Unlocking the Keys to Indigenous Urban Leadership

Youth for Christ Research Brief

Apr 23, 2012 Dave Rahn

Tanya’s Story

The story Tanya offered was captivating.  With conversational ease she described life in the Hilltop neighborhood of urban Tacoma.  Gang-banging was a given.  Family drama was an everyday reality.  Scrambling to pay bills was common.

But the rest of her story set Tanya apart from lots of other urban young people whose lives too often spiral downward in the face of daunting economic pressures, bleak job opportunities, rampant drugs, schools that don’t work, violence and unstable homes.

Tanya’s older sister had broken free of this hamster-wheel of hopelessness when she discovered the love of Christ.  Supported by a rich community of mentors, she became rooted in her faith while doing jail time.  She withstood the pain of seeing a best friend gunned down and became a force for positive change.  How could Tanya not want to follow her up and out of the despair?  Now both of them are involved in ministry, giving back to the neighborhood that they know all too well.  

Research Insights for Leaders Like Tanya

In September and October of 2011 a team of research-trained youth workers gathered 81 such stories from young adults living in Tacoma, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Antonio, Columbus, Miami, New York and Philadelphia.  The project was orchestrated by Youth for Christ’s City Life ministry.  Those selected for interviews were at least 18 years old, had grown up in an urban environment and were perceived as vibrant Christian leaders currently working to bring about the Christian spiritual development of youth or adults through relational ministry in their urban communities.  They were indigenous urban ministry leaders.

Slightly more than two thirds of those interviewed were male.  There was substantial ethnic diversity represented in the sample, with 38% identifying themselves as Hispanic, 37% black and 17% white.  A third were 22 years old or younger; a third were at least 30 years old and the other third fell between these two ages.

Over the course of 30-45 minutes they told their stories to a listening, trained, note-taking pair of researchers.  During that time they shared about their initial faith experience in Christ, what it was like for them to grow as a Christian and how they saw their journey into ministry leadership.  Seven members of the team huddled together for four days in early November to make sense of 2,750 coded responses derived from the open-ended interview questions.

Here are five findings that jumped out of the data:

1. Relationships matter most.
Nearly half of all the responses that were coded from interviews fell into the relational domain category.  This included family (19% of relational mentions) and friends (10%).  The Youth for Christ (YFC) City Life holistic model suggests that a relational context is the foundation for ministry in five sub-domains: 

1) spiritual and moral literacy;
2) economic literacy;
3) education;
4) basic health and safety;
5) civic literacy.

This study affirms the foundational importance of relationship development in urban ministry.   

2. Catalytic life experiences make the greatest difference early in the journey.
They often represent challenges that—if they can be overcome—help someone persevere in their growth and become available for leadership.  And it was not unusual for these life hurdles to pop up in some of the sub-domains identified above. For example, one female in the study cited her experience of being sexually abused and how “being able to open up to others and get stuff off of my chest led me to become a follower of Jesus.”  Another described how her husband’s incarceration “made [her] get into the Word.”  

3. Exemplars and mentors reverse importance over the course of the journey.
Seeing others model authentic Christian lives was a common and significant explanation for why participants decided initially to put their faith in Christ.  But as actively engaged mentors made relational investments they became more important than exemplars during their growing in Christ phase, helping them to navigate the tough life challenges described above.  These same mentors naturally moved into ministry coaching and they were cited even more frequently for their roles in this latter phase.  For example, one young man in Tacoma described how a volunteer leader and his wife drew him to Christ by “showing [him] God’s love.”  As he was attracted to the ministry and began to grow he named lots of others who taught and influenced him, including three men who were later called out for how important they were to his becoming a ministry leader: “they showed us how to do it.”

4. Intrinsic motivation becomes more important as Christ followers grow into ministry leaders.
This is the story line of maturity.  External circumstances surface most commonly as contributing factors during the initial faith phase (i.e., drug or alcohol abuse, family upheaval, gang-banging, school failure). They are cited less often as Christ followers grow and the Holy Spirit’s customized direction becomes familiar; leaders emerge as they pay increasing attention to their heart’s direction.  

5. Providing opportunities can dramatically accelerate the transition from growth into ministry leadership.
During numerous interviews mentors were especially credited with opening ministry doors and encouraging their protégés to walk through them.  First ministry experiences are usually the result of invitations by others; they’re seldom self-initiated.  This was certainly true of the indigenous urban ministry leaders in our project.  Tanya, for example, gushed about how active she was in the weekly urban church that was planted in the neighborhood.  More than that, she recounted how she had been asked to help launch and lead ministry to younger kids that had been established by this church.  She also described how she still has plenty of “street cred,” but the importance of her witness as a known Christian leader meant, for example, that she refused to be drawn into a fight over boyfriends at the local McDonald’s.  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she is thinking like a responsible leader.  

Action Points

Here are a few practical takeaways from this research:

  1. Re-purpose any program that doesn’t support the goal of moving adults into closer relationships with kids.  Don’t waste valuable time or limited resources in creating activities that won’t deliver over the long haul.
  2. Recognize that the biggest relational strain on adult leaders may come after young people come to Christ but before they emerge as leaders.  Kids can get derailed by life’s harsh obstacles as they seek to grow in their faith unless caring mentors help them power through the challenges.  Ramp up your support and training of caring volunteers so that they’re ready for this ministry burden.
  3. Identify opportunities for influence that are appropriate for emerging leaders.  Camp and/or retreat counseling can be a great fit for this, with appropriate training and support.

Many thanks go to Dr. Kara Powell (Fuller Youth Institute) and Eileen Kooreman (DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative) for their active support and contribution to this research project.  Further research insights and City Life’s ongoing efforts to improve urban leadership development practices can be tracked through this link:

DJing and the Art of Pastoral Care

A Different Spin on the Role of the Pastor, Part 2

Feb 27, 2012 Kimberly Williams

What do the Hip Hop DJ and the youth pastor have in common? The first time I sat down with DJ Hapa, the Executive Director of the LA Scratch Academy (a school for aspiring DJs), I told him that I thought pastors and DJs have a lot in common.  I had no idea how he would respond.

He paused and then said, “That’s really interesting. That’s probably one of the most interesting parallels that I’ve ever heard when it comes to DJing, but it rings true, definitely.” 1   As we continued to talk, I could feel so much energy building in our conversations as we compared our very different worlds and explored what we could learn from one another.

Though their content and their context are very different, this two part series is exploring what the pastor can learn from the art of DJing. 2  Part one of the series focused on how DJs study their content. This article will explore the way a DJ communicates to an audience.

While in seminary, I studied intercultural studies and focused my degree on learning more about hip hop culture, specifically hip hop DJs. I was surprised to discover what I could learn, and even more surprised to see fingerprints of the Holy Spirit in the interactions and movements of this community. The DJs taught me how to listen, and they taught me how to communicate more effectively.


Sugar and Medicine
At one point in my conversations with DJ Hapa I told him I thought there’s one way the pastor-DJ analogy breaks down.  The pastor has an obligation to present the whole text to the congregation, not just the parts that they want to hear. Hapa argued that the DJ has a similar responsibility; he explained that DJs introduce the audience to new music that they have never heard before. In those instances, the DJ has no idea how the crowd will respond. 

When I asked him how he did this he smiled and referenced a song from the movie Mary Poppins saying, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” He said, “You know you gotta give them the medicine, they need the medicine, but you kinda have to hide it in the sugar.” 3   The skill is in knowing the right ratio of sugar to medicine for the crowd that you are speaking to in that moment. He said you could work the same club every Saturday night and you still have to do your homework in order to figure out the right combination of sugar and medicine.

As he shared, I couldn’t help but think of how the youth pastor has a similar challenge of balancing truth and grace. To offer one without the other does not do justice to the gospel message. I also thought of how different congregations and youth groups need to hear messages of truth or of grace in varying proportions at different times. Like the DJ, the pastor needs to do his or her homework to know just the right combination of “sugar and medicine” for their community.

Reading the Crowd
The way that a pastor or a DJ discerns what material to offer is by reading the crowd. After DJs learn the technical skills of working a set of turntables, they focus on noticing the small details of discerning the movements and responses of the crowd. The DJ can’t just create a playlist beforehand and press “Play,” otherwise they could easily be replaced with an iPod. Before a gig, DJs do their homework.  They create a plan, but they also know that there will be many adjustments to that plan throughout the night. A different crowd may show up, a DJ before you might have just played some of your best stuff, or you might go on late and discover that people are tired. There are a lot of things that the DJ has to pay attention to when they decide in the moment what music to share.

The DJ has to feel the crowd and take them on a journey. A good DJ knows when to pick up the pace, when to slow it down, when to provoke people, when to introduce them to something new, or remind them of something from their past. Good theologians need these same skills of awareness and discernment.

Youth pastors need to pay attention and be willing to change their plan in order to reach the audience before them. Donald Smith, in Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes, explains how important it is to remain aware while you are presenting.  Smith writes, “The most important thing is simply to pay attention. Instead of half-listening while your mind is pursuing other thoughts, focus on the words, trying to identify the purpose of the message and discerning the context from which the message comes.” 4   Hearing the words you are saying, and paying attention to the young people you’re talking to, allows you to be open to the nudge of the Holy Spirit in the moment.

Something Old, Something New
Most musicians do the work of composition. According to DJ Hapa, DJs are the only musicians who focus on decomposition and recomposition. 5   DJs are masters in the art of remixing, or altering songs by changing the musical components, adding to, or taking out parts of a song.

Often a DJ will take a piece of music apart and then put it back together again in a new way, sometimes putting things next to each other that have never been put together before. To do this well, they need to be very familiar with the original content and meaning of the songs so that they can shape the sound to suit their audience. Remixing allows artists to add their own personality and perspective to an original piece of art, and to reframe the piece for a different context.

For the youth pastor, there is a biblical precedence for the “remix” in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Genesis through Kings was written for a specific audience. This was the account of the people of God to which the ancient Israelites referred in order to understand their relationship with God. It starts with the beginning of the world and it follows the story of the people of God until the exile. After 1st and 2nd Kings comes 1st and 2nd Chronicles, which basically retells the story of Genesis through Kings except this time for a post-exile audience. It’s the same story, but different aspects of the story are highlighted. For example, the temple has been rebuilt so there is more emphasis on worship in the temple and why that is important.

