Learning through Serving

The opportunities for students serving in God’s world have exploded in recent years. Mission trips, community service requirements, and service days are commonplace in middle schools and high schools as well as churches across the continent. This spirit of service carries over to the college years. Trinity Christian College student Kelly Vanden Berg recounts her earliest service experiences:

My memory of service begins back in middle school, approximately seventh grade. I was able to choose an “exploratory” class, and decided on the service committee as the best option. We worked within the school, making the close-knit school community our main focus. The school allowed each class to head out on a field trip of sorts where we spent a day serving the surrounding community. Each year our focus grew slightly larger. Looking back, I can see a change in me during my last two years in high school. Subconsciously, my focus was now widening and I was reaching a point where I was ready to embark on bigger, broader, and more challenging service opportunities.

Any exploration of this topic begins with a definition of terms, for volunteerism, service-learning, and experiential education are often confused. According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, “service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” Volunteerism can occur within a service-learning framework, but not all volunteerism is service-learning, because some volunteer activities do not include the integration of instruction with the activity. Experiential education is the more inclusive term for any kind of experience that involves some form of learning—service-learning, internships, field experiences, mission trips, and the like.

Kelly’s experiences further help clarify these terms, as she describes her move from local to international service work:

In my senior year of high school, I felt that I was ready to “go big.” I had spent the past four summers volunteering in the community with people my own age and felt a tug to do more. I made the commitment to break out of the borders of the United States and leave my comfort zone, headed for the country of Haiti. Two ten-day trips to Haiti deeply embedded a love for service into my being, and nothing I did ever made that go away. The people I met, the culture shock I experienced, and the divine intervention God worked during each day of my trips kept me growing. Day by day, God was using each service opportunity to prepare me for the next, each one being an important stepping stone to jump to before leaping on to the next.

Were Kelly’s experiences in Haiti service-learning? According the definition, instruction and reflection are needed to maximize learning, teach responsibility, and actually contribute to the community being served. So while Kelly’s trips to Haiti represent a deepening of her commitment to service, the instructional and reflection component was only fully realized when she began college, where the doors to service opened even wider, with service-learning opportunities—including instructional and reflective components— available in specific courses and programs. Here is what Kelly says about her college experiences:

College has provided new service-learning opportunities, and God has used my past experiences to drive me to take advantage of these. For eight weeks, I had the opportunity to live with the Venda people, learn from them, and teach their students in a local school in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Never before have nerves crippled me so much, nor have loneliness and culture shock been so strong. Then again, never before have people made such an impact on me, and never have I learned so much about myself and my heavenly Father. Within the first few weeks, I was given a Venda name and accepted as a true South African. I can now dance with the best of them (or so I think) and cook some mean pap and chicken. The mountains were stunning, the food was interesting, the people were beautifully complex, and the goodbyes were painful. Within such a short time, I was trusted; I was loved; I was accepted. Still processing, I can honestly say I am a different person now than when I left. Service-learning impacts all parties involved and leaves lasting marks on those it touches.

As this account indicates, this experience—a bona fide service-learning experience—prompted significant reflection, due to at least three reasons: the required assignments from her Trinity professor guiding the experience, the way cross-cultural engagement triggers insight, and Kelly’s acquired habit of service and self-reflection.

Kelly’s stories speak significantly to the benefits of service and service-learning. Research confirms this value, obtained primarily through self-reported measures. Moreover, the scriptural basis of service-learning is clear, for it offers a way of faith formation that springs from the heart of the gospel.

Despite the benefits, some are critical of service-learning and other similar experiential education opportunities. Some point to studies that are inconclusive when seeking to identify academic or knowledge-based gains from service-learning (Gray et al. 30–39).

Others are critical of specific forms of experiences such as short-term mission trips. As Jo Ann Van Engen has noted, such trips need to be more than just religious tourism benefitting the young people on the trip; she goes on to suggest that “short-term missions are worth every penny if they are used as the beginning of a long-term relationship . . . money invested in learning about the people of the Third World, their problems, and what can be done to help is money well spent.”

Rather than pitting personal growth in opposition to academic growth, it is helpful to anchor our use of service-learning to sound pedagogy that provides insights into the acquisition of both values and knowledge. Here are more insights from Kelly:

Service-learning is a process. Had I gone to South Africa for eight weeks as my first experience, I never would have made it through. As with every part of life, growth is necessary, sometimes painful, but immensely beautiful. The size of my service in seventh grade was just right compared to the size of my world at the time. As my world grew and my gaze broadened, the size and overall effect of my service opportunities grew as well. Each day I continue to grow. Each day I learn something new and pray God opens my eyes to the needs around me. Service-learning opportunities are my response to the work God is doing in my life, my prayer is: Lead me, guide me, use me. All for the glory of God!

As we think about service and service-learning in elementary school through university level, it is appropriate to calibrate the widening scope of service with ever-increasing deliberate instructional strategies that prompt learning about other cultures, places, and structures and also stimulate the development of values in ways that respect both academic learning and personal spiritual growth. In this way, service-learning throughout the curriculum becomes a crucial pedagogy for Christian education.


Works Cited

  • Gray, M., Ondaatje, E., Fricker, R., & Geschwind, S. (March/April, 2000).  Assessing service-learning.  Change: 30-39.
  • National Service Learning Clearinghouse. “What Is Service Learning?” 1 November 2012. <http://www.servicelearning.org/what-service-learning>
  • Van Engen, JoAnn. “Short-Term Mission: Are They Worth the Cost?” Catapult 4.21 (18 November 2005). 1 November 2012.