when service goes awry

Yesterday I made a point that I think could make a real difference in our students’ understanding of service:

Service, like the other things we urge, is an area that needs our shepherding – not just our encouragement.

Yet I fear that even for Christian students, even for Christian students within our college ministries, there are times that “zeal without knowledge” is the order of the day. And when that’s the case, I fear our service outcomes will be closer to saying “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (Jam 2:16 esv) than producing actually full bellies and actually clothed shoulders.

So after serving with an aid station for the White Rock Marathon on Sunday (I described this better yesterday), I figured I would jot down a few notes on things I’ve noticed during those years – about both how service sometimes goes awry, and how it can hit the target dead-on. Maybe this will provide some thoughts for teachin’ on the subject, or maybe it’s just a good “checklist” for assessing your own ministry’s service (or individual students’ service work).

Today, notes on what makes service go awry. (Tomorrow, I’ll jot some notes on how our servants can serve better.) Hope you find it helpful.

When service is selfish

When supporting a marathon, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to get so excited about handing a runner a cup of Gatorade that they actually get in the way of the race to accomplish that “service.” Likewise, the effectiveness of our students’ service is often watered down as they follow the dictates of desire – from who they want to hang out with while they serve, to how physically uncomfortable they’re willing to be, to how much a project or a role in that project “fits” them as a person.

When enjoyment in service is the priority

Along the same lines, it’s tempting to let enjoyment both motivate me to serve and direct me as I serve. And that’s tempting for our students, too. While drawing students to service opportunities may in fact involve some appeal to the enjoyment involved, we should remember to balance that motivation for our students (or, perhaps better, help them enjoy because of the impact and not just the “fun”). If our students only serve when and how it happens to be “fun,” something is terribly wrong.

When service is untaught

Other times, service suffers because volunteers don’t know how to do it best. As I was filling water cups during the marathon Sunday, I forgot to fill them only halfway (which is more helpful to the runners). Later, I got the chance to share with another volunteer the best way to hold the cup for runner to grab it – in your palm, fingers flat. These are small details, but their importance is found in whether they help, not how “big” they seem. While there is room for some “merciful elasticity” as we help our students serve, we shouldn’t act like excellence isn’t worth aiming for.

When service is dismissed

Interestingly enough, not all churches in Dallas feel participating in serving runners on a Sunday morning is a very good thing to do. And that – the dismissal of service – is a reality we’ll face… and something we have to make sure we don’t participate in. Do I believe that some service projects are bad ideas? Absolutely – and if we encourage every project our students dream up, then we’ve ceased to shepherd them. But many of us (me included) have a tendency to say No to the unusual or untested – and that’s a tendency we should keep in check.

Tomorrow, some thoughts for better service… [Click here for that.]


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  1. I’d like to add ‘When service is unstructured a/o unorganized’ which is a fancy way of saying, “when students really like the idea of serving, but don’t really know where to do it, or how and need some help from somebody who’s does this kind of thing professionally to provide them with some direction.”

    We had a semester or two in Arkansas where we said each small group would do service once a month. It fell apart because our small group leaders were discussion leaders, not service project organizers, and couldn’t find stuff for their groups to do.

    That failure was mostly my fault–I didn’t provide them with the leadership and direction they needed. I taught them how to lead a discussion but didn’t do any training (nor leading by example) about how to get involved in service in the community.

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