Or another case of remixing in the Bible is the four gospel accounts in the New Testament. Each author tells the same story of Jesus’ life but emphasizes different characteristics as they write for different audiences. Matthew writes to a Jewish audience trying to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Mark writes to the Romans, often explaining Jewish words and customs, and he portrays Jesus as the servant of God. Luke writes to the Greeks and emphasizes that Jesus was a man. John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity and writes to a Gentile/Christian audience. The gospel authors take into account their audiences in how they tell the story.

In this way youth pastors have a certain amount of freedom to tell the story of the Bible with an emphasis on what will resonate with students in their context. The remix has to be based off of the original and, done well, must hold the integrity of the story. In this way the gospel comes alive in new ways in every community while remaining grounded in the same truths. 


By putting the role of the DJ and the role of the youth pastor next to each other, we can learn from one another. DJs teach us a style of communication that is informed, fluid, and improvised. They know their content and context so well that they can make informed decisions about what to play in any given moment. As pastors caring for a specific group of young people, may we be challenged to share the truth and the grace of the gospel message, pay close attention to the messages we’re communicating, and work hard in order to contextualize the story of the people of God for our audience.

Action Points

  • When preparing a talk, are you more focused on sharing what you have studied or discerning what your audience needs to hear at that time? If the former, are there specific ways you might include more listening into your teaching?
  • Pull together a diagnosis task force. Take some time to explain the “sugar/medicine” concept to a few members of your youth group. Ask them to help you brainstorm examples of “sugar” (what would be encouraging to hear) and examples of “medicine” (what would be challenging to hear) for your group. The next time you give a talk, ask your task force to take notes about what they heard as “sugar” and what they heard as “medicine” in your message.
  • Look up examples in the Bible of the same story being retold in multiple places. What are similarities in the stories? What are differences? How did the Biblical authors speak specifically to the audience in front of them?

  1. DJ Hapa interview at the LA Scratch Academy in Los Angeles, CA on December 5, 2008.
  2. The DJ is not the disc jockey of the 1970s who played tracks of music. “Rather, he or she is a creative artist who takes segments from songs and arrangements and mixes them together to create new music.” [Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, p.25.
  3. Hapa, 2008.
  4. Donald K. Smith, Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication across Cultural Landscapes, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, p.72.
  5. Interview with DJ Hapa and Kimberly Williams by Spencer Burke. DJ Hapa Remixing the Role of Pastor., 2009.  Available from

Hip Hop and the Art of Pastoral Care

A Different Spin on the Role of the Youth Pastor, Part 1

Feb 14, 2012 Kimberly Williams

The “DJ” was born in 1973 at a New York house party in the Bronx. Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, by using two record players found a way to create a whole new song. 1 This was the beginning of hip hop.

Five years later, in Livingston, New Jersey I was born. Both because I was too young and because my mom filled our house with classical music, I was completely unaware of the movement that was stirring just 30 miles away.

While hip hop music videos began to blare through MTV into young people’s living rooms, I could be found singing four part harmonies in my church choir. In some ways I was aware of the popular music that was going on around me, but for the most part I wasn’t listening. I didn’t spend any of my money on concerts, cassettes, or CDs. I never committed the names of popular artists or songs to memory. I found various ways to dodge the question, “What kind of music do you like?” Instead I immersed myself in the culture of the church. While my peers were discovering different styles of music, I was learning the different books of the Bible.

If it hadn’t been for one of my Old Testament courses in seminary, hip hop and I might never have met. I admit it was a strange place to discover one another. My Old Testament professor, Dr. John Goldingay, gave us the assignment to connect the Biblical text with the “texts” of today: music, movies, or novels. Having no idea where to begin I enlisted some of my urban friends to help. I asked them to read from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to tell me if it reminded them of any rap songs they knew. After some fascinating conversations, like how Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” relates to Proverbs, and whether Kanye West and the author of Ecclesiastes would be friends, I was interested in getting to know the music more.

I started asking my friends to introduce me to new music and tried to figure out what genres of music influenced one another. As I timidly entered into the music world, I wondered if what I was feeling was similar to how my urban youth feel when I invite them to enter into my theology world. I started making all sorts of connections between music and the Bible, and particularly between the role of the youth pastor and the role of the hip hop DJ. I started to think about how the DJ and the pastor both study material and then form it into a message for a specific audience. Both are looking to move their listeners to respond. Both share with others out of a love and a passion for their subject matter. This line of thinking led me to the Los Angeles Scratch Academy, a school for aspiring DJs.

This is where I met DJ Hapa, the Executive Director of the Scratch Academy, in December of 2008. A few weeks before this I purchased the first album I’ve ever owned, a confession that confounded the DJ before me. At first Hapa was confused why a non-musical theology student had requested an interview with him, but it didn’t take long for him to see the connection as well. Hapa invited me to come back to the school, and for the next six months I sat in on classes at the Scratch Academy. 2   It was exciting to sit at the feet of DJs to see how they are trained to listen and communicate.

From DJ school I have discovered some fresh insights that have shaped the way I approach my role as a youth pastor. In this two part series I will share some of what I’ve learned from spending some time in the DJ culture. This article will focus on new ways to approach studying the Bible and prayer. The next article will focus on communicating to a specific audience.  


Listen to Lots of Music
If the Biblical books are to a pastor what records are to a DJ, then the DJs have me beat on how well they know their material. In fact, they probably have most Christians beat. A Baylor survey of American Religion found that only 16% of Mainline Protestants in churches, like the one I grew up in, read scripture weekly or more, and 21.9% never read the Bible. 3

The very first homework assignment the DJ101 students at the Scratch Academy receive is to listen to as much music as possible before their next class. They were encouraged to listen to songs broadly and deeply. In my interview with Hapa at the Scratch Academy he said, “One thing we preach over and over again here is, as a DJ, because you’re not composing music and because the music that you’re playing for audiences isn’t your own, you really have to know that music even more than anyone else would.” 4 This challenged me to read the Bible broadly and deeply since this was the material that I work with. When I familiarize myself with the different books in the Bible, when I take time to listen to the stories, I find myself making connections between the text, my life and my community. As a pastor, this is what I then offer to others. When I am not reading the text, I start relying on sharing old and maybe even halfhearted connections I’ve made. In order to explore the Bible, to go deeper, and to be more creative I need to first open myself up to the text. I need to hear it, converse with it, let it live inside of me, and allow it to walk with me in my day, much like the DJ allows music to do. Next time you encounter a DJ, ask them the longest amount of time they’ve ever been without music and what that was like for them. I asked my friend DJ Mark Luv and he said, “I’ve never gone without music. I have music constantly playing in my head.”  

Map Out the Songs
A DJ listens to music differently than the average music listener. For many of us, the part of the song that sticks out to us the most is the lyrics, but DJs are trained to listen for the beat underneath the lyrics. Good DJs will “lock in the beat,” or move their body to the rhythm of the music. What the DJ knows is that there is a continuous beat flowing throughout the music.

By listening to the pattern of the beat, DJs are able to map out songs into different sections according to moments when the music shifts. This gives them a way to break the song down into smaller pieces. Barry Taylor, a professor of contemporary culture at Fuller Seminary says, “We think if we change the words of the song we’ve changed the song, but there is a whole structure of the song that you still have to contend with.” 5   If we learn what to listen for we can hear what leadership experts Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “the song beneath the words.” 6

The way that the DJ studies his or her songs is similar to the way the pastor will exegete, or study, a scripture passage. A pastor looks at the context of a passage. He or she investigates the original language and learns about author and their cultural context. Good Biblical scholars know that there is a lot more to the Bible than what you can sometimes see at face value. There is a song beneath the words.

A pastor studies individual passages in order to hear the heartbeat that flows throughout the entire Bible. It is only by studying the whole Bible that you can start to recognize themes throughout the whole text. By reading broadly and deeply you begin to see God’s character, the continuity in the story of God’s people, and the effect of divine love.  


Becoming an Expert Listener
One reason hearing the beat in scripture can be difficult is that we are not always great at listening. It is hard to listen well. We are busy. We cannot escape our own whirling thoughts. Perhaps we are afraid of what we may find. And yet, the same skills we develop in listening to those around us are the skills we use in prayer. The better we are at listening, the more we can hear, but we need to educate our ears to hear.

Hapa once told me that he could hear a DJ’s confidence levels coming out of the speakers just by the transitions they make and their music choices. When I listen to the same music Hapa is listening to, I cannot hear those nuances. Taylor says, “You have to learn the language of specific music.” 5   The same is true for prayer: there is a language of the divine. And just like any other language learning, it takes effort to learn. As the DJs at the Scratch Academy soon discover, they must explore music outside of their comfort zones. They can’t only play their favorite songs for others; they need to be fluent in all sorts of genres. In the same way, pastors can explore different prayer practices. They may have a favorite place or way to pray, but by branching out into new spiritual disciplines and practices they may train their ear to hear new things.  

Hearing Multiple Tracks
DJs don’t just focus on learning new types of music, but they focus on listening to multiple things at the same time. In fact, when they perform, they keep their headphones on only one ear. This is so they can listen to the music that they are going to play as well as to the music that is currently playing at the same time. Recently I went to a training seminar for spiritual direction which was focused on training people to listen to God and listen to people at the same time. It takes effort to hear two things at once.

In my first experiences of counseling, my head seemed filled with the advice that I wanted to offer those I was with. Sometimes I could barely even hear what the person was saying because I was too busy forming a response. At some point I realized this was not the point. I started challenging myself to hear what the person was telling me through a lens of what God had shown me about that person’s life. I would ask God, “What is it that you are doing in this person’s life at this time?” This caused me to listen to a response from God and to the person in front of me at the same time.

It was not a matter of tuning out one voice in order to hear the other, but the voices informed one another. I needed both. Sitting in on the DJ classes, watching the way they are taught to listen to multiple songs at the same time reminded me of this type of prayer listening.  


The role of the youth pastor or any other pastor is a strange one. Unlike many other professions, the pastor’s inner-life is constantly on display. It is through study of the Bible and prayer that the pastor cultivates this inner life. Just like the DJ is tasked with knowing music, the pastor is charged with knowing the text of the Bible and communicating with God.

In his book The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Henri Nouwen writes, “Only he who is able to articulate his own experience can offer himself to others as a source of clarification.” 8   Neither youth pastors nor DJs have anything to share with others if they don’t study, reflect, and experience their sources firsthand. It is from this place of study and listening that they are challenged with the job of communicating what they hear to others, a task that we will explore in the next article in this series.  

