Ministry with Urban Youth


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This paper looks at how to do ministry with urban youth.  It will first look at youth ministry in a general sense and then will examine how ministry might be refined or modified in order to best minister to youth in an urban setting.  Why is urban youth ministry important?  First of all, because cities are here to stay.  Cities have always been the engines of economic growth.  But they are beginning to resemble black holes, consuming huge amounts of resources and putting very little back.  Although cities occupy only 2% of the land surface on our world, they use over 75% of the world’s resources.  Cities are very diverse in terms of ethnicity, economics, and religion. Each city has its own unique makeup.  But cities are here to stay and we need to tackle the problems that they present.  With the help of the church, these problems can begin to be addressed.  And what of the poor in the inner-city?  The primary cause of their poverty is not in the behavior of the individual but in forces beyond their control.  The poor do what they humanly can to survive.  The rest of society must change the existing programs and create new ones that allow everyone to enjoy a decent standard of living.  The church should take a lead in this effort and become a focus of social change, both at the local level and the national level.  And finally, youth are important not just because they are our future, but because they have the passion to change the present.  If we can give the youth of the inner-city hope and the courage to choose the future that God is leading them to, we can change the city.

When putting together a plan for ministering to youth, the most important thing to remember is the purpose of the ministry.  Too many youth ministers focus on their programs rather than focusing on the youth.  But the best programs in the world with an unlimited budget will not necessarily bring young people into a relationship with Christ.  For youth to be the focus of the church’s youth ministry, rather than the programs, the ministry must be planned accordingly.  The best youth ministry is about relationships.  This includes relationships between youth, relationships between the youth and trustworthy adults, and a relationship with God.  Most youth come to church because of the relationships they have with other youth.  They may stay because of the relationships they develop with committed adults.  But the aim of the church is to teach them about having a relationship with the Trinitarian God.  Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster encourage adults who do ministry with youth to become Godbearers.  As Godbearers we convey God’s affirmation and invitation to youth so that the youth become Godbearers, carrying Christ into their own culture.  “Godbearing youth ministry leads adolescents home by helping them claim and become who God created them to be: favored ones of God, human beings called to take part in God’s plan to redeem creation.”  This is true for all youth, whether they are rich or poor, Hispanic or African American, whether they live in the suburbs or the inner-city.  In order to minister to youth, we need to bear God to them, thus allowing them to bear God to others.  It’s not enough to bring them to an understanding of God, they must then want to take on the task to bring the same good news to their peers.  It is our job to make Godbearers of our young people.

I have been working with Charles Harrison, Andy Lewis, and Andy Stoker for over five years on a new method of doing youth ministry, called “When Grace is the Chauffer.”  We have focused on how we believe John Wesley would do youth ministry if he were alive today.  Looking at youth ministry from a Wesleyan perspective, there are three different types of ministry: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.  Prevenient ministry provides the loving care that comes before a youth ever responds to God.  Examples of prevenient ministries might include basketball tournaments, tutoring, or a night of broomball at the local ice skating rink.  Justifying ministry is the love that challenges youth to make a commitment to God in Jesus Christ.  These ministries might include summer camp, church retreats, or a mission trip.  Sanctifying ministry is the loving structure that enables a youth who professes Christ to grow as a faithful disciple.  Examples could include Bible study, worship, or leading a small group at camp.  Since sanctification is a continual process, there are multiple levels of sanctifying ministry.  For example a young person might initially participate in a Bible study and later lead a Bible study. 

