood cleanups, service projects have become almost synonymous with the youth group experience. They make up a major part of the public picture of youth ministry, and have become almost a rite of passage for the Christian adolescent.

But serving is more than a milestone of maturity. It’s a unique opportunity for God’s people to pursue justice and express compassion, while instilling in teens a habit of service that will follow them into adulthood.

Nine out of 10 youth pastors report that their ministry engages in service: 88 percent have participated in a project or trip of some kind. Part Three explores the multitude of forms that service can take, the reasons pastors and parents find serving valuable and the lasting impact it may have on the community—and the teens—involved.

6. Goals of Serving

Leader Goals

Youth pastors were presented with a list of potential motivations for mission and asked to select up to three that describe their goals for such projects. The most popular responses are linked to a broader sense of calling. Three-quarters choose “loving and serving others” (73%), and more than half choose “being the hands and feet of Jesus” (56%).

Four in 10 prioritize how service can benefit teens, not just the people they are serving: 41 percent say “discipleship for youth on a trip” is a main goal.

Just behind this reason is “outreach to people and organizations” (36%). (Among those who select this option, three in five believe it is important that outreach should involve explicitly sharing the gospel through evangelism and compassion.) Thirty percent think “teaching and modeling compassion” is a primary reason for service.

Less common goals of service include responding to systemic injustice (15%), providing for the poor (15%), allowing teens to see the world (12%) and conducting outreach and evangelism for youth (11%). Youth pastors in urban churches (25%) tend to be more interested in responding to systemic injustice than their colleagues in suburban (15%), small town (8%) and rural churches (7%).

Female youth leaders are more connected to some of the abstract goals like loving and serving others or representing the hands and feet of Christ, while male youth leaders are more likely to list outreach and evangelism. Youth pastors in mainline churches are also more likely to be motivated by showing love and service rather than by outreach and evangelism.

Black leaders demonstrate a deeper concern for providing for the poor and are less likely to list loving and serving others as a main goal. Youth pastors in the Midwest are slightly more likely to be driven by addressing systemic injustice, but also connect with the metaphor of being Jesus’ hands and feet.

Researchers also asked youth pastors to rate the appeal of a mission trip based on potential outcomes in their ministry. Topping the list of “very appealing” outcomes are “students experience growth in their faith development” (82%), closely followed by “students meet real needs and make a difference” (77%).

Roughly two-thirds say “students can serve alongside a community” (63%) and “students build relationships with those in a community” (62%) are very appealing outcomes.

Parent Goals

Parents see volunteering as an important practice—not only for their teen, but also for themselves. There are a number of reasons that parents say they personally volunteer: to help people in need (76%), help communities or organizations they feel drawn toward (53%), to set a good example for their teen (46%) and to grow as a person (43%). So it makes sense that a large majority of parents—80 percent—find it to be “somewhat” or “very” important that their child participate in community service as well.

What are the specific benefits that parents see in their teen’s efforts? They believe it’s a way to show young people how to give back from what they have received (48%) or to see and have experiences with someone who is different (45%). More than one-third says it helps kids learn to connect to other people (42%), to be well rounded (36%) or to be empathetic (37%). Some simply see it as a healthy social activity (28%) or an opportunity for a teen to build up their resume or college application (18%). Maybe, as a minority of parents hope, their teen might just enjoy doing it (15%).

Like youth pastors, when considering the goals of community service in the context of youth ministry, parents are drawn to more poetic, aspirational descriptions. More than half select “loving and serving others” (56%) and 35 percent pick “being the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Understandably, when it comes to service, parents also think about how it might shape their teen into a better person. One-third of parents are hopeful that participation might stir up a spirit of altruism in their child, saying service is important to “teach compassion to the youth” (31%); a similar proportion says “providing for the poor” is a valuable outcome (32%).

One-quarter of parents says an “opportunity to see the world” is a goal for their teen’s service (25%), while about one in six point to “outreach and evangelism to the people being served” (18%). Twelve percent say service is a chance for their teen to be discipled.

Just 15 percent of parents see youth ministry service as a response to systemic injustice. However, parents with lower incomes are more likely to place importance on this goal. They are also more prone to list teaching and modeling compassion to youth, loving and serving others and being the hands and feet of Jesus. Parents with higher incomes are more invested in a service project’s ability to disciple the youth on the trip, as well as to provide for the poor.

7. Service Practices

Nine out of 10 youth pastors say their youth group has engaged in some type of service project within the past two years (88%). Let’s take a look at the details.

Types of Service

The majority of service events are conducted within a church’s local community. Most commonly, a project takes the form of a day of giving back to the town or city; nearly eight in 10 youth pastors report such an event (78%). Sixty-nine percent have gone to serve at another nearby destination that is within a day’s drive. About three out of five say their youth ministry has hosted a day of service at the church itself (58%). According to this study, mainline youth groups are more likely to engage in days of service than groups in non-mainline churches.

Mission trips occur less frequently, which is reasonable, given the planning, funding and travel required to effectively serve in this way. Unsurprisingly, churches with no paid youth ministry staff are not as likely as those with a paid pastor to go on a long-distance mission trip. Still, a significant percentage of all youth pastors report having organized a mission trip of some kind. More than one-quarter have done so to a location within the U.S. farther than a day’s drive from the church (27%). Thirty percent have ventured to serve outside of the U.S.

