Toward Deeper Justice for All

The Urban Social Justice Report

Jun 25, 2007 Kara Powell

NOTE: This article has an accompanying FREE downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available as a pdf (86 KB—you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download this resource. Click here to download Acrobat for free).

The singers, sponsors, and fans of “American Idol” give back…to the tune of $70 million.

“Evan Almighty” floats into our movie theatres and our churches, beckoning us to match our skills and talents with the needs of others.

Bono wants us to see “(Red)” when we think of AIDS and poverty around the world, and take at least “ONE” step to make a difference.

These days there is no shortage of philanthropists jumping in to respond to the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. While it’s great to swim in a pool crowded with activists, it’s quite possible that in the midst of all the splashing around, the water’s gotten a bit muddy.

At least that’s part of the rationale driving the Urban Social Justice Project, coordinated by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), World Vision, Community Solutions, Inc., and the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI). The goal of the Urban Social Justice Project (USJP) is to survey urban youth workers in order to eliminate the murkiness swirling around what social justice is, what it isn’t, and how to bring the most dignity and transformation for all.

In phase one of the USJP, approximately 60 urban youth workers participated in focus groups held in eight U.S. cities in conjunction with the 2006-2007 UYWI ReLoad tour. 1 In April 2007, FYI sifted through the focus group answers in order to identify social justice “best practices” already being implemented around the U.S. as well as the most pressing justice concerns. In phase two of the USJP, FYI presented that report to a group of 27 strategically-invited leaders both to elicit their feedback and to pinpoint the focus groups’ most salient insights. 2

In the midst of the waves of attention devoted to helping the poor, perhaps you’ve even stuck a toe in the social justice waters yourself. But how do you know if your justice work is making a deep impact or just adding a few drops to a leaky bucket? As a leader, do you know what separates good justice work from truly great justice ministry? Regardless of whether you serve in an urban, suburban, or rural/small town context, hopefully these combined findings from both phases of the USJP can help you and your students plunge into deeper justice for all.

Deeper Question #1: How Would You Define Social Justice?

While identifying a precise definition of social justice is beyond the scope of the USJP, the research revealed eight themes that help define effective ministry with the “least of these”. 3

  • It involves righting wrongs, often through systemic change.
  • It levels the playing field and provides equal opportunities, especially in areas of housing, education, safety, and holistic support.
  • It speaks the truth.
  • It develops skills that enable people to help themselves.
  • It gives a voice to those who are often voiceless.
  • It creates economic and social well-being.
  • It is rooted in our love for one another.
  • It is contextual and will manifest itself differently in different communities.

Deeper Question #2: What is Social Justice NOT?

Often surprising to social justice novices is the widely held distinction between service and justice work. Service is offering a thirsty person a cup of cold water. Justice is not only offering a cup of cold water, but asking why they’re thirsty to begin with, and partnering with them to make sure not only that they are never thirsty again but that they can get their own water.

That distinction between service and social justice wove its way through the most common themes of what social justice is not:

  • It is not handouts.
  • It is not focused only on individuals but is instead focused on both helping individuals and creating systemic change.
  • It is not free giving without personal involvement and relationship.
  • It is not just programs.

Deeper Question #3: What Makes Youth Workers Who Are Effective in Justice Work So Effective?

When asked to think about the qualities of effective justice leaders, focus group members in phase one of the USJP repeatedly mentioned the importance of building relationships, usually to the point of becoming “part of the neighborhood.” In addition to quality relationships, both phases of the USJP revealed eleven other important qualities of social justice leaders.

  • They have a theological conviction about God’s intended shalom that motivates their work.
  • They don’t view others as projects but as people.
  • They realize that they don’t always know what others need.
  • They involve kids in their work and understand kids’ potential to catch a vision and be justice leaders.
  • They work holistically instead of focusing only on “spiritual” needs.
  • They ask why.
  • They think communally instead of individually.
  • They “keep it real”.
  • They realize that they need to collaborate with others outside of their own church.
  • They realize they can’t wait for someone else to act.
  • They need an effective support system so they don’t experience compassion burnout. 4

Deeper Question #4: What Justice Issues are Most Important to Your Community?

In the midst of the myriad of diverse needs facing communities today, nine issues emerged as the most dominant.

  • Poverty
  • Police/criminal justice system/juvenile justice system
  • Unequal access to services, especially services related to housing, health, education, and safety
  • Violence and gangs
  • Housing
  • Gentrification
  • Education
  • Family/home life
  • White privilege

Action Points: Your Own Plan to Dive into Deeper Justice Work

I wish you and I could simply read an article like this and presto, our ministries would automatically dive into deeper justice. Unfortunately, reading isn’t enough. Deeper justice involves not just exposure to new ideas from the USJP, but also opportunities both to reflect and to act.

In order to help your ministry put feet to the USJP findings, we’ve developed a free downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available HERE. We encourage you to print it out and take some time to assess your justice growth areas. Better yet, invite others to help shape your ministry’s justice journey by making copies for the rest of your adult leadership team, your spouse and other friends who know you well, as well as the students and parents in your ministry. The justice pool may be crowded, but there’s still room for your ministry.

For more research-based resources related to social justice, see our upcoming November 2007 and January 2008 releases of the FYI E-Journal which will be largely devoted to social justice, as well as the upcoming FYI book, Deep Justice in a Broken World, by Chap Clark and Kara Powell, to be released by Zondervan/Youth Specialties in January 2008.

