by Danielle McGrath, with Kirsty Lavelle
School’s finished. What is next for me? What is God’s plan for my life? These are some of the questions that run through our young people’s heads before applying for the FirstServe gap year programme. In our fast-paced Western culture, it can be unsettling not to have the ideal five-year plan sorted, ticked off and ready to go. However, for all the young people out there who may not know what their future holds next, this uncertain time might be an opportunity to seek the Lord’s will for their life and learn about mission, while going on an adventure and serving God.
FirstServe is a Christian gap-year programme for those aged 18-30 comprised of four elements: learning to serve, serving locally, serving globally and being discipled. Developed by Echoes International, GLO and Counties, FirstServe has been designed to bring young people closer to God, and engage them with the idea of serving and supporting mission across the world. So far, 42 young people have completed our gap-year programme, with many going on to serve the Lord and support mission afterwards.
Learn to Serve
The programme kicks off at Tilsley College in Motherwell, Scotland. Participants spend four weeks delving into God’s Word, serving practically in youth, social or children’s placements and living in community with fellow students and FirstServers. This training lays the foundations for the practical work ahead, both in the UK church and overseas placements. FirstServer Liz Ellery said, ‘My time at Tilsley consisted of various classes on wisdom and poetry, spiritual formation, Bible studies and cross-cultural mission, among others. The classes were excellent and it was a true blessing to learn from and alongside such wonderful people. Tilsley was a wonderful way to begin the programme. The students were so warm and welcoming, and I learnt a ton about God and the world.’
…they are welcomed, utilised, loved and part of the larger body of Christ.
The next stage of the programme is a 4-6 week placement in a UK church, similar in style and teaching to the FirstServer’s home church. The experience varies, depending on the church with which they are partnered. Some of the activities may include working with children in after-school clubs, assisting church workers, preparing and leading Religious Education classes, devotions or children’s talks, working in the church cafe, helping with community events and much more! Lizzie Bell said, ‘My programme here is really varied and gives me a great opportunity to work in and experience different ministries and groups of people. Although I’m supposed to be here serving, I feel I am being blessed much more than I am blessing or helping the community here. I cannot praise this programme highly enough, purely just for the exposure to being surrounded with such incredible Christ-centred people at every stage, and being bolstered to have that passion and excitement for God.’ Her sentiments echo what most, if not all, of our FirstServers have felt during their church placement – that they are welcomed, utilised, loved and part of the larger body of Christ.
FirstServers are then sent on one of our overseas placement options for 3-6 months. They will work alongside our mission workers in the field in countries such as Bolivia, India, Peru and Zambia. From providing holistic care and help with homework at a children’s camp in the Amazon rainforest, to assisting medical staff at a mission hospital in the African bush, there is a range of different places and activities in which young people can get involved. This time abroad provides an opportunity to seek and discern God’s will for their lives and to experience serving the Lord in a new culture and surroundings.
Emily, who served in India in 2016, said ‘Looking back, FirstServe has had a massive impact on my life. I learnt so much about God and about myself. My time overseas
really did shape me as a person.’
The Great Commission of Jesus is to make disciples of all nations. This is a task that we are called to obey. However, the only way that the next generation can make disciples is if they first learn to be disciples themselves. The fourth and final element of our programme is the discipleship course, which is given to each FirstServer at their induction.
This self-study is completed alongside the practical placements. It covers various topics including prayer, personal character development, evangelism and more. Our ultimate goal is to disciple and engage young people to support and serve in mission. We expect our FirstServers to dive into the unknown, with a humble work ethic that mirrors that of Christ Himself and an expectant attitude that God will reveal Himself to them through His Word, His people and His worldwide mission.
‘My FirstServe journey took me from Tilsley College in Motherwell to Peebles in the Scottish borders and then to Zambia. God had lessons for me at every stage. Being thrown into different environments and meeting new people in the UK really helped prepare me for my time abroad, just as much as seminars on culture shock did. As someone who likes things just so, this change and disorientation was a major challenge for me. Stepping into someone else’s way of life is going to be uncomfortable, however much or little it differs from our own, but Jesus didn’t make us all the same! In realising this we gain a bit of God’s perspective: it shifts the focus from ourselves onto Jesus. We can then confidently put the lives of others above our own and ask: ‘God what do you want me to learn here? Teach me to love like you do.’
‘I read recently that faith is like a muscle that is only grown as we exercise it. We have to act, often to a point where it doesn’t feel comfortable. Growing in faith means knowing God more, leaning into Him and depending on His character. FirstServe is about stepping out to serve others, but it’s primarily a faith journey with Jesus on which you learn to trust Him through whatever else is going on.
‘My relationship with Jesus went deeper than it had before as I saw that I am not in control one little bit. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the flip side is the truth that the God of the universe is in control. He holds all things in His hands and I’ve seen that the Lord is good! Of course I knew that before, but my FirstServe journey gave me a better perspective as I experienced God’s provision and care in such real ways.
As you step out for Him, God will undoubtedly use your experiences to shape and grow you in ways you never imagined
‘Through FirstServe, I’ve been amazed again at the fundamentals of my faith, challenged afresh to love Jesus with my whole being and I have rejoiced anew in the lessons He has taught me. If we step out of our comfort zones, God can use us far more. FirstServe is a chance to serve God, maybe for the first time. As you step out for Him, God will undoubtedly use your experiences to shape and grow you in ways you never imagined.’
Who Should Apply?
We want those who are aware of their weaknesses, those who hold their hands up and say, ‘I can’t do this on my own’ and those who trust God with their lives, knowing that His plans for their future are the best. Young people applying to FirstServe do not need to have their entire lives mapped out, nor have a calling to serve in a particular country. All we ask is that they have a desire to serve Jesus, that they are open to how He can change their lives and sometimes their plans!
Our sessions begin in February and September of each year, and the deadline for applications is two months before the chosen start date. The cost includes accommodation, training, insurance
(excluding excesses) and travel throughout the duration of the programme.
FirstServe Compact – This summer programme includes an induction into FirstServe and 8-10 weeks in an overseas country of your choice. This flexible programme can be a great option for those who may have a shorter availability or a long summer between university terms and a desire to serve. We are also working on a FirstServe mission resource for churches to engage their youth groups and clubs with the idea of mission. If you would like to find out more, please contact us for further details.