Location, church size and ethnicity each seem to correlate to a different approach to mission trips. Suburban youth ministers are more likely than others to conduct them, and large churches are more likely than smaller congregations to serve outside the U.S. White youth ministers are also more likely than black or Hispanic pastors to take their group on a mission trip.

The length of a mission trip can vary. Seven in 10 youth pastors have led a trip within the past two years that lasted one week (71%), and a similar percentage led a one-day trip (68%). Forty percent have gone on a trip for two or three days, and one in five have stayed longer than a week (20%). Medium churches are more likely than their counterparts to send their youth group on a mission trip lasting one week or longer. Male youth leaders are more likely to have gone on mission trips exceeding one week (23%); just 9 percent of female youth pastors report having done so.

Youth Participation

As previously noted, parents think it’s important for their child to give of their time and effort to meaningful causes. Outside of the local church, teens may take on various types of volunteering: feeding the hungry (34%), education (31%), environmental issues / cleanup (26%), animals (23%), service trips (13%), social or political advocacy (13%) and medical / healthcare issues (9%). There is a strong correlation between income level and service trips, as well as medical volunteering. Parents of a higher education level are more likely to say their child helps feed the hungry. Non-white parents are particularly drawn toward educational needs.

Church-related ministry projects, however, are the top choice for teen volunteering. Overall, 38 percent of parents say their teen serves in this respect at least once a year. Of parents whose teens attend church regularly, 61 percent say their child has participated in a ministry service project. A majority of these indicates it was a day of service at the church (55%), but a similarly popular option is a day of service in their town (49%). More than one-third says their teen has served at a destination within one day’s drive (35%) or has made a commitment to serve on regular basis (44%). One in five has gone on a mission trip to a destination in the U.S. farther than one day’s drive (19%), while one in 10 has gone outside of the U.S. (10%).

Teens with wealthier and more highly educated parents, and teens who attend the same church as their parents, are more likely to participate in service projects. Given the cost of sending a teen on a mission trip, children of lower-income parents tend to serve close to home; these youth are more likely to participate through designated days of service at their church. Higher income parents, however, are more likely to say their teen has participated in a trip to a destination in the U.S. beyond one day’s travel.

Although parents paint a compelling picture of youth volunteering habits, one-third also says their teen engages in service less often than every few months (35%). About one-quarter finds a way to give back once every few months (22%) or at least once a month (23%). About one in five serves consistently, at least once a week (20%).

The opportunity to volunteer seems to be somewhat of a socioeconomic privilege. Across the board, frequency of service is strongly correlated with household income. A majority of high-income parents says their teen volunteers at least once a week (36%) or once a month (27%). And though some parents of both middle and lower incomes report that their teen frequently volunteers, the most common response among these two groups is “less often” than every few months (31% middle, 44% lower income).

Preparation & Follow-Up

Nearly all parents feel the service activities their teen participates in will “definitely” (80%) or “probably” (17%) have a lasting impact. Three percent are not confident in its long-term benefits.

Pre-mission trip, most youth leaders strategically lay the groundwork for the experience—and parents are largely satisfied with the preparation their child received. About two-thirds say their child’s preparation was “definitely” adequate (68%), and another 29 percent say it was “somewhat” adequate.

As with pre-trip preparation, parents are generally satisfied with leaders’ follow-up efforts and feel their teen is adequately debriefed following a mission trip. More than half say this is “definitely” the case (56%), and 42 percent say “somewhat.”

When it comes to post-trip plans, youth pastors understand the impact of a service activity doesn’t end when the project closes or the return flight lands. Half say it is “very important” and one-third it’s “extremely important” that youth ministries follow up after a service project or trip. Another 18 percent call follow-up “somewhat important” and just 1 percent don’t see it as vital.

Follow-up is usually verbal, with the goal of helping teens process the happenings of the service project or trip, as well as to share it with the rest of the group or the whole congregation. The most popular type of follow-up activity is making time for youth to talk about their service experience with other students or the church body (83%). Three-quarters of youth pastors remind students about the continued importance of serving in their everyday life (75%). Two-thirds discuss the trip soon after at a social activity (66%); 45 percent host such an event a few months after the trip. Sixty-three percent encourage prayer for those who have been impacted by the trip, and more than half prepare a lesson or discussion on service (54%).

Other more practical forms of follow-up include finding new or different ways to serve locally (49%), challenging teens to apply what they learned on a trip (48%) and researching more about the needs of the local community (31%).

Q&A with Daniel White Hodge

Director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies

Daniel White Hodge, PhD, is the director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and associate professor of youth ministry at North Park University in Chicago. Currently, his research and community engagement explore the intersections of faith, critical race theory, justice, hip-hop culture and emerging multiethnic Millennial culture. His three current books are Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur; The Soul Of Hip-Hop: Rimbs, Timbs & A Cultural Theology; and Hip-Hop’s Hostile Gospel: A Post Soul Theological Exploration. He is working on a coauthored book with Irene Cho (Fuller Youth Institute) titled Between God & Kanye: Youth Ministry in a Post-Civil Rights Era.


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