There are a number of judgment scenes in the Bible. One of the most interesting is the scene in Matthew 25. In this story Jesus divides people into two groups: those who will enter the kingdom and those who will not.
Those who are prepared to enter the kingdom are described in terms of what they did for others. They visited those in prison; they provided food and clothing; they made a difference in the lives of others. The story clearly shows that as we make a difference in the lives of others—especially those who have the least—we do it for Jesus.
Historically, Christianity has been characterized by a commitment to service. Even secular society recognizes the importance of service to others. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are examples of this reality.
Social science researchers have also begun to pay attention to the role of service, not just for those who receive help, but for those who provide it.
Much of this focus has been on the impact of engaging in community service on pro-social and risk behaviors. Among the risk behaviors examined are teen pregnancy, substance use and abuse, and poor grades. Service learning is the term often used by schools in their programs and, by definition, is an extension of the concept of community service. When schools design community service programs for their students, and connect the service activities to academic learning, we refer to this as service learning.
Those who engaged in one hour or more of community service per week were 50 percent less likely to earn D’s and F’s.
Service learning connects meaningful community service with academic learning, and to civic responsibility and personal growth. It enables students to study community issues in depth, to get involved in community action, and to work toward making a difference in their communities.
Researchers have exhaustively examined evaluations of teen pregnancy programs and reported what they refer to as “best practices” that clearly relate to lowering teen pregnancy rates. One finding emerges consistently: youth who engage in service learning/community service are less likely to be involved in a teen pregnancy.1
The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy among developed countries,2 where the cost of teen pregnancy has been estimated at $9 billion per year.3 We would hope that designing effective strategies to prevent teen pregnancy would be an interest of all community-based organizations, including faith communities.
An article published in 1997 described the impact of Teen Outreach, a program that focused on reducing teen pregnancy, as well as reducing academic failure. The study investigated the impact of the program on 342 students in grades 9 through 12, and compared participants to a control group that did not participate in the program. Teen Outreach consisted of three elements: 20 hours of supervised community service, classroom-based discussions of the students’ service experiences, and classroom-based discussions and activities that were related to the social-developmental tasks of adolescents.4
The community service component allowed for students to select their own supervised sites within the community. Students worked in settings such as hospitals and nursing homes, as tutors, as well as participating in walkathons and other community-based activities.
The classroom component included discussions, role playing, and guest speakers, and engaged students as they shared and discussed their experiences. Topics and themes were self-confidence, social skills, self-discipline, values, and how to deal with family stress, development, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
In the Teen Outreach study, participants in the program had less than half the risk (42 percent) of school suspension compared to the control group Course failure was 39 percent less than the control group.5 Teen pregnancy in the Teen Outreach group was 41 percent less than in the control group.
The late Doug Kirby6 was at the forefront of reviewing programs for effectiveness in delaying the initiation of sexual activity and in identifying features related to successful and unsuccessful interventions. He reported that service learning programs among young people are effective in reducing adolescent pregnancy and childbearing. Other researchers confirm Kirby’s findings.
Melchior evaluated Learn and Serve programs throughout the United States.7 Students in these programs spent an average of 77 hours providing various community services. Pregnancy rates among participants during the year in which they participated were lower than among nonparticipants.
O’Donnell and colleagues evaluated the Reach for Health community youth service learning program. Student participants in the service learning program delayed initiation of sexual intercourse, reduced the frequency of sexual intercourse. Those with suicidal thoughts were more likely to talk to an adult than were nonparticipants.8
Although it is not clear why service learning has such positive effects, Kirby speculated that it may be because participants develop sustained relationships with program facilitators, which may encourage resilience, enhanced feelings of competency, and greater autonomy, along with the positive feeling that come from making a difference in the lives of others. Participating in service activities also reduced opportunities to engage in problem behavior, especially during after-school hours.9
In our10 analysis of data from Alaska high school students between the ages of 12 through 18 years from the Center for Disease Control’s 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), we found that students who engaged in volunteer activities for at least one hour per week were less likely to have been sexually experienced, to have been involved in binge drinking, to have ever used marijuana or prescription drugs that were not prescribed for them by a physician.
Children and teens who engage in service tend to earn better grades.11 In a nationally representative study involving more than 4,000 high school students,12 those who participated in any type of service improved their academic performance. Students’ grades increased by 12 percent, and their civic knowledge increased by 16 percent. Although 27 percent of the students performed service as a requirement, and the number of hours spent in service varied, the results remained significant.
A report from the National Service Knowledge Network cites many examples of how service engagement by youth has been related to benefits, including higher grades in school.13
Two of these examples include reports from alternative schools: In Michigan,14 students who participated in Literacy Corps, a service-learning option in one alternative school, scored higher than their nonparticipating peers on the Michigan state assessment. In Kansas,15 alternative school students who participated in service-learning showed strong gains over time on measures of attitude toward school, on writing scores on a six-trait writing assessment, and in grade-point averages.
In our analysis of the previously noted YRBS Alaska data, we found that those who engaged in one hour or more of community service per week were 50 percent less likely to earn D’s and F’s in school. Academic performance is one of the best predictors of future success and lower rates of delinquency and substance abuse.
The data cited so far relates to general society. It’s also important to note that studies conducted among Adventist youth for the past three decades have shown the same positive impact of service. We found that overall, about one third of Adventist students used alcohol during the past year. But those who engaged in community service as part of their relationship to Christ were significantly less likely ever to use alcohol, to use during the past year, or to be drunk at any time in the past two weeks.
These relationships exist for all other types of substance use. These kind of findings are why many Adventist academies and colleges have attempted to integrate service into their curriculum generally, and into general education specifically.16
There is profound religious truth in the words in Matthew 25; and there is considerable scientific validity in the impact of acting on the words of Jesus in each of our lives and in the lives of our youth. Making a difference in the lives of others changes who we are, how we think, and how we act. Service to others has to be a part of Adventist education and local church programs. It not only prepares us for the kingdom of God—it prepares us to live fuller, more abundant lives now!
Gary L. Hopkins, M.D., Dr.P.H., is an associate director of Health Ministries for the General Conference, a research professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at Andrews University, and an adjunct associate professor in the School of Public Health, Loma Linda University.
Duane C. McBride, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for Prevention of Addictions and a professor of behavioral science at Andrews University.