Adding service projects to your classes for kids and teens is a great way to encourage them to put into practice some of the godly principles in your lessons. In fact, you may already be doing a few service projects with your students. Whether you want some new ideas or you want to add service projects to your curriculum, there are a few things we have learned over the years that will help you make the experience more meaningful for your students.
Studies have shown the spiritual growth many report after participating in short term mission or service projects is actually short-lived. This is in part because we often neglect to do a few things which would help our students achieve more permanent, meaningful spiritual growth from these experiences. There are many things you can do to improve the experience, but we have found these make the biggest impact.
- Tie the service project to what you are learning in class in meaningful ways. If possible, make a connection between the Bible story of godly principle and your project. If you need ideas, check our activity list under service projects. You will find service project ideas that we believe make a stronger connection to particular Bible stories. (We are adding new ideas regularly, so keep checking back if one is not currently listed for your story.)
- Prepare students properly before the trip/project. Many have told us groups often do more harm than good when they come to serve. If your group is painting houses, teaching children or doing anything which requires even the most minimal skills, please train your students. If you aren’t equipped to train them well, bring in someone who can. Check with Home Depot to see if they will do a clinic for your teens before working on someone’s house or building. Have Teach One Reach One train your students on activity preparation and classroom management. Have us help you provide effective empathy training. Use people in your congregation with special skills to train your class. Please don’t hurt the groups you are trying to help by sending untrained workers.
- Prepare students spiritually before the trip/project. If you want your students to grow spiritually from a project, you must prepare them ahead of time. Spiritual growth rarely happens by accident. If your students focus for the project is to have fun, but you want them working on their patience, guess which one wins if you haven’t discussed the spiritual goal? Spiritual goals are even more meaningful if each student chooses the one thing he or she personally feels a need to improve. A student who wants to pray more will make more progress than one who is told they must pray more.
- Make group goals that are specific and measurable and hold students accountable for meeting them. Was your project a success? Granted much of serving others is seed planting and we may not know for years to come. Often there is a measurable component, though. Did you collect and package one hundred bags? Did students begin reading their Bibles independently on the trip? Could they state their personal spiritual goal and how the project affected it? Did they share their faith with anyone? Having those discussions and comparing them to goals set before the project or trip will help all of you accurately examine what happened that went well and what needs to improve the next time – individually and as a group.
- Have students spend as much time as possible interacting with the recipients of the service. Putting together a project or painting a house and then never seeing or meeting the person who was served is like sending something into space. Your students have no emotional connection to what they just did. There was no person attached. Give them that connection and make it as meaningful as possible. Have your students ask respectful questions to seek to really know those whom they serve. If logistics make it impossible, at least have letters and photos go between your class and the recipients.
- Spend time with your students in meaningful reflection after the project or trip. What did you want your students to learn from the experience? What do they think they actually learned? What happened that they didn’t understand? What upset them? What did they enjoy? How did God work in what you were doing? How did they share their faith? What worked well? What would they do differently next time? There is nothing wrong with journal writing – except most kids won’t really do it well. Instead encourage them to use their personal gifts to reflect on the experience. Photography, painting, video, music are all wonderful ways to allow your students to reflect in a language that is meaningful to them personally.
On behalf of the people you serve, please make sure your class participates in projects and on mission trips that truly help the organization. Even if you think you are making a tremendous difference, chances are you can make an even greater difference by incorporating the steps above in the experience. Try it and ask those you are serving if they saw a positive difference. I would love to hear their comments.