​2023 Youth Venture participant Zahria Elliott, left, and Patricia, second from left, share stories with community children as part of a children’s ministry event in Jakarta, Indonesia. Patricia is a member of the youth group of GKMI ARK (Anugerah Rayon Kembangan) church in Jakarta, which joined the Youth Venture Indonesia group for daily activities. Photo by Chialis Thuan

By Eric Frey Martin
Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Are service programs dying? No! Maybe? But there's no doubt we need to get back to viewing service as an alternative way of life. This article first appeared in the March issue of Anabaptist World.

Are service programs dying? This is a question I get asked through my role as a representative for Mennonite Mission Network. It usually comes from alumni of Mission Network's service programs, people whose service experiences transformed how they see God, the world and themselves.

For generations, service programs have enabled young adults to put their faith into action, experience community and relate to those outside their usual spheres. Many were inspired to continue lives of service. Many have become leaders in our congregations.

Now they wonder if youth in the future will have the same opportunities.

As I've thought about this question, I've come up with three answers that I give people, depending on the situation.

Are service programs dying? No!

This is often my response when I have just a few minutes with a constituent. Mission Network has seven thriving service units where young adults live in community, serve at a local nonprofit and engage with the local church. SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners), our most popular program, has hundreds of participants serve in 60 sites in Asia, Europe, North America and South America each year. Youth Venture sends young adults to Christian communities around the world through short-term service and learning placements. Mission Networks' newest program, Just Peace Pilgrimage, offers short-term learning experiences that connect church groups, families and individuals with communities engaged with immigration, Civil Rights, and solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.

Left to right: SOOP Phoenix participants Bruno Friesen, Leanne Gross, and Roland Yoder help prepare food at The Society of St. Vincent De Paul Food Reclamation Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The Phoenix SOOP location began in 1993, originally in the home of Peter and Rheta Mae Wiebe. It now operates out of the Menno Guest House, which houses SOOP volunteers during the winter season and serves as a bed and breakfast throughout the rest of the year. Photo by Travis Duerksen.

Are service programs dying? Maybe. But what does that mean?

This is often the answer I give when I have more time to talk. There is a good reason why people ask about the survival of service programs: There are fewer units than there used to be — four in Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS, a one-year program for ages 20-plus), down from 20 in 2004; and three in Service Adventure (a 10-month program for ages 17-20), down from seven in 2004.

These changes did not happen in a bubble. In the past 15 years, two "once-in-a-lifetime" economic crises — the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic — have made unpaid, voluntary service a difficult option for young adults just out of school. The pandemic upended voluntary service for over a year, and the ripple effects continue today.

2022-23 MVS San Francisco unit participants Eli Reimer, Claire Waidelich (2020-2022 participant), Rachel Miller and Anna Lubbers work on a quilt together at the unit house. Photo provided.

Current MVS units, on average, have more participants each year than the units did throughout the 2010s. Yet, overall, fewer young adults are going into these programs.

The question is not just about the survival of the programs themselves. It hints at something deeper. Perhaps it is really about the survival of our churches, nourished by young adults who come out of service programs ready to be leaders in their congregations and communities.

If I had the time with everyone who asks, I would have a conversation about the history and purpose of these programs, what they have represented in the past, and what they can represent in the future.

In the 20th century, North American Anabaptists' posture toward the rest of the world changed as we were forced to make choices about our peace witness and participation in the military. Many Anabaptists chose alternative service rather than military service.

We need to get back to viewing service as an alternative.

2002-2004 MVS participant Jessica Penner (middle, red stocking cap) with members of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in Washington, DC in 2003. During her service term, Penner’s placement as administrative assistant for Pax Christi Metro New York (PCMNY) grew from opening and stuffing envelopes into helping organize peace protests during UN meetings and sites around New York City. Photo provided.

In Daniel Hertzler's section of the book, Re-envisioning Service: The Geography of our Faith, he recalled that C.J. Dyck, a Mennonite historian and church leader, said, "Mennonites do not believe in war, but it takes a war to bring the best out of us."

I doubt Dyck hoped for a war so that Mennonites would rise to the occasion. Rather, he was noting that war creates a stark contrast between pacifists and the rest of society. War forces a choice of how to live out one's peacemaking beliefs.

Growing up in the Mennonite church, I heard stories of people who chose alternative service during wars and even during a peacetime draft. This service did more than fulfill an obligation to the government. It was a way of putting one's faith in action.

The draft forced Mennonites to embody their pacifist beliefs and to stand apart from their neighbors. But with no draft since 1973, it might appear there is no longer a need for alternative action. Was Dyck right that we only shine as pacifists when there's a war?

