Virtually every religious tradition emphasizes compassion, generosity, service, and justice as priorities even obligations-for people of faith. For example, in Jewish traditions, tzedakah (giving, or more literally, acts of justice) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness or service to others) are considered mitzvot- divine commandments that Jews have an obligation to observe. Christians point to numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus emphasized compassion and justice as being central to faith, including the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37, 39, NRSV). Charity, or Zakat, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Sympathy and compassion for the benefit and welfare of all beings is at the center of Buddhism. And compassion is one of the Three Jewels in Taoism.
This faith commitment-combined with growing evidence of the power of serving others for both nurturing faith and giving young people opportunities to contribute to the life of the faith community (while also contributing to overall positive development and thriving)-has led congregations of many faiths to engage young people in service as a core theme in their youth work. Youth service takes many different forms and uses many different terms, depending on the emphasis and tradition. It may include, for example, social action, activism, volunteerism, service learning, or missions.
Serving others through volunteer activities, service learning, and other forms of service has become a widespread emphasis in positive youth development and citizenship education in the United States since the 1980s. It is also growing internationally, with various forms of service and civic engagement formally operating in every major region of the world, though the concept of volunteering or service is less formalized in developing countries. A growing body of research in positive youth development and thriving shows consistently positive relationships between a prosocial orientation and service to others and a wide range of thriving behaviors, including a positive orientation to schoolwork, being seen as a leader, valuing diversity, and overcoming adversity. In addition, serving others is negatively related to a wide range of high-risk behaviors, including problem alcohol use, use of illicit drugs, use of tobacco, gambling, antisocial behavior, and violence.
Despite the increases in youth service to others through schools (with about two thirds of K-12 public schools in the United States offering community service opportunities for students), congregations remain a primary institution for engaging young people in service to others in the United States. According to Independent Sector, 53% of youth volunteers first learned about volunteer activities through their congregation. This pattern attests to the strong links between service to others and religious or spiritual commitments. Religious youth are almost twice as likely to engage in service as those who are not active in a faith community.
Search Institute surveys of 217,000 6th- to 12thgrade youth in public schools in the United States found that 60% of young people who attend services, programs, or other activities in a "church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious or spiritual place" at least 1 hour per week also say they serve in the community at least an hour a week. In contrast, only 36% of young people who are not active in a faith community are engaged in service to others at that same level. These findings are consistent with analyses of Monitoring the Future data on 12th-grade youth in the United States that show significant positive correlations between service and religious participation, even controlling for race, age, gender, rural or urban residence, region, parental education, number of siblings, and presence of father or male guardian in the household. In addition, Independent Sector has found that only 40% of American young people with no religious affiliation volunteer. However, 60% of Protestant Christian youth volunteered, compared to 63% of Catholic youth and 74% of youth affiliated with other religious traditions, including Judaism. Some of this service occurs within the institutional context of the faith community (which provides a wide variety of services to the community), while some of it occurs in the broader community, schools, and other settings. In each case, there are strong links between faith or spirituality and a commitment to serving others-links that transcend particular religious traditions and beliefs.
For many people, serving others is not only related to religion or spirituality, it is integral or core to this domain of life. Indeed, many definitions of spiritual development emphasize issues of contribution and selftranscendence on behalf of others as an integral dimension. One study found that spirituality includes two significantly related but distinct factors: participation in activities of self-interest and an orientation to help other people. Finally, models of faith or religiosity, such as the Faith Maturity Scale-developed as a result of a study conducted by the Search Institute assessing the maturity of faith of 11,000 youth and adults in six Protestant denominations in the United States-include a "horizontal" dimension (or an "outward journey") in which faith and spirituality are expressed through a commitment to serving others through compassion and justice. A growing number of religious communities are recognizing the important role that serving others plays in young people's identity formation and spiritual and civic development. However, not all service experiences have equal impact, and poorly designed projects can have a negative impact. The field of service learning suggests best practices for engaging young people in serving others that include designing service projects that address authentic community needs, engaging young people as leaders throughout the process, and utilizing an intentional process for debriefing or reflecting upon the experience. Engaging young people in intentionally designed service-learning experiences has significant potential not only to ensure that young people make a real contribution to community life, but also triggers processes that facilitate their civic, spiritual, and religious development.