Inspiring a new generation to sincerely serve others
by Karol Hunt
A lifestyle of service. Is it genetic or a gift we are bestowed at birth? Or is it a mindset we can cultivate? Although some individuals are naturally compassionate, I think we can encourage and nurture servants’ hearts especially in our next generation.
Genuine service encompasses a meaningful endeavor that benefits others and/or is a project that enhances their situations. It might be mowing an elderly widow’s lawn, running a chain saw for the initial response following a tornado, helping build a chapel at a camp in the Alaskan bush or cooking a meal for a grieving family. In this context, it is doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you. Expecting nothing in return, service is a lifestyle to live out regularly.
Is this next generation self-absorbed and entitled or caring and thoughtful? It is probably not either/or but a combination of both. Today’s young adults have lived their entire lives plugged in with smart phones, iPods, iPads and laptops. They experience instant access to limitless information, whether beneficial or detrimental, and maintain constant contact with anyone from casual acquaintances to close friends and family. I find it a battle to expect a college student to suspend social media connection for a 50-minute class period.
The big question is how to inspire young people to unplug and come to grips with the fact that the world does not totally revolve around them—how many Facebook friends they have racked up and how well their fantasy football team is performing. Rather than focusing on their self-metrics, how can we encourage them to contribute personally to others’ lives and improve the situation of someone else?
Encouraging an attitude of service does not happen automatically. It is up to us to come alongside and engage young people in developing their faith and connecting with the needs of others. We can stir them to respond. We can provide opportunities to live meaningful service. We can also provide examples; young adults should witness us in action.
What is the perspective of our next generation? What do they say about inspiring their peers to serve? According to recent Tabor College graduate Michael Klaassen, “Being connected with someone older who has a heart for service can be influential in the life of a young person.” He adds, “To get the younger generation excited about serving, it all starts with the heart. Get them excited about their faith and putting God first, and service to others will come as a byproduct.”
Tabor College junior Tena Loewen agrees, “In order to get our younger generation involved in service, I think it is a matter of the heart. True transformation must take place by the Spirit on the inside so that the fruit of the heart wants to serve,” she says.
“To get my generation involved in service we must feel as though what we are doing matters,” says David Loewen, who, along with his sister, Tena, has gone with me on service trips. “We need to know that it is making a difference to the people we are serving. However to get to this point, my generation must become compassionate, able to place themselves in another person’s situation and feel for that person.”
How do we follow through with these suggestions? I propose a few strategies to engage young people in service.
Establish the purpose of the service experience. Am I sincere in giving to someone in need or am I just doing it to show off my spirituality? Am I contributing without expectation? Am I willing to set aside my own agenda on a work project? At times we can be totally focused on a rebuild project, wanting to see major progress. However, it is important to take time to listen to the homeowner’s heartbreaking story when she stops by. Rain keeps us off the roof. Snow totally shuts down the day’s work. In God’s timing, the work will still be accomplished along with the ministry opportunities.
Realize that each of us has something we can give. God can use a vast variety of abilities to meet the needs of others. I often share with my service groups the example of the little boy giving up his five loaves and two fish. In Matthew 14 Jesus had retreated to a remote place for a reprieve following a heavy ministry schedule, but what he found was a large crowd clamoring for his attention. Unselfishly, he showed compassion, teaching and healing. As evening approached the disciples wanted to disperse the crowd so they could go find their own suppers. But Jesus turned the challenge back to the disciples and charged, “You give them something to eat.”
The only food available was what was in one little boy’s brown lunch bag—five loaves and two fish. Not much, but he sacrificed all he had and Jesus multiplied his contribution exponentially.
When a tragic natural disaster hits, we often pray and ask God to fix it all, but he turns it back to us: What are we going to do about it? He desires our time and skills. Using a backhoe, pulling nails, caulking baseboard, painting a door, roofing a house or sweeping up sawdust are all needed in disaster relief work. Large or small, give what is in your brown bag so Jesus can multiply your efforts exponentially.
Start small and close to home. It’s more glamorous to travel several states away or fly to a country that requires a passport, but many opportunities are nearby.
I wanted to have an impact in the life of a grandnephew who lives close by. I decided that my gift for his fifth birthday would be assembling an Operation Christmas Child box for a little boy in a third world country who possessed very little. It was a challenge to impress on my grandnephew’s young mind that we were selecting basic necessities, toys, games, school supplies and clothes for someone who does not have all the material goods that he enjoys. Success, at least in my mind, was limited that day as we ended with a major meltdown in the sock aisle at a discount store. The six-year-old experience went a little better with only a minor meltdown amid the socks.
We had a major shift by the time his seventh birthday rolled around. He chose to contribute some of his own birthday money and understanding replaced the meltdowns. Incidentally, we started with the socks this time. I realize that this great aunt-grandnephew Halloween afternoon tradition will not be long term, but I am praying that the planted seeds will grow into an adult service lifestyle.
Create opportunities and come along side others. I schedule two disaster relief experiences a year, one in January and one early in the summer. During interterm I teach a disaster relief class which allows Tabor College students to earn their intercultural awareness credit. We spend a week in class followed by two weeks of service. Sometimes students will choose to enroll in the class while other times I will nudge a student to consider enrolling. Tyler was one person I encouraged to consider the class. The trip fee was a hindrance, but we were able to resolve his financial concerns. Those two weeks in Moore, Okla., were life changing for Tyler as he greatly matured in his faith.
In early summer I plan a trip for a group of cross-generational friends. It affords us time away from our normal responsibilities to be together and to serve those who have lost everything. As Klaassen says, “Service of any type is always fun when done with friends and families.” In addition, Tena Loewen confirms one of my goals for the trip, “It is important to teach and show our generation what it looks like to live a life like Jesus—being a servant leader. It comes from putting yourself in another’s shoes and living with compassion from an eternal perspective.”
Expect participants to earn part of the finances. It is common for service trip participants to ask family, friends and church members to contribute financially toward trip expenses. I am not opposed to fundraising (I have assisted others this way), but I think it is meaningful to work for the opportunity. Mow lawns, rake leaves, provide childcare. Save birthday and Christmas money. The memories of the experience and the eternal reward will outlast any material possession purchased with those gifts.
Opportunities for service abound. Whatever generation we identify with, I encourage us to surrender the skills in our brown bags for a service project and let God multiply our efforts exponentially.
Karol Hunt is professor of health and physical education and associate athletic director at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., where she is a member of Parkview MB Church. She has engaged in disaster relief work with Mennonite Disaster Service and Samaritan’s Purse in Oklahoma, Alabama, Alaska, Tennessee, Louisiana, Colorado and Kansas.
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