To read the actual FYI report as well as notes from the meeting with 27 leaders held at UYWI in May 2007, check out . You might also be interested in online resources available at

  1. The eight cities involved were Fresno, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Philadelphia.
  2. That presentation was held on May 17, 2007 at the UYWI Conference at Azusa Pacific University.
  3. The order of items in this list, as well as the lists corresponding to the other three Deeper Questions, does not reflect any hierarchy of frequency of response. Items are listed in random order.
  4. For more on urban youth worker stress and burnout, please see the FYI research report entitled Stress in the City: A New Study of Youth Workers

Rest in the City

Jun 25, 2007 Kimberly Williams

What do prayer and rest have in common? For many youth workers, the first answer that leaps to mind is that we wish we did more of both, and we feel guilty (and off-kilter) because of how little of either we practice. But they’re actually more closely linked than we might first guess.

While reading a book on prayer by Richard Foster, I attempted to practice each prayer he described as I went through the chapters. Not surprisingly, the day I read the chapter entitled “The Prayer of Rest” I happened to be exhausted. In an already too-busy day, I had barely managed to read about the prayer, let alone practice it, before I crawled into bed.

“Be still…Rest…Shalom,” 1 , 2 is how Richard Foster described his experience of the Prayer of Rest. I smiled to myself as I wrote “The Prayer of Rest…” in my journal and proceeded to lay my head on my pillow, only to be woken up an hour later by a frantic phone call. As the City Director of a yearlong urban ministry, I received a call from one of my teams who had witnessed an intense domestic violence dispute involving their neighbor. I offered to come over to sit with them and pray. As I drove to their house, I realized I had no words to soften what they had seen. “Be still…Rest…Shalom” was still on my mind and I pondered how it was possible to rest when faced with such ugliness. My natural response would have been to try to sugarcoat what had happened, but with the concept of Shalom running through my mind I decided to take a different strategy. I let myself experience the trauma for what it was, and I allowed my heart to be broken. I challenged myself to be still and rest in the context of the city, even when faced with the ugliness in front of me.


Why is it that the crises always seem to come when I’m beyond tired? I mean, is it really possible for youth workers to rest? And is it really possible to rest in the city? In a place where nature is rare, where there are always people, noise, and obvious needs, how can we experience stillness, rest and Shalom? And particularly when we are faced by situations that seem exceptionally ugly, how are we supposed to rest before God?

Recent research through the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that rest is precisely what urban youth workers need in order to survive and even thrive in ministry in the city. According to the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry study, nearly 70% of paid staff and nearly half of volunteer youth workers have difficulty resting in urban youth ministry. Yet, the more exhausted we feel, the more successful we feel in ministry. This triggers an endless cycle of more ministry and less sleep until we’re completely burned out. Unfortunately, this all-too-familiar pattern contributes to serious physical and emotional health risks, not to mention a short-lived ministry career.

I learned something the night I decided not to offer hope and answers to my shaken-up students. Resting prayer is not only possible in the city, but it is essential. It is precisely when we are faced with the ugly, raw sides of the city that we feel most laid bare and vulnerable. In these moments, in order to rest, in order to hope, we must trust who God is. To rest requires us to trust that “God’s got this,” even when everything around and inside of us is telling us otherwise. This trust does not just happen; it must be nurtured and primed in order to relax in the most challenging of circumstances.


Not surprisingly, we are only able to experience rest in prayer when we actually stop and relax. It requires a ceasing of activity. This type of prayer focuses on being and experiencing rather than talking, asking or analyzing. This is not a prayer for changing circumstances or trying to understand—there are other types of prayers for that—but this is a prayer of resting in what is.

When I think of the prayer of rest, I think of accepting whatever comes my way. Not just accepting, but entering into and experiencing it as well. I have often prayed, “Lord, I want whatever you give me.” But this can involve a discipline of training myself to want something other than what I really wanted. The prayer of rest is different; there is no training of the mind. It is raw. It is more like, “Lord, allow me to experience whatever I step into.” It is sincerely responding with disappointment, joy, fear, anger or love and knowing God can handle who you are in that moment. These emotions may not initially be what comes to mind when you think of resting, but resting in the Lord looks different in the city than it does in other circumstances. Being at rest in prayer requires us to let down our guard, which can be harder to do in the city.


When Richard Foster describes the prayer of rest he describes being in solitude and nature. I can understand this. Often when I leave the city, my senses awaken to the sights and smells of the natural world around me. In certain environments, I can at times actually feel myself letting my guard down and relaxing my muscles. This can lead me into a prayer of rest.

There are aspects of city life that lead me to this type of prayer as well. Watching children play, spending quality time with a neighbor, experiencing celebrations with friends and families, or the times I have felt people’s fierce loyalty—these are some of the city’s features that allow me to let down my guard and trust that God is here in the city too.

At the same time, there are also elements of the city that keep me from resting in prayer. The city is filled with tensions that come from its being multi-faceted. With beauty also comes ugliness. As vulnerability emerges, so do stalkers and predators. For every glimpse of the Kingdom “now” there is also a sense of “not yet.” This could be said about many places. What is unique about the city is the showcase of need. Need is everywhere. Kathleen Norris in her book The Cloister Walk recognizes this constant need in the city as a call to prayer. “Being in the city is good for my monastic soul,” she says. “If anything, the desert monks’ command to ‘pray without ceasing’ seems easier there; the need is so obvious, so constant.” 3 Suffering, injustice and violence continually remind those in the city of their vulnerability and need for hope.