There are four areas that youth ministry should concentrate on: education, mission, worship, and theology.  Each of these areas should have prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying aspects.  When putting together a youth ministry plan for a church, it is important to make sure that it includes prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying ministries.  Prevenient ministries bring un-churched youth to church events.  Justifying ministries give the youth an opportunity to make a decision for Christ and sanctifying ministries give the youth ways to grow in their discipleship.  All are important but none are more important than the others.  This is true for churches of all sizes, denominations, and composition.  This model can be used with urban, suburban, or rural youth ministries because the specific ministry components are chosen to fit the context of the community.  The critical factor is providing a mix of the different types of ministry: prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

It is difficult to discuss urban youth without discussing the phenomenon of hip hop music.  Due to the influence of the global hip hop subculture, the youth of America’s inner-cities are leading the youth culture at large.  This influence can be in both positive and negative ways.  Hip hop is influencing today’s youth in their music choices, dress, and language.  However, S. Craig Watkins says that “Despite concerns that hip hop’s youth are materialistic, apolitical, and self-indulgent, many are socially conscious, engaged in politics, and concerned about the plight of others.”  Hip hop music is allowing the marginalized youth of the inner-city to have a strong voice and speak for all the youth in our country.  Youth ministry to urban youth can use the influence of hip hop by using hip hop music during youth programs, by encouraging youth to write their own raps, and various other ways.  Using hip hop music as part of your worship will also help to make it appeal to a more multicultural audience.  Tommy Kyllonen says that many people consider spirituality or the knowledge of self to be the fifth element of hip hop (the other four elements are DJing, MCing, break dancing, and graffiti art). Hip hop is a culture of expression and spirituality will always be a part of hip hop.  We should use this spirituality to minister to urban youth.

Some of the problems of urban youth include poverty, gang activity, drug abuse, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy and other social problems.  Although these same problems may be found in youth in all communities, they are worse in urban areas.  A Search Institute study says that the most profound trends for urban youth are the increasing rupture of three vital support systems for them: family, school, and work.  After World War II many of the middle class left the city for the suburbs, draining the cities economy and job base.  This caused many of the existing problems with jobs.  When working with urban youth, it is important to remember that support is needed in terms of family, school, and work.  The church can help to provide this support.

The issues that urban youth deal with are very different from the issues of a suburban youth.  They are exposed to so much violence and despair so early that they build a thick shell around themselves.  Breaking through this shell is one of the biggest challenges of urban youth ministry.  It is important to gain the trust of the youth in your neighborhood in order to crack this shell.  Recreation is also different in a big city.  Urban youth gather on street corners because they don’t have malls or theaters to hang out in.  Also, because the city is so diverse, they may tend to be less prejudiced.

For inner-city youth whose parent or parents have only sporadic jobs, family life tends to be unstable.  They also own very little so they don’t have a good sense of ownership and don’t know how to take care of things.  Their educational opportunities are very limited and the dropout rate is high.  They also feel hopeless and have difficulty knowing how to improve their situation.  To counteract this hopelessness, the church needs to teach youth about God who is present in the middle of their suffering and despair.  We need to teach them spiritual disciplines that help sustain them in bad times and we need to help them anticipate the future that God has in store for them.

Low self esteem is a central issue with urban youth.  The physical poverty in which urban youth grow up creates an inner-city street culture, with its own code of the street.  This code is based around a desperate search for respect.  Most of these youth don’t expect to live past their early twenties, which leaves them with a sense of hopelessness for the future.  Just like all other youth, urban youth grow up needing love, respect, and community.  The problem is that often these needs are not met and they turn to gangs to meet these needs.  The church can help to meet these needs and keep our youth out of gangs.

Most urban youth don’t hear about how much God loves them.  As their youth ministers, we need to figure out how to share the good news of Christ in their context.  To do this we must respect them and earn their respect.  We also need to give them hope and help them to set goals for themselves.  It is also critical that all of the adults who are part of the youth ministry team are committed to these youth.  Almost nothing is stable in a young person’s life in the inner city.  Because of this, you cannot do urban youth ministry for a short period of time and expect good results.  Your commitment must be long term.