Action Points

  • Ÿ When is the last time you opened your Bible just to read it? What draws you to do this? What keeps you from doing this? In what setting do you find it easiest to read the Bible?
  • Ÿ What do you think the “beat” is that runs throughout the scripture? What are themes you notice running throughout the Bible?
  • Ÿ Try utilizing an audio version of the Bible. Pick books that are unfamiliar to you and listen to them while you drive in the car.
  • Ÿ Choose a short section, verse, or chapter and print or photocopy it. Carry it around with you and read it every single day for one month. See if your understanding shifts or changes for you over the month, and if you discover new insights in a few weeks in that you did not see at first.
  • Ÿ Chose a chapter of the Bible to “map out.” Take some time to sit with this passage. Try to see what is going on “underneath” the words. Where does the passage seem to shift? When does a new character enter into the story? Where does the mood seem to change? Do these shifts remind you of similar shifts in other parts of the Bible? What happens when you read these stories side by side?
  • Ÿ How good are you at listening? What was the last conversation you had before you read this? How much of it do you remember? Go back to that person and see if you can repeat back to them what they told you. Ask them if this was what they said.
  • Ÿ See if you can practice prayer listening. Pray for a person while they are sharing with you. It may help to choose a simple phrase like, “Lord, Jesus Christ have mercy on [name]” to repeat in your head as you listen to what the person is telling you.



  1. Henry Adaso, Hip-Hop Timeline: 1925 – Present, 2009. Accessed June 10, 2009. Available from
  2. In 2009 I attended classes at the Scratch DJ Academy in Los Angeles, CA.
  3. American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US, The Baylor Religion Survey, 2006, p. 14.
  4. DJ Hapa, Interview December 5, 2008, Los Angeles, CA.
  5. Barry Taylor, TC500: Theology and Culture, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, 4/27/2009.
  6. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2002, p.65.
  7. Barry Taylor, TC500: Theology and Culture, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, 4/27/2009.
  8. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Image Doubleday, New York, NY, 1972, p.38.

No Rest for the Weary: The Stressors of Urban Burnout

Jan 16, 2012 Haley Smith

Everywhere I go these days, people are tired.  To be honest, I’m pretty tired these days also.

Because of what we’ve learned about urban youth leaders, we at the Fuller Youth Institute have new respect for the unique sources of fatigue that they experience.  Given the trauma they are exposed to (both directly as well as indirectly through others in their community), they seem to be particularly prone to stress and burnout.

Sometimes referred to as the “new friars,” urban youth leaders are often dedicated to investing and improving the quality of their entire community. This same dedication is what draws the majority into making deep roots and actually living amongst the people they serve, radically changing the meaning of a full-time job.  While providing a strong and meaningful partnership with their community, they are unfortunately placed at an increased risk for emotional distress and exposure to traumatic life events.

Being surrounded by so much devastating need, it can be hard to see the significance of their own needs. Their problems come last because they seem small in comparison.

Leaders Need Help But Often Don’t Seek It  

In an FYI study done by Dr. Cynthia Eriksson and her research team at Fuller, 284 urban youth workers from faith-based organizations were surveyed to explore the different types of trauma they were exposed to and how they in turn received or sought support, whether physical, mental or spiritual.  It turns out only a quarter of the participants sought therapy for emotional needs and less than half sought spiritual services. The results are surprising considering these are leaders of faith-based organizations, which generally encourage spiritual and emotional well-being. 1

The study found that out of all of the perceived barriers for the use of emotional, physical or spiritual resources, the largest are hardly unpredictable: Money and time. Two resources youth workers don’t tend to have a lot of.  Further, over a quarter of the participants acknowledged a need for psychological or spiritual services but didn’t take them. 2

Insights from Urban Leader Angel Ruiz

Angel Ruiz, the Field Ministry Vice President for the Western Division of Young Life, knows about the stress that can build in response to the overwhelming needs of others. According to him, work can quickly take over when he loses sight of God and God’s call. When so many things have the potential to spiral out of control, it is easy to take the reins yourself and react to every situation.

Ruiz shares, “I first have to consciously choose to stop the build-up of stressful ministry circumstances. Then I try to find an outlet to help redirect any negative energy, for example grilling or hanging out with my family. When I am ready to re-engage, I try to assess things and then prioritize. I find that making a checklist and working through it helps me with prioritizing.”

When asked how to best set up boundaries, Ruiz notes that it is not so much about making boundaries, but keeping them. “I have to remain disciplined and vigilant in this area, giving myself permission to say ‘no’ and reminding myself of what’s important.” Ruiz has also learned to include his wife and family in this process to help keep him accountable for his time. The support of family not only provides a boundary but also helps give a “way-out” to an over-committed schedule.

Simply put, the sustainability of an organization is dependent on the well-being of its workers. If they aren’t being adequately cared for physically, mentally and spiritually, then they won’t be able to fully care for the people they serve. Ruiz urges other leaders to “create a legacy that includes intentional leadership development, so that the work will continue building and growing beyond you.”

Recommendations for Urban Ministries

So what can we do to care for ourselves and other leaders? The following list includes suggestions for urban ministries based on the research findings:

  1. Remove the barriers – It’s okay to ask for help! There seems to be a general (and unfortunate) understanding among youth leaders that their own needs come last. Organizations and ministries can help change this mindset by providing educational opportunities and training sessions on the priority of their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
  2. Clearly defined roles/expectations – Some of the leading causes of burnout are inadequate training, vague job descriptions, absence of a support system, and high expectations. 3 By clearly defining leaders’ roles, you are giving value and ownership to the work that they do. This can also decrease task confusion and generate more time and space for team members to work within and further develop their role.
  3. Counseling Resources – If resources aren’t already being provided, it could be helpful to provide a list of places where they can be accessed. Whether through a partnering church or health center, it is important to make sure that your team is receiving the support they need.
  4. Sabbath Encourage your team to rest. God gives us this mandate for a reason. Not only to rest but to also enjoy and spend time with him. A lot of times we get so caught up in God’s work that we forget to simply rest and trust that God can continue his work without us. See our UrbanYouthMinistrySelf-CareToolkit for three months’ worth of ideas on taking Sabbath and learning to rest!
  5. Encouragement There is always room for more encouragement. Make sure your youth leaders know their value and worth in the work that they are doing. It’s easy to lose focus when you feel like what you are doing isn’t meaningful. Words of encouragement not only build up the person but also provide the fuel to keep the mission and the ministry moving.

Action Steps: 

  1. Self-Assess: Set aside some time to sit down and self-assess your need for rest and care and what some perceived barriers might be within your organization. This is a great way to gain perspective and the opportunity for you to ask for help.
  2. Set Some Boundaries: Take a look at how much time you and others in your ministry are spending on your work and in your community. Set boundaries between your personal time and work time. You most likely have additional roles and positions that you are serving within the broader community. Give yourself time to do that as well as enough time to spend with your own friends and family.
  3. Write a Note: Simple actions can make a world of difference. Whether you are a part of an urban ministry or not, your encouragement is vital. Take some time to write a note to a valued urban youth leader and let them know what a difference their work is making. You can even take it a step further and commit to writing that specific leader a note once a month. 



  1. Shin, Hana J., Eriksson, Cynthia B., Walling, Sherry M., Lee, Hanna and Putman, Katherine M. (2011) ‘Race, resource utilization, and perceived need among urban community development workers from faith-based organizations’, Mental Health & Culture, First published on: 23 February 2011. p 7, 10.  This was a further research extrapolation of the study results shared in this article:
  2. Shin, Eriksson, et al, 9.
  3. See for a more complete list of the causes of burnout.

Christ Appropriating the Culture of Hip Hop

The Soul of Hip Hop, Pt II

Jul 05, 2010 Dan Hodge

Daniel White Hodge, PhD studied Hip Hop culture at Fuller as an FYI fellow with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. His new book, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology will be released this August through InterVarsity Press.  This article is an adaptation from the introduction and chapter 1.

Maybe you’ve noticed that Hip Hop often evokes strong reactions from Christians.  Hip Hop doesn’t always make it easy for a Christian to look and say, “Wow, now there’s a people group I’d just love to learn from and minister with!” No, in fact, often people have quite the opposite reaction.

In turn, many run far from Hip Hop, never really understanding the culture, its people, and its message; moreover, some Christians even see it as “demonic”. When we’re willing to look closer, we might find that Hip Hop has a lot to offer the broader society. What, then, might it mean to both embrace and engage Hip Hop from a missional perspective?

The Hip Hop community is not necessarily the evil, violent, and hedonistic culture that the church has often made it out to be based on some of its representative voices. If we are to missionally engage culture, then we must begin to embrace Hip Hop’s good, bad, and ugly sides.

Culture & The Church

Over fifty years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr 1   laid down foundational work in his classic Christ and Culture that is extremely valuable in missionally engaging with the Hip Hop generation. I use this framework here for two reasons: 1) to see a broader understanding of Christian interaction with culture, and more specifically Hip Hop culture; and 2) to point out that God doesn’t always reveal himself in the ways we expect. Niebuhr observes several postures toward culture that Christians have taken over the centuries 2 :

  • Avoidance: Christ versus culture; culture is bad, so leave it alone.
  • Caution: Christ and culture in paradox; be careful, the “world” might influence you; in fact, how about you just come back to church now that we’re thinking about it, it’s safer here.
  • Dialogue: Christ transforms culture; let’s talk about the issues at hand and see what happens; Christ might even “show up” in the mess!
  • Appropriation: Christ of culture; Jesus is in every part of culture. We can see him in the good, the bad and the ugly. Christ begins to appropriate certain aspects of culture, like a song or a dance, that might not “fit” in a traditional church setting.
  • Divine encounter: Christ above culture and the transformer of it; Jesus governs this world, both the sacred and profane. Christ begins to reveal himself even in the mire of culture. The divine encounter is about discovering God in a new way through culture.


Avoidance is not a friend to open and honest relationships. It tends to crush them because it says, “We really can’t be friends unless we both think, act and talk alike.” Avoidance is not in the language of the Great Commission, nor is it part of the gospel.

The notion that Christ shows up in strip clubs and foulmouthed battle raps is disconcerting.  Yet Caution allows the Christian to venture out a bit and explore the world. Caution, however, does not really believe that God is in control and is actually based on fear. We end up forming what has been called the “sacred canopy” 3 : we can see out, but unless outsiders know the code, they can never come in.