As youth workers we feel the need to offer hope and point out the presence of God in the city to others. This can be hard to do when we’re tired and having a hard time being hopeful ourselves. We act as if we must be strong for others and guard them from seeing our own hearts breaking.

Jesus doesn’t do this. We see in scripture that he allowed his heart to break. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus who had died. The Gospel of John says that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and when he comes before the tomb he weeps. He was able to experience what he felt in that moment (John 11:33-35), even though he would soon raise Lazarus from the dead! Instead of encouraging the crowds to cheer up and be hopeful about the miracle to come, he paused and allowed himself to grieve with them.

This pause is what the prayer of rest can look like in the city. This prayer allows us to come before God with what is in front of us rather than muster up hope. It is a prayer that allows our heart to be moved, even broken. This is so hard for us to do. We are so afraid of being hurt. Often with good reason, we have created barriers and developed suspicions. Being hurt is such a familiar feeling that it is hard to imagine that we can choose to be vulnerable in front of anyone, including God. 4

Sometimes we find ourselves resting in prayer not because we are trying to, but because we don’t have what it takes to hold it together any more. Once in college I was slated to give a talk on a youth group mission trip. I had prepared a funny-yet-thought-provoking talk on experiencing God’s peace, but ironically I wasn’t feeling peaceful at all. For years I had been encouraging my students to not give me “Sunday School answers” because I wanted them to be really honest with me. But I was realizing how much I guarded myself from being really honest with them. I scratched my planned talk and instead opened up about my own insecurities and weaknesses. At the time, I was sure I was going to disappoint them. I thought they would respond by accusing me of not being who I said I was. Instead, it was almost like my students heaved a sigh of relief. From that point on, they opened up to me even more than they had in the past.

A similar experience takes place when we unveil ourselves before God. We don’t assume God can handle our raw and honest emotions, but we learn that we can be weak and broken before him when we sit before him without explanation or justification, just being quiet and offering ourselves as we are. In these moments, we rest knowing it is not our own strength that sustains us.

By practicing the prayer of rest, we can rest in who God is and rest in who we are. We are relieved from the impulse to have God-like control and we are completely free to be ourselves. It is out of this balance that we can rest in the midst of the evil we see in the city. Again, this does not necessarily mean accepting or understanding what we see, but rather entering into and experiencing what we feel, whether that is anger, rage or powerlessness. This requires us to trust God. In prayer, when we trust God, we can rest even while we experience the ugly sides of life.


This takes practice. We can prepare ourselves to rest by creating “sanctuaries,” or sacred places in our lives. We can create a sanctuary anywhere. C.S. Lewis notes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.” 5 And so, in our crowded worlds full of need and noise, and in cities that “never sleep,” we set aside sacred spaces to learn how to be still and rest.

This will mean we need to choose to stop our normal routines, both our activities and interactions with others, while we rest. 6 This is how we begin to carve out sacred spaces in our daily life. We create sanctuaries by setting aside time and place to rest with God. 7

It is possible to find a sanctuary in your own home or neighborhood. Determine a chair, a pillow, a closet, a hallway, even a rooftop and reserve that place for prayer. If home is not a safe place, it may be possible to borrow a sanctuary from a church in your neighborhood. A Laundromat could become your refuge, a park bench your safe haven, or a simple stroll around the block could become sacred. What is important is that our sanctuaries feel like safe places where we can relax. The more consistent we are in these disciplines, the more our bodies become used to this sacred rhythm.

Sanctuary spaces in the city rarely just appear. We need to be intentional about creating spaces to be in God’s presence, all the while not trying to force ourselves into a place of rest. Just like forcing ourselves to sleep can often keep us awake, trying to force ourselves to rest in prayer can keep us from doing just that. Foster recounts a story of a student seeking spiritual direction from a monk. The monk encourages the student not to manipulate God, but receive. He says, “It’s like sleep. You can’t make yourself sleep, but you can create the conditions that allow sleep to happen.” 8 Likewise, we gently create conditions for restful prayer.


We are affected by this restful prayer. Resting in God provides a quiet place where we do not have to explain anything. God sits with us; we sit with God. Our resting creates a space for God to provide for us and teach us about what we are experiencing. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). 9 This is an invitation to shalom—to the wholeness of God for our frantic selves.

What we experience in our sanctuaries enables us to interact with the ugly parts of the city in a different way. Our experiences of God’s rest change us. When trusting in God, we develop a confidence not from knowing what is going to happen, but knowing that God is holding this too. This does not take away the pain. Rather, it is safe to feel it. In the same way that God’s heart breaks for the brokenness and pain in the city, we allow our own hearts to break as well.


Through our prayers of rest we see the city differently, making this type of rest not merely a “good idea”, but an essential in urban ministry. What we learn in the context of these types of prayers is what—and Who—we need to depend on when we face the ugliness of the city. What we learn about ourselves and God in solitude is what we need to draw from when we go back into the world.