There are several other things that might be helpful to remember when dealing with urban youth.  Many of them have difficulty in school, so the church might provide tutoring and work to find ways to encourage them to stay in school.  This same issue means that some will have difficulty reading, so ask for volunteers when you want someone to read from the Bible or other resource, rather than choosing youth to read.  Also, when planning outings, don’t assume that everyone can swim.  Many urban youth don’t have regular access to a pool and may never have learned to swim.  And it’s not a bad idea to take your youth out of the city to camp or on a mission trip.  It is good for them to see more of the world than just the city in which they live.  But remember to show them that they can retreat and find God in the city as well.  God is everywhere, not just at camp.

When we first go into a neighborhood to minister to the youth, we must first learn about the community.  We need to observe the community and the youth as they interact with their community.  We need to listen to the youth and hear their stories.  We need to try to understand the different cultures and backgrounds in the neighborhood.  And especially if your culture is different from the cultures of the youth you are ministering to, it is helpful to find mentors to help you understand those cultures.  Mentors can be very helpful in this ministry.  There are several ways to learn about your community.  Walk around the neighborhood, visit other pastors and youth ministers, research the community, and visit the schools, businesses, and law enforcement agencies.  But most of all, talk to people, especially the youth.  Find out their likes and dislikes, their fears and their dreams.

But the most important requirement for ministering to urban youth is that you must call the neighborhood home.  If we are not willing to become a part of the community, how can we expect to change it?  Researchers have found that most pastors of community churches in the inner-city have relocated and no longer lived in the neighborhood.  So, rather than transforming the community, they were abandoning it.  How do these pastors expect to minister to a community they don’t live in?  It is difficult to gain the trust of the people in the community if you are not willing to be a part of it.  La Verne S. Stokes, talking about how Mark Gornik changed her neighborhood, said that he became a neighbor and worked side by side with them “as together we determined our agenda and carried it out.”  So we not only need to be a part of the community, we need to listen to them to understand what are the real needs in the community.  Often, as outsiders, we might have access to resources that are unavailable to the other residents and this is a valuable asset we bring to the table.  By working together with others in the community, the neighborhood can be changed from the inside.

Roger Sanjek notes that in New York City, the churches that welcomed immigrants of different backgrounds from the majority of the congregation thrived, while the churches that were not welcoming usually disbanded as the makeup of the neighborhood changed.  The church must work to become diverse so that it can “embody a gospel that is open to the reality of the universal promises of God’s reign.”  The story of the life of Jesus encourages us to think beyond our current racially divided churches and to embrace our differences.  Urban churches must be encouraged to long for the coming of the reign of God, when all will be equal and differences will be celebrated.  The urban neighborhoods are usually very diverse and the church should reflect that diversity.

What can local churches offer youth?  They can give them love and unconditional acceptance and a place where they feel at home.  They can provide a safe space for teenagers to hang out together and let their guards down.  And they can provide a group where the youth can participate in making changes to themselves, their neighborhood, their country, and their world.  The church can also introduce them to healthy mentors so that they can see examples of how life can be different from what they are living.  But many churches are failing at these tasks.  The mainline denominations often seem baffled by the changes forced upon it by urbanization.  The traditional methods used by churches are clearly losing their effectiveness in the city.  But God is finding new ways to be church in the city.  As Robert D. Lupton says “The world is urbanizing.  The city is our opportunity to see firsthand how God is doing his creative work in our day.  It is both fearful and wonderful, an invitation to death and incomparable life.  And it is ours to discover.”

But how do we get urban youth into our church?  A church family is critical to the sanctification process of a teenager.  So once the youth accepts Christ, in order to continue to grow in her faith the teen will need a church home.  But we need to move outside of the church walls initially to reach the neighborhood youth.  We need to go out to where the youth are.  Develop relationships with them by listening to them and be committed to these relationships.  Several urban youth ministers focus strictly on building relationships with a few youth in the neighborhood, rather than having any programs.  When you have built these relationships, look for the gifts of the youth and find ways for them to serve alongside of you.  Model Christ for them and then find non-threatening ways for them to get involved in your church.  Service projects are often good ways for youth to do something with a church group without having to go inside of the church.