But if we can somehow begin to move into Dialogue about theology and culture, then we stand a chance of embracing the “ethnos” (Greek for the word “nations” in the Great Commission) and beginning a new narrative.  Dialogue can produce:

  • Healthy discussions that do not always end in consensus
  • Open minds that are challenged by new ideas and philosophies
  • Authenticity in relationships without agenda
  • The dismantling of the “us versus them” dIrene Chotomy

By dialogue, the church is able to see Hip Hop’s multifaceted and pluralistic theologies and not judge or criticize them, but work with them. A dialogue produces new critical thought and allows the “other side” a chance to state where they are coming from. Dialogue, for example, allows the Tupacs of the world to be heard, not disregarded prematurely based on their use of “foul language.”

While there isn’t necessarily a direct progression through these stages of interaction, the last two areas, Appropriation and Divine Encounter, seem to be the most missional areas for engaging a 21st century culture.  Most Christians find Niebuhr’s concept of “divine encounter” conflicting because at times it is hard to imagine a God who would “condone” such profane behavior or language, but God does do some amazing things with “sinners” and those who have been labeled by church folk as “profane.” At this point, we are able to really see the depth of God working in Hip Hop through the murk and the mire; we see a God who has not given up on anyone and loves the pimp, the drug dealer, the prostitute, and the thug. In these two paradigms, we see that Heaven does in fact have a “ghetto for a G”! 4


Encountering Grace

American Christian culture also tends to misunderstand Hip Hop’s perspective on grace. Many rap theologians, such as KRS-One, discuss the issue of forgiveness from a “broken-vessel” perspective.  Rap artists know their limitations as humans and as sinners, yet still wonder if Christ will forgive all of their sins based on the message that they—and so many other youth—have received in church. Other Hip Hop artists such as Ice-Cube and Lauryn Hill  5   contend that there is a God who forgives all sin and that all are equal at the cross. These artists have also spoken of Jesus talking directly to them to help reach this generation of young people. The difficulty in receiving these messages from these particular artists is their own irreverent spirituality. 6

Hip Hop culture minces no words, mixing the sacred and the profane in almost all of its music and lifestyle (Read Part 1 of this series for more context). The urban church has often seen Hip Hop culture as a “secular” entity that is devoid of God and any kind of spirituality. And yet a certain level of spirituality is reached when one is able to be open and honest with how they feel regarding life, love, culture, and Jesus. One of the spiritual messages of Hip Hop—“God loves you no matter what”—empowers Hip Hoppers to feel that they can help transform the world.  7

Having a divine encounter in culture means looking again at Hip Hop’s perspective on sexuality, film, music, language, relationships, and then merging those ideas with a biblical hermeneutic to discover new ways to understand evangelism, salvation, church, culture and even God. We move from being consumers of God’s love to participants in God’s loving kingdom. The divine encounter can actually happen when you allow yourself to find God in new ways; Hip Hop can be a place where God encounters you in mess, joy, pain, suffering, love, and this thing called life. The question is: are we willing to take that risk?

Action Points:

  1. Hopefully     by now you will have had a conversation with your students regarding Hip     Hop (See Part     1 action point 3). What did you learn about yourself after listening     to that conversation? What did you learn about the youth you work with?    Where are some connection points? What are some areas that are difficult     to embrace? What are some areas that just seem too far out there to deal     with? Where might God be showing up in the muddy middle? Moreover, where     are some connections to your own muddy middle that might even connect with     some of these youth and Hip Hop?
  2. Check     this video out: Now, let’s talk: What points does Tupac make in relation to Christ and     culture? What parts of Tupac make this message difficult to embrace? What     did Pac mean by his faith to God? How was it contextualized for him? How     did Pac pay homage to God? Explain that. How did Pac connect to the story     of Job? How is this image of Tupac different than what has been portrayed     in the media? What did Pac mean when he said he was doing “God’s work?”    What connections did he make to Hip Hop missions?  What do we do with all of this in the     context of our own ministries?

Adapted from The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology by Daniel White Hodge. Copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com

  1. Concepts adapted from Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1951).
  2. Also check out JR Rozko’s article confronting Niebuhr’s paradigm here:
  3. A  term first used by Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City,  N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967).
  4. One of Tupac’s famous quotes, which came from his song, “Does Heaven have a ghetto?” In other words, can God handle me? Is there a place for me in this mythical place derived in Western minds that seems to shut me out just as it does in real life? Is God just another cop waiting to beat me down? Deep questions from the Hip Hop prophet Tupac.
  5. See John Teter and Alex Gee, Jesus and the Hip-Hop Prophets (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  6. Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1998).
  7. Michael Eric Dyson, Holler If You Hear Me (New York: Basic Civitas, 2001), p. 205.

The Soul of Hip Hop Part 1

Toward A Missiological Gospel of A Culture

Jun 01, 2010 Dan Hodge

Daniel White Hodge, PhD studied Hip Hop culture at Fuller as an FYI fellow with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. His new book, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology will be released this August through InterVarsity Press.  This article is an adaptation from the introduction and chapter 1.

Hip Hop, in the words of KRS-One, is “something that is being lived.” 1

Hip Hop is larger than the radio, larger than commercialized artists, larger than record industry branding. It is a culture, a people, a movement, a growing community of people that live, breath, eat, love, hate and work just as anyone else does. Hip Hop cannot be easily understood or defined. It is complex and full of narratives that would blow away many of the strongest anthropologists. But as I always tell my students, we have to discuss the obvious to get to the obscure. I am suggesting we begin to deconstruct parts of Hip Hop as a larger phenomenon in order to understand the whole—in this case, its theology.

Seeking the Obscure


The obscure part of Hip Hop is its theology. What is it? Is Hip Hop evil, or is it misunderstood? Many Christians hear “Hip Hop” and envision loud music with rough sounding lyrics and deep bass, and young men with low-riding pants, long white T-shirts, and ominous facial expressions. Hip Hop is as much of an enigma to many church members as is, say, Islam or the New Age movement. Yet theology, in its basic sense, is the study of God—how God interacts, intercedes, speaks, lives, thinks, wants and is. And Hip Hop repeatedly shows God “showing up” in the most unusual and interesting places. In many ways, Hip Hop theology is, in essence, a study of the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in the urban context, with a goal of better understanding God’s rich and complex love for everyone and the revelation of God through the liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor.

Kanye West, on his album The College Dropout, argues that God loves hustlers, pimps, killers, prostitutes and other people that society would otherwise not deal with. Tupac questions if there is a heaven for “real Niggaz” (changing the letter “s” to “z” to indicate class rather than Individual). 2 Big Syke asks if the church can handle Hip Hoppers, while KRS One has suggested that Hip Hoppers need to start their own church. Hip Hoppers have strong opinions about God and the church—there’s no doubt about that!

Part of the reason Hip Hop is so mysterious to people outside its culture is that its roots and religious history have both multiple and complex sources. Many pastors who are trained in “classic,” or modernist, hermeneutical methods struggle to make sense of Hip Hop. A theology that engages real life in real time, that respects the person of Jesus but distrusts institutional religion, often doesn’t efficiently or predictably systematize—which is to say it sometimes doesn’t reconcile easily with traditional, modernist approaches to culture.

The Muddy Middle:  Theology of the Profane

Ethnomusicologist Christina Zanfagna recognizes that to accept Hip Hop “presupposes that popular culture could be a sacred place—an area in which one may encounter God even in the most unholy of places.” 3   Hip Hop theology not only embraces the sacred; it dines, sleeps, laughs, cries, loves, hates and lives with the profane. To truly understand Hip Hop requires a basic theological worldview of the profane.

This is not a new concept. Theologians and church heroes assert that God meets us first in death and despair—the hell of life. Only those who enter the “s***” (to borrow language from Martin Luther—in his rebuttal against the Roman Papacy, Luther uses extremely strong language  4 ) can encounter the God of Jesus Christ. Noah—who loved liquor—could not wait to get off the boat and get drunk, yet we revere him and even honor his example at different points. David not only engaged in adultery, he sold Uriah out—but he is still cited in countless sermons and Bible studies as a man after God’s own heart. Paul continued to struggle with his “flesh”. Jonah actually wanted the people of Nineveh to perish.

Many Christians gloss over presentations of the profane in the lives of biblical heroes, but Hip Hop says, “Man, we’re dealing with it all!” Tupac’s habit of calling out his own “sin” made pastors, political figures, cultural critiques, conservative zealots and even some rappers extremely uncomfortable. The million-dollar question surrounding the intersection of Hip Hop and religious culture is this: How can the profane exist in communion with God?

Hip Hop and the Church

When living in God’s will, the church (like Hip Hop culture) provides relationships, identity, structure, and support in times of trouble. Hip Hop culture was formed in community and has helped give meaning to several generations of young people. The church and Hip Hop share common ground in more ways than one.  How can we build on that ground and dialogue rather than shake our heads and miss out on an opportunity to be where God is at work? It is imperative that we not only begin grappling with these issues, but begin moving out to reach this cultural movement.

There are at least five theological areas that Hip Hop presents as a potential “Gospel” message for this generation.  The first is a theology of the profane, described above.  Here are four other important lenses:


A theology of suffering: This theology actually embraces the concept of suffering and moves beyond the basic three theological responses to suffering: suffering for divine retribution, suffering because of God’s will, and suffering as only a temporary reality. 5   Hoppers use suffering as life experience and an actual process to draw closer to a God who suffered like us.

A theology of community: For Hip Hoppers, life is done in community. Whether those communities are a few people or one hundred, community is still occurring. For example, many of the concerts I have been to reflect Hip Hop’s deep desire to engage in community. More importantly, Church happens in that community and the presence of God is also experienced.

A theology of the Hip Hop Jesuz: For many Hip Hoppers, Jesus is not the “traditional” form of a savior most of us have been taught to believe in (i.e., the blonde-hair, blue eyed, White embodiment of perfection). Jesus is the multi-racial Jesus. Jesus is the Jesus that can understand the pain and misery of the inner city. Jesus is the one who could relate to the poor, downtrodden, and folks that people set aside. Thus, a theology of the Hip Hop Jesuz is a contextualized “version” of Jesuz (Hence the adding of the letter “z” to the name).

A theology of social action: Hip Hop is about taking action and responsibility for the community. This theology explores the deep social awareness that is not only prevalent throughout the Bible, but also through Hip Hop’s connection to both justice and Jesus. A theology of social action encourages personal responsibility: sometimes we are the true culprit of social injustices. Hip Hoppers, such as Tupac, would challenge pastors and theologians to think deeper about issues such as poverty, social justice, and suffering and urge them to take action.

