Introduction to Service Learning
The Four-Step Service Learning Process
Outcomes of Service Learning

Introduction to Service Learning
Service leaning is an intentional experiential learning process that utilizes hands-on service and reflective thinking to provide richness and meaning to service experiences while fulfilling the biblical invitation to serve in Christ's name.

This definition means that service learning experiences are planned with clear goals, follows an intentional process, uses "hands on" experiences, and employs critical thinking skills to process the experience. When used together, service experiences can have a deep and lasting impact on youth and adults. Hands-on service cannot be substituted by books, videos, or broad anecdotes!

Service learning in a Christian environment allows youth to apply the perspective of their faith to service experiences. Youth and adults together can explore and deepen their faith, being challenged to fulfill the call of Jesus to care for others and how their lives might wholly reflect this call.

The Four-Step Service Learning Process

The service learning process is a tool to aid in service experiences that produce longer-term, transforming effects on youth and adults. The process includes four stages:

Preparation: Anticipation of, and preparation for, a service experience.
Preparation often focuses only on the logistics of raising money, gathering supplies, and making travel arrangements. Good preparation, on the other hand, includes an effort to build community, share expectations, acquire skills that will be needed in the service experience, learn about a culture the group will be working among, and listening to the needs of a community to learn what type of assistance or support is actually needed (versus imposing your own expectations). Don't circumvent the process by skipping the important elements of preparation!

The service project that you choose for your group should be done intentionally, as the motivation for the project will guide much of the process.

Action: Engaging in a meaningful service experience.
The beauty of the Action stage is that it will be different for every group and every experience of service that ever happens! This stage includes any activity (large or small!) that allows young people to engage in unselfish service to, with, or on behalf of others. Challenge yourself to think outside the box in creating service activities! (A good reminder: Youth often learn and grow when they are involved in activities that move them beyond their comfort zones.)

Leaders must caution themselves against evaluating the validity or effectiveness of a service experience based solely on what is visible and measurable (who showed up, how many hours were invested, how many people were served, etc.) and neglecting less quantifiable, yet deeply meaningful activities (such as time spent listening, observing, playing, learning, growing, etc.)

Reflection: Process of deep reflection and learning during and following a service experience.
Often overlooked or delayed, the reflection stage has been called the "linchpin" of the service learning process, because it is through critical reflection that individuals create meaning and gain new knowledge from their experiences. In looking back, thinking over, and sharing about experiences, youth begin to see the connections, often in "Ah-ha!" moments when suddenly "it all makes sense."

The most common form of reflection is group discussion about the experience. Moving through a series of questions to help youth analyze their feelings and thoughts about the experience, conversation can shift toward determine how any new learning can be applied to their lives, including how God is calling them to use this experience to reconsider attitudes or change behaviors.

Reflection can also happen in a variety of creative ways, including painting, dance, journaling, poetry, photography, and story telling. Consider a variety of options for reflection, including ways that engage both sides of the brain. Invite creativity!

Celebration: Recognizing, celebrating, and evaluating the ministry that has been accomplished through the service experience.
It is time to celebrate! Celebration offers an opportunity for young people to honor the work accomplished and to continue to tell the stories of their experiences. In effect, it can be a continuation of the Reflection stage, as preparing for celebratory events also requires adequate reflection to determine what and how best to share with others.

The Celebration stage can include worship services, Bible studies, considering a longer-term commitment to the service site, evaluating the service project, and/or engaging ongoing conversation about "What next?" It is a time to recognize and rejoice in the ways God has called the group to serve, guided the serving, has been present among those served, and challenges all to a life of continued service.

Outcomes of Service Learning

Where does the service learning process lead? What actually happens when young people serve? How are lives transformed? The SALLT Project has identified six distinct outcomes of the service learning process: compassion, community, advocacy, lifelong servanthood, leadership, and exploration of vocation.

All six outcomes ultimately stem from the ultimate goal of life transformation as youth strive to live as faithful Christian people in this world. Through experiences of unselfish service toward, with, and on behalf of others, young people are "new," transformed in their Christian faith, relationships, thought processes, attitudes, and behavior.

Compassion: Serving involves coming along side neighbors and in that closeness begin to see, sense, feel, and experience "the other." Service learning seeks to develop young people who hold a deep and hopeful sense of compassion for the world and God's people.

Community: When we serve, we experience a deepened sense of community in our youth group as we prepare, act, reflect, and celebrate. Acquaintances become friends, and equally important is the community created with those we serve as we become a part of each other's lives.

Advocacy: Often our limited help doesn't address underlying social problems. For example: We feed, but people are still hungry. Through service learning, youth begin to ask the deeper, tougher "why?" questions, probing the root causes of homelessness, hunger, poverty, environmental destruction, etc.

Lifelong Servanthood: The Christian life involves a call to lifelong servanthood; it is a basic practice of faith that calls us to repeated and frequent displays of service, no matter the size of the task, context, amount of preparation, or recognition received. The more a young person "practices" service, the more it becomes a regular part of their daily life for years to come.

Leadership: As young people actively serve, they grow in their sense of how they can make a difference in the world and how they can be leaders among their peers and in their churches and communities. Service invites a variety of gifts to be used and shared, giving youth confidence in their ability to become servant leaders. Adults take an important role in presenting leadership opportunities for youth and provide a steady measure of support.

Exploration of Vocation: Theologian Frederick Buechner said, "Vocation is where the world's greatest need and a person's greatest joy meet." Service learning provides a vocational "learning laboratory" where young people experiment with how their gifts, passions, and values intersect with the world's most pressing needs. As youth live out their faith in daily life, they see opportunities to apply their Christian beliefs and values in homes, families, communities, churches, and the workplace.

This introduction to the service learning process is adapted from:

  • David R. Ellingson and Mark J. Jackson, "SALLT: Stories, Service Learning and Statistics." Connect: Journal of Youth & Family Ministry, Summer 2008.
  • Mark J. Jackson, Service Learning Field Guide (Everett, WA: Trinity Lutheran College, 2011).