ouldn’t it be wonderful if we could identify a strategy that would protect our youth and young adults from high-risk behaviors while keeping them in the church?
As a church we struggle with this. It seems as though the things that kept former generations of Adventist youth and young adults involved and engaged in the church are no longer effective. And a growing number of youth and young adults are notable by their absence. Although the exact percentage of our youth leaving the church is unknown, the number is unacceptably high. In addition, a substantial proportion of our youth engage in high-risk behaviors.1 It’s absolutely essential that we address and successfully correct these two problems.
But who knows how to do this? Who has the most effective strategy to make this happen? Surprisingly to some, the answer to that question is found in the Bible, in one of Jesus’ most oft-repeated and dramatic sayings. Maybe it’s time to revisit His instructions and get busy with His strategy.
What Did He Say?
First, let’s review what Jesus taught us. This isn’t a subtle suggestion, but a direct description of what God’s people must do. Adopting this strategy has eternal consequences. This isn’t a “maybe you should do this,” but rather an imperative: “get busy and do it—now!”
In one of His last conversations with His disciples, Jesus told them what to expect as they looked forward to His return (Matt. 24; 25). He ended His discourse with a parable about how the righteous and the unrighteous would be separated at the last judgment, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
In no uncertain terms Jesus asserted that His people, the righteous, serve others by meeting their needs: caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those imprisoned. Not only are the sick, the poor, the imprisoned ministered to, but the bottom line is that we serve Jesus Himself by serving the unfortunate in our communities.
This story both describes our Christian responsibility as we await Jesus’ return and provides us with a strategy for protecting our kids from high-risk behaviors. It also encourages their continued involvement in and engagement with the church.
Serving others isn’t just about financially supporting projects that aid others; serving others is about rolling up our sleeves and, together with our youth, changing the social climate in our communities.
God’s imperative is to feed, clothe, and protect those in need. We can safely expand on this to say that we should support, visit, help, and comfort others who are in a position of need for any reason. But some might say, What on earth does service have to do with kids and high-risk behaviors or church retention?
Service and High-Risk Behaviors
Our research and the research of others overwhelmingly confirms that when youth and young adults become involved in service to others, it changes their lives. As a result of serving others, youth are much more likely to engage in healthy prosocial behaviors. In the Harvard Education Letter, former Senator John Glenn, chairman of the National Commission on Service Learning, revealed that more than 80 percent of schools with active service-learning programs (service as part of the school curriculum) report that a majority of participating students improve their grade point averages. Senator Glenn additionally stated: “A study of a Springfield, Massachusetts, high school found the dropout rate plunged from 12 percent to 1 percent after service-learning was incorporated into the curriculum. The number of students going on to college increased by 22 percent, and those achieving a grade point average of 3.0 or higher jumped from 12 percent to 40 percent.”2 Isn’t it interesting that by following Jesus’ Matthew 25 directive, youth benefit academically as well as socially and spiritually?
Involvement in service is also strongly related to a lower rate of those who engage in high-risk behaviors. Douglas Kirby, a highly respected researcher, is engaged at the forefront of reviewing programs for effectiveness in delaying the initiation of premarital sex, as well as identifying features related to successful and unsuccessful interventions. Kirby reported that service-learning programs among youth are effective in reducing adolescent pregnancy and early childbearing.3
Research conducted at an Adventist college has documented that those engaged in community service are significantly less likely to engage in a wide variety of substance use and other high-risk behaviors. For example, youth who were involved in community service for four hours or more per month were 40 percent less likely to have used alcohol in the last year.4
Service and Church Retention
In addition to promoting positive behaviors and protecting youth from high-risk behaviors, service is also highly associated with youth and young adults being attracted to the church, getting involved in the church, and staying in the church.
In Roger Dudley’s initial analysis of the Valuegenesis research, he reported “a value of service to others proved to be the most important predictor of a mature faith in this study.”5 The investigation that laid the foundation for the Valuegenesis project, presented in the North American Division’s “Risk and Promise” report, stated: “If faith is to grow, greater involvement in service and outreach activities needs to be fostered.”
There are three evident reasons for this clear correlation:
First, youth and young adults tend to be drawn to organizations that make clear and positive demands on their membership. Sociologist Tony Campolo says it like this: “Young people are not going to be attracted to a church that tries to entertain them, but they will be attracted to a church that calls them in a ministry to others.”6 We can’t hope to involve our youth in the church unless they are first attracted to the church.
Service activities provide an active, winning picture of the church that is new to many youth. Wayne French, chaplain of Avondale College in Australia, talks about “memory events,” life-changing activities that “dominate an adolescent’s horizon, so that he or she is fully immersed in the event and will never forget it or its message.” French emphasizes that “memory events are most powerful when they are combined with service.”7 It’s such events, French maintains, that connect youth and young adults to the church. Up to 80 percent of the adolescents French surveyed commented that the events changed their perspective on the church and provided a sense of belonging.