But while the draft has stopped, wars have not — nor has our need to choose how to live out our commitment to peacemaking. As militarism pervades our society, each of us, to some degree, participates in a militarized system.

Shawna Hurst, a 2023-24 Service Adventure Colorado Springs unit participant, and Travis Clarke, the unit’s co-leader, work together to fashion a tool made from a rifle barrel at RAWtools in Colorado Springs. Each year, the unit visits RAWtools as part of a unit learning component, participating in the organization’s advocacy for peace by forging guns into garden tools. Photo by Shelby Clarke.

Jesus models an alternative path. In Luke 4, he's tempted take shortcuts to power and domination by teaming up with the Evil One to turn stones into bread, rule the nations and defy the bounds of gravity. But he rejects this kind of power.

Then he lays out his alternative plan. He says the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed, and recovery of sight for the blind — in sum, the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus refuses to participate in a system that does not represent his values. He chooses an alternative path of service.

Mennonites have a history of seeking alternatives when confronted with lifestyles that do not represent Jesus' values. As society draws us into systems of injustice, oppression and domination, we should revisit the idea of service as an alternative to such systems.  

When we serve, we step out of coercive systems. We live in a way that does not depend on accumulation of wealth. We catch glimpses of God's kingdom as we encounter those at the bottom of oppressive systems.


The 2022-23 MVS Tucson unit joined in a prayer hike supporting Apache Stronghold, a grassroots, non-profit made up of San Carlos Apache, other Indigenous tribes and allies, that is working to protect Oak Flat, a section of the Tonto National Forest and a sacred site for multiple Indigenous groups. Oak Flat is under threat of destruction from a proposed copper mining operation on the site. Michaela Esau (pictured far-left) organized the prayer hike as part of her MVS service placement with the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, which works to educate and animate Anabaptist church communities in response to the Doctrine of Discovery, the "law of colonialism" that dates back to the 15th century. Photo by Lisa Showalter.

Are service programs dying? I hope so!

This is the level of conversation I have with Naomi Leary, regional director for North America long-term service opportunities at Mennonite Mission Network. She manages the MVS and Service Adventure programs.

Our conversations often lead to the following question: Why be afraid of death when the basis of our faith is the resurrecting power of Jesus? 

Death is an essential path to rebirth and regrowth. Death is scary — yet, somehow, it is where hope lies.

Our service programs are far from flawless. Too often they accommodate those of privilege who have the resources to participate. At times they have perpetuated White saviorism.

As we decolonize mission work — freeing it from the attitudes that lead people of one culture to dominate others — we give up past ways of doing things and envision new ways built on shared power and antiracism.

Our world, our church and our partners need people who choose an alternative to the rise-and-grind culture. Service programs — focusing on intentional community, simple living and peace-and-justice work — are just such an alternative. 

2011-2012 Service Adventure participant Micah Yoder (left) works with Chase (right) on reading skills in the after-school program KidReach in Philippi, West Virginia. The Philippi Service Adventure unit was one of the inaugural placements when the program began in 1989, and operated for 27 years until 2016. Photo provided.

Most important, volunteers meet pressing needs in local communities. Without volunteers:

  •  A refugee family in Tucson, Ariz., might not have the resources to apply for asylum, because the immigration aid agency, which depends on volunteers, would have less capacity.
  •  An after-school program in Johnstown, Pa., that relies on Service Adventure volunteers might have to reduce its hours or close.
  • In Alamosa, Colo., the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project would not have had decades of MVS participants joining in its many restoration projects.
  • The Center for Restorative Programs in Alamosa, launched 28 years ago, would have had less capacity to facilitate over 2,500 restorative interventions with youth.

Will the volunteer opportunities that have helped our church become what it is today cease to exist? I don't want to imply that our survival as a church depends on our service programs. However, I think whether our church survives and thrives is tied to our commitment to following Jesus' example of service.

"The world is pulling us toward consumerism and acceptance of the status quo," says Naomi Leary. "We need ways to differentiate ourselves and our faith from Christian nationalism. We need ways to help those disillusioned with the church at large see the work of God in the world. Our service programs allow people to act in faith, boldly following Jesus' example."

Are service programs dying? Perhaps they are, in a way. Dramatic change — rebirth — requires the death of what was, in order to nurture the birth of what will be. Mennonite Mission Network is committed to what these programs will be because we believe each of us is called to an alternative way of life that partners with local communities, meets pressing needs and puts into action the words of Jesus in Luke 4. 



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