Regardless of what you think of Hip Hop personally, it does possess many redeeming qualities that should, at the very least, elicit our curiosity.  What can we learn from it?  What can we bring to it? If we want to live out the gospel authentically, we cannot afford to fear things that are unfamiliar or nontraditional. 6

Action Points

  • Take some time to listen to Hip Hop artists like Lupe     Fiasco. What is his message? What are his points regarding     social action? How does he see “life” from a Hip Hopper’s perspective?
  • Take a     look at Jesus’ lineage at the beginning of Matthew. Study it. Try to draw     some connections between some of the “messy” people in Jesus’ lineage and yourself,    the Church, and Hip Hoppers.
  • After you’ve done     some homework on Hip Hop, ask the students you work with to give you their     top five rappers they listen to. Take them to lunch or have them over and     take time for a conversation about rap music. Take time to listen to what     they’re saying and what the music is saying. Don’t respond to the “bad     language” or even the overall “message.” Just listen. In part 2, we’ll     take this a step further. But for now, just listen and take it in!

Adapted from The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology by Daniel White Hodge. Copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.

  1. KRS One, introduction to Ruminations (New York: Welcome Rain,  2003).
  2. Robin D. G. Kelly (Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class [New York: Free Press, 1994], pp. 207-12) suggests that Tupac’s term can transcend skin color as well.
  3. Zanfagna, “Under the Blasphemous W(rap),” p. 2.
  4. See Martin Luther Against the Roman Papacy, An Institution of The Devil 1545 in Luther’s Works Church and Ministry III By Helmut T. Lehmann, Eric W. Gritsch
  5. For more on the issue of “theodicy”, or the “problem of evil,” see Jude Tiersma Watson’s article “Your Pain: Six Lenses to Help.”
  6. Adapted from Hodge, Daniel White. 2007. “Gettin The Hype on Hip Hop.” Prism 14 (3):18-21.

Urban Contemplative Retreat Guide

Aug 31, 2009 Brad M. GriffinJude Tiersma WatsonKimberly Williams

Photo by Ben Thé Man.

Most spiritual retreats are focused on withdrawing from your environment and from noise and distraction. In contrast, this is a retreat focused on allowing your surroundings and context to draw you into an awareness of God’s presence. We often don’t realize how easy it is to become unaware of our surroundings.  With a touch of our multi-function phones, we can tune out the people and places around us.

By recognizing God’s presence and being able to rest even in the context of the city, we gain valuable tools to experience God outside of the sanctuary and the prayer closet.  We not only pay attention to our hearts, but also to the context in which we find ourselves.  Plus by being aware of those around us during our contemplation, we become more aware of the “other”, the people who surround us but who are not “like us,” the people who we would rather ignore than notice or acknowledge God’s image within.

This guide has several sections. 1   You can do just one of them, or do several in one day, creating a longer space.  Here are a few general guidelines:

  • The ways that you will be     praying through this retreat are very simple, and at the same time they may     be a bit counter-intuitive. Not all the exercises may resonate with you,    but we encourage you to be open to trying each one. Think of them as     working out with prayer muscles you may not normally use.
  • Pace yourself, taking more or     less time with these exercises as appropriate.  If you are experiencing the retreat as a     group, try to do the exercises separately and gather at the end to debrief     at a designated area (like a good local restaurant).  Depending on your location, however, you     may feel safer traveling with one other person from your group during the     retreat.  Try to keep silence with     one another if you choose that option.
  • Choose an area of your city (or     a city you can visit) that you can reach by public transportation and then     walk around. Reading through the exercises might help you pick an     appropriate area. (For example, in Los Angeles, you might want to take the     Metro to Union Station and then walk to the nearby historic district where     L.A. had its beginning, and perhaps then walk to Chinatown and then     re-board the Metro from there.)  Be     sure to map out your route ahead of time, both to lessen anxiety and to     reduce distractions.  If you are     unfamiliar with the area, keep a map and cell phone with you!
  • Bring a journal and pen along     so you can record your thoughts and prayers throughout the experience.


Choose a bus or metro light-rail train line in your town or city and board it, heading toward your destination for the walking portion of the retreat.

Center. Let this ride be a silent trip.  Become aware of your surroundings—the noise and jostling of the train; the people riding and getting on and off; people and landscape outside the windows.  Become aware of your own thoughts and anxieties, your own distractions, and your own breathing.

Allow yourself to center down into the presence of Christ.

Imagine Jesus riding next to you on the train, sitting quietly as you center.  When you are ready, invite Christ to focus your eyes, ears, mind, and heart on what he would most want you to see, hear, think on, and feel today.

Read. As you ride, take some time with the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24:13-53, reading it over several times if you can.  Keep this story in mind throughout the day.

Something to think about: How does our context inform the way we read scripture?  In other words, how do we read texts—or how do they read us—differently when we are in different surroundings?  Specifically, how does your current context inform the way you read this passage in Luke, if at all?

Journal. Now and throughout the exercise, feel free to write down anything significant—an insight, a prayer, a word or image you want to remember.


A bus station, major metro station, or other transportation hub

The Bible describes so many things happening “at the city gates” (see Proverbs 8:3, Judges 5:11, Isaiah 5:11). It is where the elders sit and make decisions for the people. It is where the market is, where the animals are kept, how the city was protected, and how people enter and leave the city. Obviously our cities aren’t built like biblical cities, with walls around them and literal gates to get in and out.  But cities still have something like gates.

Center. As you sit at the “city gates”, consider what God may be doing at this place at this particular time.  Just like someone could sit at the city gates in the Old Testament and get a feel for what was going on, find a place to sit and watch and pray. Who is coming? Who is going? Why?  You may or may not learn answers to those questions, but invite God to give you his vision for what’s happening in the city and at its gates.

Pray. Pray for whoever is directly in front of you.  Don’t talk with them or strike up a conversation, but try to observe people in a way that would inform your prayers for them, even though you don’t know them.

Something to think about. What is God doing in this city? How does time spent at the “city gates” inform your sense for what God is up to?  What is it like to “people-watch” with an agenda of discernment and prayer rather than amusement or critique?  How might your spiritual life be shaped by visiting here more often to pray?


Center. As you step onto the street and move by foot around this part of the city, begin to orient yourself to your surroundings.  Where are you?  How do you know?  What are you feeling?  Sit internally with these perceptions and feelings for a bit before you move on to prayer.

Pray. As you continue walking, begin to pray what’s been historically known as the Jesus Prayer, a simple line that you repeat over and over:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Or a shorter version if you prefer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Notice the rhythms of this prayer that develop as you pray it.  Walk your footsteps to the beat of the prayer or breathe in and out to this prayer.

Then, adapt it as a prayer for others. On the last beat, instead of saying “on me” replace “me” with “this neighborhood”, “that mother”, “this shop”, “that little boy”, whatever you see around you.

Something to think about: How does a prayerful awareness inform how you see the world around you?  How does this specific prayer guide your engagement with the city today?  How does it guide your own awareness of your need for God?


Locate a monument or historic site in the area, a place of significant history. For example, in Los Angeles, one could go to the historic beginning of Los Angeles, or walk to the site of the Azusa Street Revival in Little Tokyo. Think of it as a mini-pilgrimage. It is helpful if you do a web search ahead of time to learn something about the site.

Center. Take just a few minutes to stand at the spot commemorating this place and/or event.  Look around you.  What do you see?  How do you feel?  What do you wonder about the city and its people? Think how God was already present at the point of history that this site remembers.

Pray the Jesus Prayer over your city (see “Prayer Steps” exercise above), then follow it with your own prayers for the city and its people.

Something to think about: As you walk around, think about the roots of your own life and faith.  Where did you begin?  Where were your first spiritual roots?  How has the landscape of your life changed over time, much like the landscape of the city that keeps changing and transforming also?


There are unexpected sanctuaries all over the city, sometimes in places we least expect. Some are obvious—the chapel at the local hospital, the church that is open for prayer. But others can become sanctuaries as imagine ourselves as urban pilgrims, entering a sacred space as we walk. We might spend time at a mural, a memorial, a donut shop, an art museum, a park, a Laundromat.

Center. Look around.  What do you notice?  Who do you notice? Imagine Jesus coming to this place to “get away.”

Pray. Spend some time in the sanctuary.  You may continue your prayer and meditation from the other exercises above, or use this time to simply sit silently and still before the Lord.

Something to think about: Much has been written about finding silence in our noisy world. This often means we need to get away to a silent place.  Yet cities are filled with noise. Do we ignore the noise and look only for silence?

Or might we think about the discipline of noise?  What noises do you hear? How can these sounds draw you toward God, rather than being an intrusion on your prayer? If you hear a siren, this can serve as a call to prayer. The laughter of children can remind us of our need to be like children before God.

As we practice the discipline of silence, we even find that if we pay attention to the noise, that there is a center of silence within the noise. 2


Debrief this retreat experience by journaling (if you retreat alone) or talking with other retreat participants over lunch or coffee.  Before you leave the heart of the city, enjoy a bite to eat at a local café. Reflect on the various locations you have visited and ways you have prayed. How can our own contexts and places we live become places that cause us to be more attentive to God in us and around us?  Share ideas and reflections as you prepare to re-enter “home” and the inevitable noise that accompanies daily life, hopefully with refreshed perspective on encountering God there!

NOTE: For another free retreat guide, check out the Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 World resource!

  1. This guide has been adapted from a longer version by Kimberly Williams. The extended version is available from Kimberly by request at Kimberly is also available to lead guided urban retreats, particularly in the Los Angeles area.
  2. Kristin Smoot, “The Discipline of Noise,” PRISM magazine Jan/Feb 2001 (Evangelicals for Social Action), 18-19.

Your Rhythms

Finding the Rest of God in the Midst of the City

May 04, 2009 Jude Tiersma Watson

Photo by Tim Best.

They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither-whatever they do prospers.   Psalm 1:3

A few years ago, this passage caught my attention. I was on a sabbatical, a time of Sabbath rest after years of intense urban life and ministry. But unlike the tree above, my leaves were withered. I was worn out, my joy was gone. This passage caught my attention because it promises that this tree gives its fruit in season, while its leaves do not wither. My expectation of myself, and the expectations I see around me, is that we are productive and fruitful all the time.

No wonder we feel worn out.

We were created for rhythms. All of God’s created world was created with rhythms. God created night and day. God created in six days, and then God rested. The ocean tides rise and fall, the leaves fall in autumn and then are reborn in spring.

Modern life gives few reminders, but we humans used to go to sleep and get up with the sun. Life followed the rhythms of the agricultural seasons. There were seasons of planting and harvesting, but also seasons when the ground would lay fallow (empty), as in the passage above.  Fruit grows in seasons, not constantly or instantaneously.