John Perkins writes, “All sorts of earthly powers claim the bodies and souls of the urban poor—from pimps and pushers and welfare to cults, television, and materialism. We, the community of believers, should demonstrate that we obey an authority that rules over all authorities. Our allegiance is to the righteous and just demands of our sovereign God, and no earthly power should control or intimidate us.” 10 Our confidence and responses to the city flow from our resting in who God is. May we boldly proclaim our trust in God by prayerfully resting in the city.


  • Sleep. Learn how to rest your soul through resting your body. This week, revisit your evening and morning schedules and routines to more intentionally practice sleeping enough. Even let yourself schedule in naps to stay healthy.
  • Practice being vulnerable with a person you trust. Set up a time to meet with a close friend and challenge yourself to share something that makes your heart break. Let that lead into vulnerability before God in prayer.
  • Take a good, hard look at your prayer life. Do you ever pray this type of resting prayer? Make a space in your week to sit with God and not ask for anything, but simply be quiet.
  • Do you have a “sanctuary” in the city? Look around for a special space where you feel you are able to relax and come before God. Make a point to go there regularly so it becomes part of the rhythms of your life.
  • Call another youth worker to talk through the issue of rest. Brainstorm together ways to build more rest into your lives, and hold each other accountable for resting more in the next month.
  • For additional reading on youth workers and rest (particularly the concept of Sabbath), please read “R-E-S-T: The Four-Letter Word of Youth Workers?” by Brad Griffin.

  1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 95.
  2. A word often translated as “peace” in the Bible, Shalom actually means much more. Shalom indicates not simply an absence of conflict, but a restoration of wholeness.
  3. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 69.
  4. In her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, Ruth Haley Barton describes her journey of seeking solitude. She recognizes the risk in “exposing the tender, unfinished places of our soul” to God. She says, “We are so accustomed to being shamed or condemned in the unfinished parts of ourselves that it is hard to believe there is a place where all of who we are—the good, the bad and the ugly—will be handled with love and gentleness.” Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 96.
  5. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Orlando: Harcourt, Brace, and Co, 1964), 75.
  6. Foster, 100.
  7. In doing this it is important to be aware of our surroundings. Though we cannot always gauge or control the activity around us, we can be thoughtful to avoid the times and places that are generally more loud and distracting for us.
  8. Foster, 144.
  9. As I was writing, I received a beautiful word picture of this. I was babysitting and heard Jaya (age 5) had woken up and was crying. I found her sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. I picked her up and sat with her on the steps so she would not wake the other children. In between sobs, before she could even explain to me why she was crying, she took a big sigh, leaned her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. As I sat there, amazed at how suddenly she had stopped crying, I could not help thinking, “Is this not what our Father God does for us?”
  10. John Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 47.

Stress in the City

A New Study of Youth Workers

May 04, 2007 Cynthia ErikssonJude Tiersma WatsonKara Powell


That’s a word urban youth workers know all about.


That word probably isn’t as familiar, but we as youth workers demonstrate it every day.  When people are resilient, or “bounce back,” they are able to go through difficult experiences and find energy, hope, and support.

Shortly after Robert heard about our urban youth worker study on risk and resilience, he left us a phone message, asking how he could be involved.  When one of our team members called him back, it was tough to hear him over the loud clanging and echoing voices in the background.  He explained that he was at a juvenile hall, being fingerprinted so that he could visit some of his kids.

Given that, we agreed that we’d call him back.

When we did, Robert answered the phone and very patiently listened as we explained our goal of understanding both the stress that urban youth workers experience, as well as the support that helps them not just survive, but thrive.  Before we could give more details, Robert explained that he was short on time because he was preparing to perform a funeral service for one of the young men in his neighborhood who had been shot.

Violence, poverty, inadequate schools, juvenile hall, gangs, racial tensions, the every-day injustices of urban life. If you are a youth worker like Robert, these are some of your realities.

But as we learned through the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project, there are life-giving resources and support structures that can help urban youth workers like Robert not just survive, but actually thrive.

In order to understand urban youth workers’ risk and resilience, Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry) partnered with Fuller’s Headington Program 1 to launch the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project. 2 Surveys were sent to 905 urban youth workers from five randomly selected large American cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis, and Philadelphia) with questions related to community violence, chronic stressors, posttraumatic stressors, burnout, motivation, spirituality, and beliefs about God in the midst of suffering.  Completed surveys were returned by 284 youth workers (or 31.4% of those who received them). 3

Nearly two thirds (65%) of the youth workers who completed the survey were women, and while they represented ages ranging from 18 to over 65, the average age was 35.  Just over half of the youth workers (53%) were married, 39% were single, and the remaining 8% were separated, divorced, or widowed; just over half (53%) had children.

The vast majority (90%) were born in the United States.  Almost half (46%) of the urban youth workers were Caucasian, 34% were African American, 12% were Latino/a, 4% were Middle Eastern, Asian American, or Native American, and the remaining 4% indicated that they were of more than one race. Nearly two thirds (65%) did NOT live in the community in which they do urban youth ministry. Almost two thirds (62%) were being paid for their urban ministry work.

In order to better understand and translate our research findings into practical ideas, we convened urban youth worker focus groups. 4 The insights from these groups resulted in practical suggestions that you can try in your life and ministry right now—whether you’re from inner-city Detroit, a small town outside of Des Moines, or the suburbs of Denver.

Question 1:  What Traumatic Experiences Did Urban Youth Workers Experience During Childhood?