Tony Campolo says that visiting those in the neighborhood is vital to an urban church.  People need to be listened to so that they feel cared for.  It also helps to determine the needs of the individual and the social problems that exist in the neighborhood.  Armed with this information, the church can work on social issues as it takes the lead in social change.  Campolo’s organization, EAPE/Kingdomworks, is recruiting young people to take a year off from college to work with an urban church.  The church gets a group of six college volunteers who live in the neighborhood and work with the local church.  They spend twenty hours a week visiting people in the neighborhood and praying for them.  They spend ten hours each week serving in church-sponsored programs and another ten hours each week serving in community service programs.   This ministry is enabling many inner-city churches to reach out into their neighborhoods.

Youth ministry also includes family ministry.  We need to nurture the families of the youth and learn to value their families in whatever form they come.  This is especially critical in ministry with urban youth because only rarely are these youth living with both parents.  Often they are in single parent homes or living with relatives.  Because of this, many of these youth don’t get discipline at home, so it will require time, effort, and patience to keep them in line at your youth events.  Youth long for consistency and discipline which the youth ministry of the church can help provide.  The church can also offer assistance to the families of the youth.  Classes in English, reading, GED preparation, or parenting can help change the dynamics of the family.   Setting up an employment agency may also be helpful, along with job training for the type of jobs that are available in the area.  Churches can also work to bring new businesses into the neighborhood.  Find out what the families in the neighborhood need so that the church can help.  Involve the parents in the youth ministry, in whatever ways work for the ministry.

One of our most important tasks, once we have gotten a youth into the church community, is to develop them as student leaders.  The best ministry is a youth-led ministry.  Begin this by finding ways for the youth to help, both at youth events and with the rest of the church.  Consider setting up a youth ministry council of youth who want to be in leadership in the church.  Provide them with opportunities to be in leadership and give them the resources they need to be successful in their tasks.  To do this well, you have to help them discover their gifts, encourage them, hold them accountable, and let them fail on occasion.  By developing youth leadership we are helping to form leaders in the church and the community.  Growing local leaders is a valuable service to the community.  Jane Jacobs said that rather than bringing back the middle class to a neighborhood by moving them in from outside, we should help the neighborhood grow its own middle class by valuing its residents and considering them worth retaining.  The same is true for youth in a neighborhood.  The process begins by giving some of the youth self-respect and teaching them that God loves them unconditionally.  Then the neighborhood grows its own community of God and change begins to happen.

A study of inner-city neighborhood organizations found five broad characteristics shared by those who were successful in urban ministry.  They see potential in the youth they minister to, seeing them as valuable assets to society.  They focus on the youth rather than on the organization or program, making themselves available and responsive to the youth.  They believe that they can make a difference, even in the life of a youth from the bleakest urban setting.  They see their ministry as “paying it forward” or giving back what others gave to them as they were growing up.  And finally, they are authentic and committed to the community.  I think that these characteristics are needed by youth ministers in order to be successful in an urban setting.

Harold Dean Trulear says that we need to focus our ministry on the most difficult youth in the neighborhood rather than merely those youth who are at-risk.  Although a church would probably not want to focus exclusively on the most difficult youth, it is important not to ignore the needs of these kids.  As a part of a community, a church congregation cannot afford to minister only to those who come willingly through our doors seeking God.  We must also go out to where the youth are, especially if we want to reach the most troubled teenagers.