Now we live in a 24/7 city. We can be plugged in all the time, and we are expected to be fruitful year-round.  In this article we will look at ways that we can create life-sustaining rhythms even in a city that never stops.

Rhythms of Action and Contemplation: The Mary/Martha Pendulum (Luke 10:38-42)

I love Martha. I think she gets a bad rap. She was just doing what was expected of her, caring for the needs of Jesus in the way she knew how. She was extending hospitality, providing welcome to visitors. Yes, Jesus said that Mary’s way was the better way. But most of us know we are way more like Martha. And yet we long for “the better way.”

Read the scripture again. Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was welcoming Jesus, preparing food. But she was distracted. Jesus declares, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted.”

That’s most of us: we get worried and distracted.

I don’t think Jesus was telling Martha not to offer hospitality or live an active life. Rather, Jesus was after the state of her heart. We can be preparing food while our hearts are centered on Jesus. Likewise, it is possible to sit at the feet of Jesus and still be distracted.

Many of us live on the Mary/Martha pendulum. We work hard, in our distracted ways, and then long to sit at the feet of Jesus. Maybe we even get away for a day. But then we get exhausted again, because the rest we experienced that day away seems far away. We do not bring that rest back into our work.

In the story, Mary sits in contemplation at the feet of Jesus, looking into his face and listening to his voice. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better way. Yet the passage just before this one is the story of the Good Samaritan, a passage that challenges us to get off our donkey and help others. Perhaps we are meant to live out an integration of Martha and Mary, with a rhythm of both action and contemplation. This is what Jesus modeled in his own life. He was busy in ministry, yet had regular times of being with his Father. 1 . Perhaps if we get off the Mary/Martha pendulum, we could find a more integrated way to be both of them.

Rhythms of Pain and Joy (Psalm 126)

Psalm 126 gives us an insight into what this integration might look like: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” (Psalm 126:5&6 NRSV). Life has its rhythms of both pain and joy. As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes in a book reflecting on his own journey through pain to joy (caring for his wife who suffers from MS):

So many things we achieve are achieved only through struggle and conflict, not in easy ways. They always seem to involve crosses. I have so longed to find somewhere in life, some corner where joy is unmingled with pain.

But I have never found it. Wherever I find joy, my own or other people’s, it always seems to be mingled with pain. And I find that the people I most respect are people who know the link between joy and pain. And I have found that if we will own pain and weep over it together, we also find Christ’s overflowing comfort.

The bad news is that there may be no corner of reality where joy is not related to pain. The good news is that there is no corner of reality where pain cannot be transformed into overflowing joy. 2

Goldingay also describes joy as “an inner liftedness of spirit that means we do more than just cope inside when things are tough: we are happy inside if things are difficult outside” 3

Society around us doesn’t understand joy, so we are encouraged to look for joy in all the wrong places. When we face pain and struggle, we are encouraged to escape it for a while. Getting away for an evening of fun is a fine thing to do, but it cannot be a substitute for the need to press in through the pain and be surprised by joy in the midst of the sorrow. Transformation and growth in our lives happen when we learn to walk through the pain to joy.

As a biblical scholar, Goldingay tells us that joy in the scriptures is a “noisy affair.” 4   We tend to think of joy as something quiet in our hearts, like peace. But joy in the scriptures is more like noisy celebration. This is certainly true in many urban contexts. Urban youth workers often find that their communities have some things to teach us about the capacity to celebrate even when life is difficult. Why cancel that celebration because of pain? Pain is not the end of the story.

Whether we seek the quiet joy in our hearts or the noisy joy of celebration, this is the joy God intends for his people. This joy is also what our youth are seeking. They understand the pain. They know about the escapes. But many are looking for examples of life worth living, to know that the pain is not the end of the story.

Rhythms of Silence and Noise

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…the more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”

—Mother Teresa  5

Noise is a given in the city. It is part of what makes up urban life. Silence, on the other hand, is a rare commodity. Yet silence is listed as a spiritual discipline in various writings. Those of us who live in the city might think that this does not relate to us, or is not very practical. We can write off this need for silence as something that doesn’t apply to us, but rather to suburban spirituality.  But then there is Mother Teresa.

The streets of Calcutta where Mother Teresa walked, and where her sisters still walk, are definitely not places of silence. Urban India redefines “crowded.” From that intense urban context, Mother Teresa tells us we need silence. Her own answer was to get up early each morning and spend a quiet hour in the adoration of Jesus, before the noises of the day began. She took seriously the call to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).  That hour of deep silence then prepared her for the many noises that would be part of the rest of her day. Her life was a rhythm of silence and urban noise.

Just this week, two people have shared with me that without taking time for silence, they would not be able to handle the noises of the city. The city can drown out all other voices.

I keep a list of urban sanctuaries, places to find silence in the mist of the city. It includes churches that are open in the middle of the day for prayer, a beautiful chapel at the local hospital, downtown fountains that are largely deserted on the weekend, and early morning walks. Korean Christians have something to teach us here. Many get up early to pray, finding their way to the peaks in Griffith Park, an urban park in L.A.

Rhythms of Work and Rest

Americans are overworked. Some years ago, Juliet Schor wrote a book called The Overworked American. Schor describes how our culture consistently chooses work over leisure. Despite the many labor-saving devices we now have that were meant to free up our time, we work longer and longer hours, far more hours than our counterparts in Europe and Australia. 6

Eugene Peterson addresses this overwork in an article with the intriguing title “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 7 Peterson describes his days of overwork as a Sabbath breaker—  how he sinned with gusto, yet no one called him on it, and he was even commended for his sin. Peterson writes, “In fact, at one critical point in my life, when I was out-of-control obsessive in my indulgence of this sin, I was rewarded with the largest single annual increase in salary I have ever received”  8 Peterson believes that this rampant sin leads to an entire culture living on the edge of panic, with a refusal to sit still and be silent, to look and listen.

The Jews understand Sabbath, shabbat, in ways that are difficult for us to grasp.

For the Jews, Sabbath is fundamental to life and to both their spiritual and emotional health. “It is the culmination of the week, the day that gives purpose to all other days.” 9

When I first began to see my need for better rhythms, I began to take a day off. But this was not the day that gave purpose to my other days. In fact, sometimes I thought of it as the day in which to recoup so that I could have more energy for my work. But this is not a Sabbath. “The Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of Life.”  10

Within the work-to-Sabbath-rest rhythm, Eugene Peterson finds another rhythm. Peterson sees the ingredients of both prayer and play within Sabbath  11

Both are essential for Sabbath. In prayer, we pay attention to God, we respond to God as our creator, and appreciate again his creation. We spend time in prayer and praise, we move toward the longing to fill our thirst, as the deer pants for water.  In play, we explore our humanity, including our bodies. Whether it is shooting hoops, wandering on the beach, walking in an urban park, or playing with our children, playing uses the bodies God has given us.

Creativity through the arts is another way to play. Whether we prefer to express ourselves through playing the drums or creating a collage, this kind of play also reminds us that we are created in the image of the Creator.  We need rhythms of Sabbath that move back and forth between playing and praying (and sometimes we will play and pray together).

Weaving Rhythms into Our Lives

God built rhythms into creation. Modern urban life is out of sync with those rhythms and so are we, yet rhythms help us sustain our lives, and live more fully.

In my neighborhood, indigenous peoples from Guatemala are coming in larger numbers. On the weekends, the women wear their traditional clothes, beautiful weavings representing their unique tribe. Amazing skill goes into the making of these weavings. But the weaving is only possible because of the warp, the lengthwise bands that hold it in place. The warp provides a structure that makes the weaving possible. If that structure is in place, and firm, the weaver can create beautiful weavings. But without that structure, the weaving will not hold its shape or may even collapse. The rhythms we build into our lives that God intends are like the warp of that weaving. When we attend to the warp-the rhythms-God can create the beautiful weavings that represent our lives.

Our youth too are so in need of healthy rhythms in their lives. When our lives are out of sync and the rhythms have collapsed, my husband and I look at each other and say, “Who would want this life?”  We want to live healthy rhythms in line with God’s intent for us, and we want to live lives that model a life worth living for the many youth in our lives.


By Kimberly Williams

Understanding the need for rhythms is one thing, but how do you do this? In particular, how do you do this when you’re married, single, or chasing after some kids of your own? We’ve checked in with urban youth workers from around the country to get some of their best practices.

Here is a little introduction of our panel, including their life stage and challenges they have identified that can keep them from embracing healthy rhythms.

JIM DYSON, Vice President of Field Ministries for Young Life. He and his wife are empty nesters. Dyson says that, for him, the challenge of this stage of life has been to stop working. “When we had children at home the priority of being with them forced me to take a break from work.”

JOHN LEWIS, Southern California Regional Director for the Urban Youth Workers Institute. He is single with two young children. For John, the challenge of this season is to balance taking care of kids and working a full-time job as a single parent.

CHRIS BROOKS, Dean of Students for an inner-city high school in Minneapolis. He has been married for 13 years, and has two children who are 8 and 6 years old. Brooks identifies the greatest challenges to finding healthy rhythms as the “hustle” (taking on “extra” work to make ends meet), and the lack of resources (such as organizational leaders who don’t value rest and renewal, or mustering up the money to live in the city).

SHAWN CASSELBERRY,Chicago City Director for Mission Year. He has been married for 9 years. He identifies his rhythm fight as taking “on more responsibility than is humanly possible.” Casselberry says, “Sometimes I can forget that my job is not to fix or solve the problems around us, but to live in solidarity with my neighbors.”

The following represents collective suggestions this group has discovered about their rhythms.


  • Make your kids’ activities a priority
  • If you need to be out at night, see if you can     be at home in the afternoon when the kids get home from school.
  • Participate in sports or other activities     together with your kids.
  • Get an animal that you can have fun with and     take care of together.
  • Eat dinner together.
  • As much as possible, don’t commit to travel that     will take you away from your family for long periods of time.
  • Ask your kids to suggest ways for you to be a     better mom/dad and implement their ideas.
  • Tuck your kids in at night.
  • Take advantage of “kids eat free” nights at     local restaurants.
  • Do a simplified examen exercise with kids as a     bedtime or evening dinner ritual. Usually with young kids asking about     daily highs and lows works best.
  • Take a Sabbath together as a family.
  • Parents work together to give one another time     for retreats.


  • Debrief with your spouse daily.
  • Pray together with your spouse.
  • Don’t answer the phone when you’re spending time     with your spouse, but always answer when he/she calls you.