As depicted in Table 1, urban youth workers reported fairly high rates of exposure well-documented Adverse Childhood Experiences. 5

Table 1:  Adverse Childhood Experiences in Urban Youth Workers

Over 22% of the urban youth workers indicated that they had experienced four or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Unfortunately, that level of childhood trauma has been shown to increase the risk for psychological and physical health problems later in life.  Adults with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely than those who do not report any adverse experiences to be obese, experience depression, attempt suicide, use drugs, have more than fifty sexual partners, and experience a stroke or heart disease. 6

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  According to the urban youth workers in our focus groups, these numbers fit their experience. Yet in the midst of these traumatic experiences, many urban youth workers keep it to themselves because they are reluctant to “tell other people my business.”  One national leader remarked, “I know a lot of folks who have 4 or 5 of those Adverse Childhood Experiences, and they don’t talk to others about it.  They deal with it through worship and through going to church.”  While the Lord is the ultimate healer, many of the urban leaders we talked to recommended that leaders find other like-minded men and women with whom they can share their pain.

Yet sometimes people do need specific care for problems that get in the way of their work and relationships. Leaders said that finding someone who was a trained counselor who understands the urban context may take time. But finding that person is worth the effort, and may prove to be a life-giving resource to staff, as well as kids in the neighborhood.

Question 2:  What Stressors Do Youth Workers Experience Now?

Of 24 potential stressors, at least 50% of volunteer and/or paid urban youth workers reported experiencing the following twelve stressful situations.

Table 2:  Stressors Experienced by Urban Youth Workers

Interestingly, the most frequent stressors tended to be more personal and internal than we might expect (violence in the community being an obvious exception).  As indicated in Table 2, the top stressor in both groups was “feeling powerless to change the situation of the people in the community.”  The second most prevalent for paid staff was “frustration with portrayals of urban life in the media.”

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  These stressors undoubtedly take their toll on dedicated youth workers.  As one urban youth worker who switched from suburban to inner city ministry commented, “I never saw a leader meltdown until I got into urban youth ministry.  Now I see if four or five times a year.”

The internal quality of these stressors means that we might not see them coming, and they may not be things that the organization can change. But they raise several important questions about our support structure.  Who are we talking to about feeling powerless? Who encourages us to take a break when they see us starting to get frazzled or frustrated with our kids? Who reminds us to take a vacation away from the ministry and offers to cover our responsibilities?

Question 3:  What Types of Violence Do Urban Youth Workers Experience?

Violence, while not the top rated stressor, is still part of the stress in the city.  Table 3 below captures the violent events that urban youth workers have personally experienced in their lives, as well as in the past year.

Table 3:  Types of Violence 7

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  Most everybody we interviewed agreed that the inner city can be a war zone.  Not all inner cities are alike, however.  As one urban leader described, “There are urban jungles, which are rough and tough, and there are urban villages, which are still tough but not as traumatic.”

In either case, one leader likened urban workers to “sponges” who “absorb all this trauma and then are supposed to squeeze out wisdom.  When all the pain comes into you, it’s easy to feel anger, stress, and pity.  That pain has to come out somehow, or it can do real damage.”  As this comment reminds us, experiencing trauma does not happen only when you are the victim yourself. We experience the pain of trauma when we hear stories, witness violence, or feel loss when a kid turns away from us and to drugs or gangs instead.

In the midst of trying to express pain, many church and parachurch urban youth workers seem to rely on the support of their community for help and healing.  As one national parachurch leader commented, “Urban leaders will turn to their church as much or more as to our national ministry.  They want support from relationships more than from organizational structure.”  Yet on the flipside, other leaders described how important relationships with colleagues can be, both colleagues within their own organization as well as with friends in other ministries who are not connected to organizational politics.

Other tools that were helpful for letting out pain were crying, praying, physical exercise, and expressing pain through art, including music, dance, and murals.  As one urban veteran summarized, “In our work with street artists, I’ve learned that for some, tagging is a way to release pain. One kid told me that tagging was his aspirin. The pain of their broken lives has to come out somehow, and if we can provide appropriate ways, then fewer kids and adults will resort to methods like tagging that can get them arrested.”

Question 4:  What Keeps Urban Youth Workers From Receiving the Support They Need?

Because of these and other types of stress in the city, about one-third of urban youth workers (or 36%) reported significant levels of posttraumatic stress. 8 , 9 By “posttraumatic stress,” we mean the emotional and physical symptoms that can develop after experiencing a trauma. These symptoms fit in 3 categories: re-experiencing the trauma (for example through nightmares or thinking about the event when you do not want to); avoiding the trauma (avoiding things that remind you of the event, withdrawing from people) and hyperarousal (feeling jumpy, easily agitated, or irritable).

The urban youth workers who filled out the survey indicated that 36% of them are feeling those symptoms right now. We can compare that to the general public where studies show that 12% of the population will experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime. 10 This means that there are a significant number of urban youth workers who are serving while simultaneously managing a considerable level of internal pain.

Thankfully, many urban youth workers are taking advantage of support systems available to them such as medical care, church services, counseling, spiritual direction, small groups, support from their teams, and spiritual mentoring.  Yet in the last year, approximately one-fifth of urban youth workers felt the need to get emotional, physical or spiritual support but did not end up receiving any.  When asked why, they reported the following obstacles:  availability, affordability, lack of time, self-addressed (meaning they ended up taking care of it themselves), and concern about the stigma involved in getting the help.

