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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 13–17 

City Youth and the Call to Serve

Regina Shands Stoltzfus

The Sunday school lesson for the week focused on making an impact on the world for the kingdom. The “warm-up” story for the lesson described a church youth group going into a large urban area for a “weekend of ministry and changing lives.” The scriptural focus for the lesson was Jesus’ teaching on care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and imprisoned. “Truly I tell you,” the king in Jesus’ story says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV).

I want all of my young people to see themselves formed in the image of God, in need of receiving yet capable of giving.

The lesson was used, but without the opening illustration. The descriptions of poverty, crime, addiction, and other ills of the inner city seemed perilously close to what several students in the class could observe in their own neighborhoods on a daily basis. As with many of the lessons used in this high school class, this one needed to be tinkered with a bit to be appropriate for the real lives of the students around the table.

The above story is true. The Sunday school class in question is the one my husband and I teach. The class reflects the makeup of our congregation. We have students who are black, some are white, and some are biracial; some live in the suburbs and some in the inner city; some {14} live with both their parents; others are being raised by grandparents or other relatives, or are in foster care. Some of our students’ families are securely middle class, and some live in families that are struggling just to survive. As a pastor and a youth leader, my calling is to help all of them enter into a life with Christ, both in their individual and in our collective contexts. It is a joy to do so, but complicated issues are sometimes raised.


Ministry and service to others is one such issue. Our Anabaptist theology calls us, as followers of Christ, into lives of radical discipleship. Yet opportunities for service, particularly short-term service, are often assumed to be something only the wealthy and privileged (and usually white) do on behalf of the poor (usually black or brown) in the form of giving resources and doing things like building or repairing. This is illustrated by photos in publications which advertise such mission opportunities.

The assumption itself presents problems from the outset: it denies that we are all called to serve each other, regardless of background and financial circumstances, and that all of us have gifts to offer. The assumption ignores the fact that the power and privilege of the group that serves is often connected to the poverty and oppression of the group that is receiving service. After the service project is completed, the group goes away feeling satisfied that they have fulfilled an important mission, but are still unaware and unable to address underlying issues of justice.

Additionally, mission projects that are short-term do not allow for relationship building, a critical element inherent in what it means to be the body of Christ. These projects emphasize charity, rather than justice, and do not teach that “if one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26 NIV).

Every spring I receive phone calls from youth pastors looking to schedule a service project for their youth. Lately I have countered these requests with an invitation to come and hang out with our youth instead. Perhaps once we get to know each other, we can work on something together. Rarely am I taken up on such an offer. Yet such encounters can help give youth (and adults) the chance to dispel the myths and stereotypes we hold about each other. With intentionality and skilled leadership, they can discourage the development of paternalistic relationships, and attitudes of inferiority and superiority.

More and more conversations are emerging about the complicated issues which surround short-term mission. A recent article in a Mennonite publication about the damage such projects can do touched off a {15} firestorm of protest by those who had participated in them. A United Methodist missionary in Honduras writes about the disconnect that occurs when missionaries are sent to work for the poor instead of with the poor. A guide to short-term mission points out the importance of relationships between hosts, participants, and long-term workers in the area. We are learning more and more about ways of being missional, instead of merely doing mission.

And yet one of my primary concerns still resides around that Sunday school table, with the young people who cannot imagine they have anything to offer because they have so little. How do we as youth leaders develop a passion for ministry among those who seem, to much of the world, as only recipients of someone else’s mission?


Despite some of the problems already identified, one of the truths about short-term mission is that for the one who serves, the event is often a life-altering experience that helps young people identify their gifts and starts them on a path toward their vocation.

This was certainly true for me. Our church youth group had regular opportunities to serve, whether it was cleaning an elderly person’s yard in the city, or traveling to southern Ohio to plant trees on land suffering the erosive effects of strip mining. At age nineteen, I was presented with the opportunity of traveling to southeast Asia to work in a refugee camp for a year. Although it was not an easy decision to make, I signed up, certainly in part because my church taught me to give service to others. To be truthful, a larger part was that it sounded like a really great adventure! Just as many affirmed my decision to go, there were others who raised some legitimate concerns.