  • Take a Sabbath, and do things that are     life-giving.
  • Find times you can disconnect electronically     (cell, phone, email).
  • Find ways to appropriately let your own anger     out, like going to the bowling alley.
  • Create a colleague group.  One respondent shared:

Several leaders of yearlong urban ministry programs got together to start a colleague group around the theme of a balanced life. We meet every other month to discuss books we are reading as a group, share ideas for balancing personal and professional life, and give each other support. We were able to get a grant for our group that covers the cost of books, retreats, and guest speakers.

  • Schedule time to get together with friends.
  • Try centering prayer (
  • Take seminary classes for intellectual stimulation     and growth in new areas.
  • Take public transportation and relax in the     extra time it takes you to get where you’re going.
  • Once each quarter find a way to take a personal     retreat for a day or more.

While it can be hard to balance, each of our contributors also recognized the value of city life. Dyson found the tensions of ministry caused him to trust more in Christ. Lewis saw how experiences of pain can be a path to spiritual growth. “You will encounter pain in many ways that can take you to a deeper place spiritually,” Lewis says. Brooks noticed how the diversity of people and experiences have caused him to “think more deeply about God’s Word and the appropriate application of it.” Particularly the “passages about the poor have become more real as I engage them on a regular basis, and live among them.” Casselberry, too, has “seen the gospel come to life.  Living in the city allows me to trust God more fully than when our lives were more comfortable and easy.”

Rhythms take time to develop. Sometimes they develop and sometimes they are decided upon. Yet we were meant to live in rhythms, no matter what our life stage.

  1. See “Your Life” in month 2 of this series for more on this
  2. John Goldingay, Walk on: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 100.
  3. John Goldingay, Walk On, 97.
  4. John Goldingay, Walk On, 96.
  5. Mother Teresa, quoted in Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (Ballantine Books, 1979), 48.
  6. Juliet Schor, The Overworked America: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure, (Basic Books, 1991). Note that some of this is due to forces beyond our control, such as the expectation of our employers, while some is due to our own choices.
  7. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” Christianity Today, Sep 2, 1988, 25-28. Although this article appeared over 20 years ago, it is still among the best and most concise writings on this topic.
  8. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 25.
  9. Christine Sine, Godspace, (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 2006), 141.  Listen to an interview with Christine and Kara Powell on rhythms in urban youth ministry.
  10. Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, quoted by Don Postema, Catch Your Breath: God’s Invitation to Sabbath Rest (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1997), 32.
  11. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 28.

From Jay-Z to Jesus

Reaching & Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church

Apr 14, 2009 Ralph Watkins

This article is co-authored by Benjamin Stephens III, excerpted from the book titled From Jay-Z to Jesus: Reaching & Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4 Judson,

The Young Adult Struggle: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

“But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered and said to him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”  Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”  Peter said to him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And so said all the disciples.      Matthew 26:32-35

In many ways this story about Peter typifies the experience of young adults in their faith walk. Peter is trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ, and he goes from one extreme to the other. We can condemn Peter, or we can understand that for Peter and his peers this was a confusing time. They were trying to make sense of their lives, Jesus’ ministry, and this whole suffering servant, crucifixion, resurrection thing. It was a lot to put together.

Peter and the other disciples, homeboys along with the women who were around Jesus, like young adults today, find themselves caught in a web of big questions linked with their faith journey. And they don’t have easy answers. Young adults are in a period of reexamining their lives, motives, call, convictions, and theology.

What Are the Real Issues?

At the root of ministry with and to young adults is what I like to call the “great quest,” the question of purpose. The great quest is tied up with the great question: What have I been put on earth to be and do? This is both an identity question and a spiritual question. This question has theological and sociological implications. Young adults are in the process of defining themselves apart from their parents and in relationship to their peers. They are stretching out on their quest for a new life interdependent with their parents. There is a tension between what their parents defined for them and what they now have to define for themselves. The biblical foundation for quest, purpose, success, and significance is that famous Pauline passage of Ephesians 2:8-10 as Paul invites the readers to struggle with their divine design and purpose as outlined by God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV).

The Ephesians 2:8-10 Quest Question

What has God designed young adults to be and do? What are those works that God has prepared for them? Sharon Parks makes the quest question clear in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams as she characterizes the questions young adults are asking. Parks says, “These are questions of meaning, purpose, and faith; they are asked not just on the immediate horizon of where we spend the night. In young adulthood, as we step beyond the home that has sheltered us and look into the night sky, we can begin in a more conscious way to ask the ancient questions: Who am I under these stars? Does my life have a place and a purpose? Are we—am I—alone?” 1   Young adults come to the church with these questions of meaning on their hearts. Young adult ministry must bring them into a community of faith that recognizes and honors the developmental work they are doing and walks with them.

The young adult developmental period feels like life and death for those experiencing it. It is a valley experience as they seek what’s next (the immediate) and what tomorrow has in store for them (the future). Many young adults leave the church during this period, and as a result they are trying to do this developmental work in the context of popular culture, which bombards them with mixed messages. In the church they need to hear a message that engages the messages they are getting from the culture while teaching them ways to seek counsel from God, godly friends, and leaders as they walk through this important phase of life.

Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, the authors of the book, Quarterlife Crisis, describe this period of life.  Robins and Wilner compare the quarterlife crisis (between the late teens and early twenties) to what is commonly referred to and accepted in the culture as the midlife crisis. They say:

While the midlife crisis revolves around a doomed sense of stagnancy, of a life set on pause while the rest of the world rattles on, the quarterlife crisis is a response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and panicked sense of helplessness….The resulting overwhelming senses of helplessness and cluelessness, of indecision and apprehension, make up the real common experience we call the quarterlife crisis…. Twentysomethings believe they are alone and that they are having a much more difficult transition period than their peers-because the twenties are supposed to be “easy,” because no one talks about these problems, and because the difficulties are therefore so unexpected.  2

Because no one talks about or recognizes the quarterlife crisis, the young adults’ experiences that feel like life and death go unnoticed by the larger culture, especially in church culture. As a result, they are left shivering, alone, afraid, and confused, waiting for someone to stop by their house and talk with them as they walk along this lonely way.

Jesus’ Ministry: A Model of Response

Ministry to young adults was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry during his time on earth. We know that many of the disciples were young men searching for meaning, identity, and life purpose. We can of course assume that many of the women who where part of Jesus’ crowd were also young adults searching for the answer to the big questions of life. We know, for example, that Mary and Martha were close to Jesus and supportive of his ministry. Their search for an answer to what is most important in life is recorded in Luke 10:38-42. Mary and Martha are doing the work of young adults as they ask big questions and listen to Jesus’ answers. In essence Martha asks, “Do I do what is expected of me, or do I do what excites me? Do I sit and listen, or do I stay busy? How do I find God and find out what God wants of me?” The Mary and Martha story exposes some of the tension experienced in the lives of young adults.

Jesus was clear that Mary had made the better choice by choosing to sit and commune with him. Many young adults are busy running around trying to find out what God wants, what they want, and what the world wants on a trial-and-error basis while there isn’t a place for them to sit. A key theological theme in young adult ministry must be making a place for young adults to sit and listen to God. They need a break from the busy, a place where their resting and sitting at the feet of Jesus is appreciated and they are not criticized for what appears to be doing nothing.

Many young adults are caught between making a living, finishing a major, and doing what they really want to do—which in many cases they don’t even know yet. It is unfair to ask twenty-year-olds what they want to do for the rest of their lives. They don’t know. They walk into something that they may eventually struggle with and fight to walk away from.


Is This Church for Real?

Young adults are looking for confirmation that what they are doing is actually making a difference. They are not willing simply to come to church on Sunday and go through the motions. They question the relevance and power of the church. They critique form and fashion that don’t lead to deliverance. Jesus understood this. As soon as Jesus demonstrated the power of God in the deliverance of the demon-possessed man, he walked with his disciples to the home of Simon and Andrew. He was now about to show them how this ministry addressed their personal lives. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus healed her.

The key here is ministry that makes a difference. Jesus wasn’t offering religious platitudes or promising to do something later for those who were hurting. He responded on the spot in a way that made a lasting difference. Young adults want to be involved in ministry that is real, tangible, and making a difference in the here and now. George Barna calls these types of young adults religious revolutionaries. He says, “[There is] a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s kingdom. They are people who want more of God—much more—in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.” 3

The disciples of Jesus got more of God; they were able to touch God, sit with God, and see God act. Young adults in the twenty-first century want this type of closeness with God. Jesus didn’t have a wall between him and the people. He gave them access and the ability to get involved and start working with the ministry today.

A ministry that doesn’t empower young adults to live an edited life in an unedited world with and among sin and sinners will not meet their needs. They need to be empowered to sit the way Jesus sat with tax collectors and sinners. This empowerment requires an encounter with God’s Word that reveals God’s ways and methods for living in the world they can’t leave.

Action Points

1. What has your church done to make sure it is welcoming to young adults?  Make two lists of ways your church both welcomes and discourages young adults to participate. Then send out your lists to a few young adults you know and invite them to comment on your lists.

2. What is unique about your city that would fight against young adults’ faith journey?  Host a focus group of young adults to discuss the issues and concerns they have about your particular context as it relates to young adult faith and identity.

3. Take stock of the ways your church involves young adults in meaningful service, both inside and outside the church, for the sake of the Kingdom.  Then brainstorm new inroads to plug young adults into existing ministries, involving appropriate leaders and of course young adults themselves.

  1. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 35.
  2. Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (New   York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), 4-5.
  3. George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 7.

Your Struggles

From Coping to Freedom

Apr 01, 2009 Kimberly Williams

For the first ten years of my involvement in urban ministry, I mainly worked with children in the city. As I developed these relationships, I sometimes found out disturbing details about a kid’s family situation or life circumstance. Over time, I would often think, How could that mother say that? or Why did that dad do that? Then, when I moved to Oakland, CA, I started working as a counselor at a drug recovery program for women. It was there that I heard the “other side” of the story.

Many of the women in the program were mothers who had had disturbing childhoods themselves. The women shared about traumatic situations they had been through and ways that they were wounded. I came to realize that the struggles people experience in the city were a lot more complicated than I had first anticipated.


In this series of seeking Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City it is important not only to look at our city, our life, and our pain as we have over the last three months, but also to take a look at our own struggles. Out of our personal struggles we develop coping mechanisms that can keep us from being able to rest. One way we can learn more about facing our struggles is to look through the lens of addiction.