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  For many of the urban youth workers in our focus groups, the idea that “lack of time” would keep leaders from getting the support they need was disconcerting.  As one summarized, “If I need help, going to a spiritual director is just as much part of my ministry as hanging out with a kid.”  Some likened self-care to the announcement we hear every time we board a plane that we need to put on our own oxygen masks before we try to put the mask around the children. Keeping ourselves healthy means that we will be around to care for kids in the future.

A few wondered if behind the obstacles of time and money lay a deeper obstacle: that if I have a “Savior Complex” and I have to get help, then that means I’m no longer the Savior.  Taking time to get support forces leaders to realize that it’s “God’s ministry and not mine,” which quite honestly, can be hard to face.

In addition, some youth workers seem to enjoy the “drama” of urban ministry.  As one leader lamented, “I had to let one of our team members go because he seemed to thrive on the drama of urban ministry.  Since he couldn’t control the drama in his own home, he burned himself out trying to respond to the drama in his kids’ homes.”

Question 5:  What is Unique About Urban Youth Workers’ Burnout? 11

In general, people who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are accomplishing less than those who are less exhausted.  Perhaps the greatest surprise of our entire study is that in urban youth workers, the opposite is true.  Youth workers who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are actually accomplishing more!

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  The majority of our focus group leaders didn’t seem surprised that the youth workers who are the most tired also seem to feel the most effective.  In many cases, perhaps being exhausted and/or traumatized by violence and pain is a “badge of honor” in the city.  As one youth worker commented, “Someone is welcomed into the urban family when they’ve been shot or done time.”

However, urban youth workers cautioned against oversimplifying the link between fatigue and a sense of accomplishment.  For many urban youth workers, being tired and experiencing suffering is part of who they are, and since it is part of their own personal story, it becomes a deep well of healing for the kids and families in their own communities.

In either case, the urban leaders also made a number of recommendations to help youth workers find a sense of rhythm and balance:

  • Take a sabbatical, and if your ministry doesn’t currently have a sabbatical policy, suggest that they consider developing one.
  • REQUIRE, not recommend, that leaders take one day each week to disengage from the constant ups and downs of urban ministry.
  • Beware of adrenaline addiction, meaning the tendency we have to get hooked on the physiological “rush” that comes from being needed and being busy.
  • Listen to your team members or your mentor when they warn you that you are approaching burnout.
  • Team leaders need to model rest for their entire team.  If they don’t, then the rest of the team wonders if it is okay to take a break.
  • Think about what “rest” is for you. It does not always mean getting away and taking a retreat. It may mean having a great game of one on one basketball with a kid in the neighborhood. What are the things that give you life, that renew and “recycle” you?


During our focus groups, one veteran youth worker shared about her early days living in the neighborhood and pouring herself out for the kids, taking little rest for herself.  One day one of her high school seniors told her, “You need to get a life. We love you and we love all the time you spend with us. But if you don’t get a life, you will burn out and get tired of us. Then you’ll leave and we will have no one.”

In the gospels, Jesus teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” not “instead of ourselves.” More often than not, seeking our own health and healing is the best ministry we can offer our kids.

Action Points

  • What among these primary findings strikes a chord with you?  What stressors or responses do you most resonate with from this research?  Write these down and call a friend or ministry partner to talk through the questions and issues this research raises for you.
  • How do you respond to the finding that youth workers tend to equate exhaustion with accomplishment?  Set aside some time for some personal reflection and prayer on what makes you feel like you’ve succeeded in ministry and whether you might be “addicted to exhaustion.”
  • What avenues for self-care and resilience exist in your ministry?  Who can you forward this article to and set up a conversation with this week to begin evaluating those avenues and their effectiveness?  Where might your ministry need to grow to help you and other youth workers get healthier?
  • When you think about your own responses to painful experiences, do you tend to find help from others when you need it or keep to yourself?  What relationships do you need to intentionally build, or what professional help might you need to seek, to set yourself on a trajectory towards processing and healing from the pain in your life and ministry?

NOTE: All of the research data reported in this article is taken from the Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress, Spirituality, and Support, Report of General Findings (Eriksson, Shin, Walling, Lee, & Montgomery , 2007). This report is now avaialble for download HERE (466 KB PDF download).


Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F. Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V., & Williamson, D. F. (2002). Exposure to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction among adults who witnessed intimate partner violence as children: Implication for health and social services, Violence and Victims, 17, 3-17

Eriksson, C., Shin, H., Walling, S., Lee, H., & Montgomery, C. (2007, January). Risk and resilience in urban ministry: Stress, spirituality, and support, Report of General Findings. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry), Fuller Theological Seminary.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D.,. Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258

King, L., King, D., Leskin, G., & Foy, D. (1995). The Los Angeles symptom checklist: A self-report measure of posttraumatic stress disorder. Assessment, 2, 1-17.

Maslach, C. & Jackson, S. E. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory - Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS). In C. Maslach, S. E. Jackson, & M. P. Leiter (Eds.), MBI Manual (3rd Ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.

Richters, J.E., & Saltzman, W. (1990). Survey of Children’s Exposure to Community Violence. National Institute of Mental Health.