The Neighborhood Question

Why was I going halfway around the world to serve when there were so many in need in my own community? The expectation for many people, particularly people of color, is that if we are going to serve, we should serve among our own. There are valid reasons for this expectation; many of our communities are in crisis, and we have been raised to understand that we must be committed to our own neighborhoods and our own people—particularly because the larger society has abandoned them.

It is important for church and mission leaders to identify and support opportunities for service in areas that are not always exotic, but are in need of workers. Service in our own communities must be legitimized by church leaders and mission agencies. We are not only sent around the {16} world; sometimes we are sent around the block. Yet the work is just as vital.

The Education Question

Was it wise to delay completing my college education? For many families, the opportunity for their children to go to college is a hard-won fight, and parents don’t want to jeopardize a student’s chances of completing the degree. Congregations, mission and relief agencies, and church educational institutions must continue to work together to find creative ways to encourage service among youth and young adults without jeopardizing their access to higher education.

The Danger Question

Wasn’t it dangerous “over there?” Even though people are fond of saying, “it’s a small world,” the fact is we remain afraid of one another and of the people and places that are unfamiliar to us. Yet we also wonder why on earth people would be afraid to come to where we are. We experience this at our church all the time when youth leaders from rural congregations share the anxiety of coming to the city; we can counter with examples of how our city kids (and adults) fear the country.

The truth is, we belong to one another. We are brothers and sisters existing together in God’s created order. We are instructed to share the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth, to bear one another’s burdens and to share one another’s joys. Some of us will be called to do this in the context of surroundings that are familiar and comfortable to us. Others of us will be called to go to places elsewhere that God will show us. The mission field is big enough for all. As church leaders, we must nurture a passion to serve God’s people among all of those in our care. We must continually educate people that God calls and sends everyone, and that we may well suffer for the sake of that call.

I ended up serving for two years in Thailand, working in three different camps. The experience changed my life. I knew, at age twenty, that my life’s work would be with the church, although at that point I did not know in what capacity. The time in Thailand also helped me clarify my own theology and faith commitment. These had been shaped and birthed in the context of my home congregation but truly became my own in the context of the world community among people who were very unlike me.

What started me on my journey was being able to recognize God’s call, because there were people in my life who expected me to serve, and people in my life that taught me to serve. Then there were agencies that {17} facilitated access to a place I could serve, and facilitated partnerships with people among whom I served.


In many ways, my Sunday school class is no different than thousands of other gatherings in churches across North America. It is full of young people on their way to being adults, struggling with questions of who they are and how they fit into their families, their schools, and their churches. They are becoming. They are in the process of forming their own way of seeing and moving about in the world, and identifying the things that they want to do in the world.

I want all of my young people to see themselves formed in the image of God, in need of receiving yet capable of giving. The movement of the church in the area of short-term mission projects needs to be sensitive to these needs and these gifts as we teach about justice and mercy. Articles and photographs that illustrate mission work must include the images and stories of poor people and people of color who are serving, not only being served.

In addition to challenging church institutions in these areas, I know that I need to challenge the young people as well. They need to talk about the differences evident among them and the reasons for that. They need to have the expectation of sharing their gifts, regardless of how “big” or “small” that gift may seem to them. Sometimes growth is seen in tiny, baby steps.

Recently we participated in service projects in Appalachia, a place that has a different kind of poverty than what many of my kids live with. We spent time exploring some of the stereotypes and myths we held about the people who lived there, and what we expected might be their stereotypes and myths about us. The program we participated in was part of the agency’s long-term presence and involvement with the region. The program depends upon and respects indigenous leadership, and helped make it possible for a group without many financial resources to offer what we did have. I believe this is the type of partnership that will help foster a heart for mission in more and more people, wherever they may be.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus has served for the past five years as Associate Pastor of Lee Heights Community Church, Cleveland, Ohio. She also works as Minister of Urban Ministry for Mennonite Mission Network, and recently completed a M.A. in Biblical Studies from Ashland Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Art, have four children.

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