A big problem with urban youth ministry is that the standard youth ministry models don’t work well in the city.  The traditional approach of creating standard programs doesn’t work in an urban setting.  Ray Bakke says that what urban ministers need most are diagnostic tools to help them understand the needs of the community and then meet them.  Even in the suburbs, the standard youth ministry plan has to be adjusted to fit the community, the church, and the youth.  But in the city, the adjustments required are major.  For example, most youth programs focus on the spiritual needs of the youth, assuming that their physical and mental needs have already been met by the family.  In the city, we can’t assume that that the youth have enough to eat or know how to read well.  When putting together your plan for ministry, consider adding programs that meet the non-spiritual needs of your youth also.  Education issues such as illiteracy and dropping out of school can be addressed with tutoring through the church.  Sexuality, teen pregnancy, violence, and drug use can be valuable discussion topics for urban youth.  If you give youth a safe place to discuss these issues, they are better able to make their own decisions when faced with situations.  The appeal of gangs can be mitigated by involving the youth in groups at church where they feel safe and welcome.  When adding programs for these needs, make sure that you are not duplicating work being done by another organization in your community.  There are too many needs in the city to have duplication of effort.

Another problem is that most of the youth ministry resources are aimed at white suburban teens.  Many of the analogies found in these resources are not applicable to urban youth and the issues addressed are usually not those facing city dwellers.  Urban youth want to talk about how to deal with violence rather than how to choose a college.  This lack of resources is largely due to the fact that urban churches don’t have the resources to buy good material.  Since there is no demand, very few people are writing for the urban market.  The level of the material is also an issue.  According to Wayne Gordon, youth materials need to be written at a fourth or fifth grade reading level for most urban teens to understand them.

A final issue is that many urban youth did not grow up in a church and so do not have basic Biblical knowledge.  Even those who were raised in a church have difficulty understanding many parts of the Bible which are set in an urban setting.  In order to bring the Bible to urban teens you need to stick with the basics initially, but provide different levels of Bible study for youth at different levels in their journey.  A good way to share the Bible is to help the youth visualize the truth in the Bible scripture.  Use experiential learning and find ways to relate the Bible to issues in the city.  Experiential learning includes four components: start with an experience that brings the scripture to life, think and talk about the experience, probe what the experience means, and then explore how this experience relates to daily life.

In summary, urban youth ministry is based on the same foundation as youth ministry in any other location.  All youth ministry must be based around teaching teens about God.  Young people need to know that God loves them and there is nothing that they can do about it.  And in response to that love, they should be encouraged to be yearning for the reign of God, for that time when all people will have all they need and justice will prevail.  However, urban youth ministry does present the youth minister with some distinct challenges with which to deal.  First, the physical and emotional needs of the youth must be met, in addition to the spiritual needs.  Second, programs must be tailored to be applicable to the urban youth.  Third, ministry with their families is even more critical than it is with other youth, due to struggling family systems in the city.  And fourth, the Bible must be made relevant to their lives.  Ministry with urban youth is a unique challenge and requires commitment in order to make any difference in the lives of young people.  But for the youth minister who is willing to dive into a community and become a part of it, who is willing to risk for the sake of youth with an amazing potential, the rewards can be extraordinary.  We have done inner-city residents a disservice by allowing systems to develop that keep them in an untenable situation.  We, as Christians, need to be working to make the changes necessary to change those systems so that all people have the same opportunity.  And I believe that the best way to begin to make these changes is by starting with the youth of the city.  By changing their lives, one at the time, by making them Godbearers, we can begin to make changes to the city.


Sources Consulted

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Carrington, Tommy. Developing an Urban Youth Ministry. Website: http://www.youthspecialties.com/articles/topics/urban/developing_utm.php, Accessed April 29, 2007.

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Dean, Kenda Creasy, Chap Clark, and Dave Rahn. Starting Right: Thinking theologically about youth ministry. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001.

Dean, Kenda Creasy and Ron Foster. The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998.

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Recinos, Harold J. Good News from the Barrio: Prophetic Witness for the Church. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Roehlkepartain, Eugene C. Youth Ministry in City Churches. Loveland, Colorado: Group Books: 1989.

Sanjek, Roger. The Future of Us All: Race and Neighborhood Politics in New York City. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Selleck, Michael. United Methodist Youth Handbook. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1999.

Sharman, Russell Leigh. The Tenants of East Harlem. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Sinsabaugh, Ginger. Help! I’m an Urban Youth Worker! A survival Guide to Ministry in the Big City. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001.

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