A version of this article also appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of the Journal of Student Ministries.

  1. The mission of the Headington Program is to understand the experience of traumatic and chronic stress in ministry settings.
  2. All of the research data reported in this article is taken from the Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress,  Spirituality, and Support, Report of General Findings (Eriksson, Shin,  Walling, Lee, & Montgomery ,  2007). This report is avaialble for download HERE (466 KB PDF download
  3. Thirty percent is considered a fairly typical response rate for survey research.
  4. One of the focus groups was predominantly Los Angeles urban youth workers; the other was comprised of national leaders from across the United States.
  5. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (Dube, Anda, Felliti, Edwards, & Williamson, 2002; Felitti, et al., 1998) was used to assess these early traumatic experiences.
  6. Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258
  7. The experience of violence in the community was measured using the Survey of Exposure to Community Violence (Richters & Saltzman, 1990).
  8. Posttraumatic stress was measured using the Los Angeles Symptom Checklist (King, King, Leskin, & Foy, 1995).
  9. There was no significant difference in levels of posttraumatic stress between the volunteers compared to paid staff. In addition, there was not a significant difference in levels of post-traumatic stress disorder severity between local leaders (those who ministered in the same neighborhood in which they grew up) and relocated leaders (those who ministered in a different neighborhood than the one in which they grew up).
  10. Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.
  11. Burnout was measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach & Jackson, 1996).

Turning the Corner on Youth Violence

May 02, 2007 Brad M. Griffin

I’ll never forget the day after my honeymoon ended.

While my wife and I enjoyed a week away, Tom had been the point person for our large-group Wednesday night ministry.  At first things started out fine.  But then some of the kids from down the street showed up.  We had been attracting more of the “rough crowd” for a few months, and for the most part this had opened up some exciting new ministry opportunities for our team.  We had set up new volunteer responsibilities, like assigning someone to periodically check the alley across the street for kids who snuck over to smoke pot before youth group.  But we hadn’t really taken on the violence issue before—we were kind of holding our breath and hoping it wouldn’t surface.

Tom got to initiate our approach to violence that Wednesday when a couple of guys began fighting in the stairwell of our youth building.  Not only were they non-responsive to his interventions, but they heated up their fighting out in the front yard—right about the time the younger kids and parents started coming out of the adjacent church building.  The situation ended with the boys walking away screaming that they were going to find and kill Tom and his family.

The honeymoon was definitely over.

The next few weeks our ministry had to work through tough issues like when and how to involve the police, when to get a restraining order to keep kids away from church for a while, how to work with non-responsive parents of violent students, and how to re-create a safe environment for the youth and families in our ministry.  Not to mention creating a strategy for bringing some healing and reconciliation both for these guys and for Tom.

In Search of the Real Story about Youth Violence

Between our own encounters with violence and the reports we see in the media, many youth workers and parents wonder, has youth violence actually increased, or is that another inaccurate media portrayal?  What are the real issues surrounding youth violence in the U.S., and how can we respond?

To strengthen our research-based perspective on violence at the Fuller Youth Institute, we asked for help from Dr. Sofia Herrera, the Research Coordinator for the Fuller Youth Initiative for Positive Youth Development and Violence Prevention. 1 The Initiative was a federally-funded research program designed to increase understanding of individual community factors that promote well-being and prevent risk and violence among children and adolescents.  They’ve helped us put together the following responses to some key questions that suburban, urban, small-town and rural youth workers are asking about violence among kids.

Key Question 1:  Is there an upsurge in youth violence in the U.S., or does it just appear that way because of media attention?

Actually, both.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crimes on the whole (murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault) in the U.S. have declined since 1994. 2]] Likewise, the juvenile violent crime arrest rate has steadily declined and is now lower than it was before the 1980’s.

While overall this is a positive trend, the news for girls and for younger kids isn’t as positive.  The most recent information on youth violence indicates that today’s youth offenders include an increasing number of females and kids between 10 and 12 years of age who are arrested for violence and drug offenses. 3

This means that if the media and news reports have led us to believe that violence is getting worse, this perspective is distorted.  This does not mean, however, that the media is completely wrong.  Youth violence has become more localized to certain neighborhoods and sometimes areas within neighborhoods, particularly in urban settings.  So in 2005, urban residents experienced more violence than suburban residents, with rural residents having the lowest rates. 2]] The latest data indicates that gangs have decreased in the United States in suburban areas while they have not decreased in urban centers.

Unfortunately, the media also reports more on the bad news than the good news. While it’s important to know what is not going well with youth, particularly in neighborhoods where violence is prevalent, it’s also important to know what is going well and what helps them thrive. There are kids in urban settings who are committed to a life of non-violence and who contribute to their school, church, and community. Not only that, but there are adults who have suffered the consequences of violence personally and have decided as a result to turn their neighborhood around by advocating and creating safe places for kids.

Key Question 2: What factors tend to contribute to a teenager becoming violent?

There are a number of influences that could lead a kid down the path to violence.  These influences are often referred to in the research world as “risk factors”.  The presence of risk factors in someone’s life does not necessarily determine that they will become violent—these are counterbalanced by “protective factors”.  Risk factors include both biological and environmental issues.  An example of a biological risk factor is the presence of neuropsychological problems.  That might influence a teenager’s ability to problem-solve without violence, to control impulsive behaviors or to regulate their emotions.