For a long time I was uncomfortable with the label of addiction. That was what “other people” dealt with, not me. I’m in control, I can handle myself, I am an example and a role model are statements I would make to myself.  But then I found the language and models of addiction helpful as I tried to understand more about why I struggle. Why “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” 1 as Paul would say.

Often our first assumption when we are talking about addiction is to think of drugs and alcohol. But the term for addiction can be broadened beyond addictive substances to other forms of addictive behavior as well. This could include our sexuality, eating disorders, workaholism, video games, and even being addicted to others (or co-dependency).

In their book, Healing Addiction: An Integrated Pharmacopsychosocial Approach to Treatment, authors Peter Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer define addiction as:

“a persistent, repetitive, and often irresistible self-destructive activity that, at least in the beginning, is perceived as rewarding by individuals, but that robs them of time, resources, or the motivation to do the things that are part of a balanced life and may well have been part of their lives before becoming addicted.” 2

For the purpose of this article I am defining addiction as the coping mechanisms we use to keep us from facing ourselves and God.

The more I have learned about addiction, the more I have been able to recognize that a person’s struggles are not only related to their individual decisions, but are also deeply rooted in systemic and generational issues. The philosophy of the recovery program where I worked as a counselor was that drug use can be a type of band-aid to cover over deep wounds. As counselors, we were encouraged to look beyond the addictive behavior itself to see what was going on underneath the addiction. Similarly, as urban youth workers, it’s important for us to be aware of the dynamics underlying some of our own struggles.


Every one of us is unique. We have different personalities, sensitivities, quirks, passions, triggers, and things that make us tick. Some of these distinctions are ingrained in us from birth, while others are formed as we develop. When some of our foundational development experiences are filled with hurt, we experience wounds that require us to develop ways to cope. While these coping mechanisms can get us through a moment or period of time, they can also keep us from addressing the deeper hurts. Coping mechanisms can also keep us from healthily connecting with others, including God. Two factors involved in creating coping mechanisms are our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others.


A significant period in our early individual development is from 0 to 3 years old. During this time there is a shift from being completely dependent on our parents to being able to self-regulate. Self-regulation means we can do basic things like walk, eat, and go to the bathroom on our own. It also means that we can ask for help, can feel our emotions, and safely take risks and explore. In essence, to develop the ability to self-regulate is to develop self-control.

When we don’t develop the ability to self-regulate, we tend to need something outside of ourselves in order to calm down. We can’t do it on our own. Some of our coping mechanisms have the appearance of being helpful (i.e. pouring ourselves into work, always taking care of others, or staying busy) while others we can recognize as unhelpful (drugs, eating disorders, compulsive sexuality).

Attachment Theory

Another factor connected to developing coping mechanisms is the degree to which we as children are able to trust the adults who influence us in our early years.  3 In the 1950’s, John Bowlby, studying two-year-olds left in the hospital by their parents, developed the theory of attachment. The hospitals at this time in London had highly restrictive visiting hours for parents, meaning parents were only allowed to visit with their children an average of a few hours per week. 4   Bowlby watched as the children would first protest, then experience despair, and finally would develop a coping mechanism of relational detachment. 5   When the parents returned, the children wouldn’t get excited. In the mind of the children, the parents, who had represented protection and safety, had abandoned them.  The children therefore determined they had to take care of themselves and could no longer depend on others. 6

The same type of dynamic exists today. If we experienced abandonment when we were children, we often try to stay in control and not let others close. We have a hard time developing trust.

When these two tasks of early childhood-our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others-are short-circuited, they can become sources of our coping mechanisms in adulthood. Many of our addictive struggles are rooted in the way we search for soothing in external comforts or our need to stay in control and not be hurt by others. 7


Addiction in the urban community is often underestimated and trivialized or accepted as “normal”. While it may be comforting to look around and see others with similar struggles, it does not minimize the negative effects that our struggles have on us.

Our deep need to protect ourselves and to be in control can take up much of our energy and affect our ability to minister to others. Especially when we are in ministry, sometimes it feels like everything will fall apart if we stop using our coping mechanisms. When we try to appear in control and confident but internally we feel in disarray, we cannot fully be present to others. Sometimes we get caught up in caring for others simply because we believe it is how we address our own needs. 8   These are ways that our coping mechanisms cover up our need to face ourselves, and keep us from fully experiencing rest.

One morning in Oakland, I was walking to work at the recovery program when one of the dealers on the corner asked me where I was going. I strategically told him I was “going to work,” not sure how he would respond if I told him I was a counselor at a drug recovery program. But he pressed, and I told him. He smiled and teased me by saying, “Awww, whatya tell’m, ‘just say no’?” We bantered back and forth, and then he said, “No, really, what do you tell them?” I said that I don’t tell people anything. If they want recovery, I can walk with them, and if they don’t, I won’t. He seemed pleased with my response and said, “I think I have some people I can send your way.”

Focusing on addressing our own issues requires a commitment on our part. While some of us may need professional support, and all of us need a community to journey with, 9   no one can make us deal with our struggles. It is a process of acknowledging and developing awareness, establishing a support system, and learning about our unique triggers.

I personally have a very well-established set of unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve been using my whole life. It’s always been with an implicit understanding that this is what I need to do “or else.” I never really cared to discover what the “or else” was referring to. A few years ago when I began a healing journey, I felt like I had two options. One option was to go on with my life as I had been, using my coping mechanisms. The only catch with this option is that I would now be aware that I was using coping mechanisms, and it would also mean I could never fully relax and be myself or be intimate with others. The other “or else” option was dark, unfamiliar, and completely unpredictable. To go that road felt as if I was choosing certain death. I had never related to Jesus’ painful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane more. 10

I took the counterintuitive, dark, and scary road. I have felt incredible pain from accepting the things that have been too unbearable to think about and the situations that I have felt deeply ashamed by. But I have also felt incredible freedom that comes from honesty and loving acceptance. For example, I discovered support when I began speaking to my family members about things that we never talked about before. In addition, I have been less defensive because I have started identifying the ways I can push away the people trying to care for me.

I never thought it was possible, but I have discovered that I don’t have to rely on the coping mechanisms I have always known.  They do not define me. While this is certainly a lifelong journey, as I have turned around to face myself and face God, I have experienced the “new creation” described in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “...the old has gone, the new has come!” The work of addressing my coping mechanisms has been hard and at times exhausting, but it is also what has enabled me to truly relax and enter into a Sabbath rest.

GOING DEEPER: Family System Dynamics

Another factor that affects us in our struggles with addiction is our family dynamics. Each family is different. As a kid, whenever I would use the strategy of comparing my mom to my friends’ parents to convince her to let me do something, she would say, “Other people, in other families, do other things.” As much as I came to hate that phrase, it was true-no two families are the same.


Within a family, boundaries may range from being very rigid to very loose. 11   A family member feels safe when the boundaries are dynamic enough to be rigid when they need to be rigid, and loose when they need to be loose. Unfortunately it is easier for a family to fall into one end or another of the spectrum. When family members feel too protected, this can lead to frail boundaries.  When family members feel too unprotected, this can lead to impenetrable boundaries. An inability to set appropriate boundaries leaves a person at a severe relational disadvantage when they enter into the world. It is often characteristic of those who struggle with addiction to have a difficult time setting boundaries. The kids we work with often press in on us and challenge our ability to set appropriate boundaries, which is one of the many reasons it is important to set and maintain boundaries.


Every family also has a set of rules. These include both stated agreements and silent rules that everyone internally knows, though they are never discussed. Three silent rules that can stifle family members and keep them from trusting the family system are:

  • Don’t talk.
  • Don’t feel.
  • Don’t take     responsibility (In other words, blaming, justifying, and lying are all     allowed.)

These three silent rules often appear in families with addiction.


Finally, all families develop roles for their members. There are explicit roles like mother, son, and sister, but there are many implicit roles as well. These are roles like hero, scapegoat, and mascot. In healthy families, these roles are intended to be interchangeable and shared by all the family members. In families with addiction, these roles get permanently assigned to particular members. When this happens, it limits the growth of the family member and the family as a whole.

Our families are the places where we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to be intimate with others. To do this, we need to feel safe and cared for. Boundaries, rules, and roles, when modeled to us in healthy ways, can help us feel care and safety. When children don’t learn these things in a family system, they then must go into the world without the tools they need to express themselves and connect with others. Naturally, this can lead them to struggle as adults.

Our churches or youth ministries often function just like a family system. How are we to know how to help our teenagers through their individual development, or help our young people develop attachments, or model appropriate boundaries, rules, and roles if we never learned these things ourselves? While it may be appropriate to lament these disadvantages, if we are able to focus on addressing those areas now, we can model this developmental process for any of our youth who also did not learn them.

  1. Romans 7:15, NIV.
  2. Peter R. Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg, and Bonnie K. Bealer, Healing Addiction: An Integrated Pharmacopsychosocial Approach to Treatment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007), 3.
  3. For further study on Attachment Theory see: Bretherton, Inge. “The Origin of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.” Developmental Psychology 28:759-775, 1992.
  4. A 1949 survey of London hospitals visiting hours ranged from a few hours once or twice a week, to not at all. In two of the hospitals parents could not interact with their children at all, only view them through a partition or while they were sleeping (Munro-Davies, H.G. ‘Visits to Children in Hospital’, Spectator, March 18, 1949. Found at:
  5. Overview of the findings of the study Robertson, J., & Bowlby, J. “Responses of young children to separation from their mothers,” Courrier of the International Children’s Centre, Paris, II, 1952, 131-140. Found in Inge Bretherton, “The Origin of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28:759-775, 1992.
  6. “Bowlby maintained that infants and children experience separation anxiety when a situation activates both escape and attachment behavior but an attachment figure is not available” (Inge Bretherton, 763).
  7. Another factor that can have a big influence on us is our family dynamics, see “Family Dynamics” sidebar.
  8. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, recognized that a person’s “disposition toward compulsive caregiving may derive from the redirection of attachment behavior. The individual may be taking the role of attachment figure instead of seeking care” (Bretherton, 764).
  9. “If people are ready for the changes that come with treatment, they must make a commitment to persevere until their addiction is under control and they can lead a productive life. This perseverance must include a commitment to relationships with others with whom they engage in the journey of recovery. Addiction is a lonely state focused on an illness; recovery involves broadening patients’ horizons, including developing relationships with others that allow them to grow beyond the myopic concerns of repetitive harmful behaviors.” Peter Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer, Healing Addiction, 5.
  10. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42, NIV.
  11. See the article entitled “Your Life: Finding space to love God, your neighbor and yourself in the city” for more on the topic of boundaries.