Second, service activities furnish the immediate opportunity to be involved in the church. Service skills are sharpened, leadership abilities are developed, and an environment is created in which youth and young adults receive permission to explore their ministry gifts, even with the possibility of failure.8 No better way exists for that involvement to be deepened. “We get to experience the joy of discovering the gifts God has given us to build up the body of Christ through service.”9
Finally, service is highly correlated with lasting commitment to the church because service constitutes one of those bedrock reference points to which we may always return when uncertainties assail us. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Coles reminds us that “an idealism exerted at one moment in life” can ground our faithfulness in later times of crisis. It’s at those moments, Coles contends, that “courage [is] affirmed, a moral life [is] lived to the fullest, compromises [are] shunned, and utterly unassailable principles [are] constantly upheld.”10
Service and Developing Relationships
One of the special benefits emerging from service is the development of relationships. Being helpful to others allows a young adult the opportunity to develop relationships with those being served. Our research demonstrates that excellent relationships lead to effective communication and positive behaviors. Forming a great relationship enhances the believability of what we have to say and the impact of what we say.
A study among Caribbean adolescents that measured sexual behavior and substance use confirmed the link between relationships, effective communication, and risk reduction.11 When parents have an “excellent” relationship with their children, and when these same parents talk with their kids about sex and drugs, their children were at lower risk for engaging in high-risk behaviors as compared to youth who don’t rate their relationship with their parents as excellent when these same parents talk to their kids about sex and drugs.
Actually, Christ’s method was precisely the same. First, He formed relationships with people, then He said, “Follow me.” Ellen White wrote: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men [women, and children] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow me’” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143, italics supplied).
Nuts and Bolts
Note these three important steps in youth service.
First, church leaders have to meet with youth and discuss with them possible service programs; get the youth involved in looking for service opportunities and developing the program. Identify ways to get youth involved in service to the â€¨community, not just to those in your church.
Second, go with them to perform the service. Simply sending your youth and young adults out alone to serve isn’t a good strategy. Experience the service together; this gives the additional opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with the kids. We know from research that when kids have a trusting relationship with a key adult, they are at lower risk for dangerous behaviors.12
Third, spend time in reflecting on the service activity. Talk about the experience, ask open-ended questions: “What went well?” “What improvements can we make?” “How did this experience make you feel?”
Ideas for Service
First, pray something like this: “Lord, please give us vision and perception to identify Your children in need and recognize opportunities to serve others; give us clarity to see opportunities for service.”
Service activities should be regular, perhaps once or twice each week. They should be fairly brief and change often enough to maintain interest. Don’t plan to pick up the garbage on the highway for six hours each Sunday. While it’s a good thing to pick up garbage, kids will lose interest in this quickly.
Where possible and allowed, consider identifying people in the hospital and visiting them with the intent of cheering them up. Get involved with the parks and recreation depart-â€¨ment in your community. Help your local food bank distribute clothing and food to those in need. Stand at the entrance of a supermarket with a list of foods needed at the food bank. Pass out these lists to shoppers as they enter the store and collect what they have purchased from the list as they leave. Do yard chores for those who are sick.
Set a goal of spending at least a half hour, once or twice each week, in service with youth. Youth and young adult Sabbath school classes, Pathfinders, and Adventist Youth groups are ready-made service organizations.
What Are We Waiting For?
We Adventists often have struggled with ideas about how to keep our youth involved in and committed to our church. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 provide the best program for youth retention, and scientific research provides strong support for activities based on these words of Jesus. Youth and young adults who are engaged in service are significantly more likely to engage in positive behaviors, avoid high-risk behaviors, and develop a mature Christian faith that keeps them committed to the church.
Yet service isn’t just something we send our youth to do. We must clearly understand what service is, and what it can mean for our youth and young adults. Then, if we want to encourage our youth in the never-ending battle with high-risk behaviors, if we want them to discover an active role in the church, if we want them to remain vigorous contributors to our family of faith, we have to lead them into a life of service by our examples.
If we are willing to make this commitment and work with our youth and young adults in developing service programs, we can make a difference in their lives, in our communities, and, based on Matthew 25, for eternity.
1Gary L. Hopkins et al., “An AIDS Risk Assessment of Students Attending Christian High Schools in the United States of America: A Practical Application of the Theory of Planned Behavior,” Journal of Research on Christian Education 7, No. 2 (1998): 91-120.
2John Glenn, “The Benefits of Service-Learning,” Harvard Education Letter (Jan./Feb. 2001), www.edletter.org/past/issues/2001-jf/glenn.shtml.
3Douglas Kirby, “Effective Approaches in Reducing Adolescent Unprotected Sex, Pregnancy, and Childbearing,” Journal of Sex Research 39, No. 1 (2002): 51-57.
4Gary L. Hopkins et al., “Service as a Protective Factor for High-Risk Behaviors,” under revision for the Journal of Adventist Education, 2008.
5Roger L. Dudley and V. Bailey Gillespie, “Which Way to the Future?” Faith in the Balance (La Sierra University Press, 1992), p. 279.
6Anthony Campolo, Ideas for Social Action (Zondervan, 1984).
7Wayne French, Creating Memories for Teens (Signs Publishing, 2005), p. 82.
8Barry Gane, Building Youth Ministry: A Foundational Guide (Hancock Center Publications, 1997), p. 230.
9Steve Case and Fred Cornforth, Hands-On Service Ideas for Youth Groups (Group, 1995), p. 15.
10Robert Coles, The Call of Service (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), p. 256.
11Duane McBride et al., “Quality of Parent-Child Relationship and Adolescent HIV Risk Behavior in St. Maarten,” AIDS Care 17, Supp. 1 (2005): S45-S54.
12Gary L. Hopkins et al., “Developing Healthy Kids in Healthy Communities: Eight Evidence-Based Strategies for Preventing High-Risk Behavior,” Medical Journal of Australia 186, No. 10 (2007): S70-S73.