Environmental issues might include rocky parenting (poor parent-child relationships, lack of appropriate supervision, lack of parent involvement), family conflict, and poverty. 5 Kids might be influenced by aggressive siblings and friends, living in a violent neighborhood or being a part of an ethnic group that feels oppressed.  Biological and social factors interact with each other; they often occur at the same time and intensify each other.

Protective factors, on the other hand, can buffer the negative effects of risk factors.  These include external resources that provide opportunities for the student to interact with their community in positive ways (like learning how to constructively use time), and encouraging youth towards developing positive internal resources (like a commitment to learning or the ability to practice restraint). In addition to guiding kids away from risk factors, building these protective factors in kids’ lives will steer them toward a positive path. 6

Key Question 3: Many parents suspect that exposure to violent video games, movies, TV shows, and music lyrics contribute to kids becoming more violent. Does research support this or not?

Most of the research about the influence of media violence on adolescents tends to focus on visual forms of media, such as video games and television/film. So far, the results of these studies suggest that media violence exposure does increase the likelihood that kids will have aggressive thoughts, actions, and feelings in the short-term.

In addition, long-term studies suggest that media violence tends to desensitize kids to violence altogether, decreasing their normal negative response to violence (anger, fear, empathy, or increased physical arousal).  This may lead kids who are already prone to violence to become violent, and even those who are not prone to violence can begin to interpret the world through a lens that suggests “violence is normal.” 7

Key Question 4: For kids already involved in a violent lifestyle, what are some factors or intervention strategies that can help them leave that lifestyle?

Although there are a number of interventions that target youth who are involved in violence and gangs, the kid has to want to leave the gang and the violent lifestyle before any progress can be made. Research has found that youth involved in gangs are “not fundamentally different” than youth who do not belong to a gang. However, the impact of the gang lifestyle on a young person’s life over time is significant. Involvement in gangs leads many to drop out of school and face consequences like involvement with the law and unplanned pregnancies. 8]]

Safety is a huge concern when kids express a desire to leave a gang. Kids who want to leave should refrain from making public announcements or notifying other gang members of this plan; youth workers need to be sensitive to this in order to prevent retaliation. Retaliation may be a real threat in situations when long time members leave hard-core gangs. In this case, relocation (living area, school, etc), if possible, may be the best option.

In addition, the consistent presence of at least one adult who cares about that kid is clearly an asset in their life. However, youth workers need to be aware that those who have been involved in gangs often bring with them multiple factors that put them at risk for developing a violent lifestyle.  Often, they have conflicted relationships with parents and family, they may be using drugs, they may be in trouble with the law, they’ve had difficulties in connecting at their school, and they deal with negative peer influence. Kids who want to leave the gang lifestyle need a number of interventions implemented simultaneously.  Ideally, they should participate in programs that promote healthy family participation (to the extent that this is possible), community reintegration, educational skills, healthy peer networks, healthy lifestyle choices, and pro-social values development. 9

It’s also important to note that programs such as boot camps or residential facilities have not been found to be effective in deterring young people from relapsing into the same behavior later. 10]]

Key Question 5: How can we as youth workers respond when we’re concerned that one of our kids is becoming too violent?

First, youth workers should consider whether or not a student has had a history of involvement in high-risk behavior and violence before now. For those who have had a trajectory of violence, we have to set clear behavioral expectations and consequences for how they participate in the group.  Without alienating them from community, these kids require very close supervision and in many cases referral to other relevant community youth violence prevention programs that offer comprehensive approaches and access to other services.  Finding out what resources are available in the community is an important step for youth pastors to make before they have a student with a violence problem.

Sudden changes of behavior among youth who have not had a history of violence usually suggest that something has also changed in their life recently. It might mean they’ve started using substances, they’re having family conflict or family change of some sort, and they might be under pressure to join a gang or get involved in risky behavior. Youth workers should try to find out what’s occurred within the last six months in order to determine the best course of action in ministering to that student.

At the same time, youth workers have to keep careful boundaries.  If the group’s physical integrity is threatened, or the student starts to carry weapons with them, it’s never appropriate to risk the safety of the entire group for the sake of being welcoming for that student. 11

From the perspective of positive youth development (the view that all kids have resources that can be developed to help them thrive) 12 , youth workers can also help identify strengths in students and should encourage their participation in activities that contribute to the community and provide meaning and purpose.

Key Question 6: What are some tips for youth workers who minister to kids or parents who are fearful of violence, especially violence on school campuses?

The first thing that parents and youth need to know is that events such as the shooting at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech are infrequent occurrences. Perhaps the most important thing for parents to do is to keep communication open with their kids so that they have opportunities to express their feelings and their fears. Parents can also become more involved in school to find out about school practices and the rules they have in place in order to prevent violence. 13]]

In order to better understand how to recognize and prevent school violence, the U.S. Department of Education and Secret Service teamed up to study incidents of school violence over the past 25 years.  Their Safe School Initiative study yielded some key findings: 14

  • Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.  Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.  Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.  However, most attackers did engage in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Overall, the research indicates that there is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.  Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.  Further, most had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
  • Almost all of these incidents (only 37 total) were committed by current students, and all of the attackers were male.

Key Question 7: What can youth pastors do to develop an approach to youth violence—not just for their youth ministries, but for their whole communities?

If you ask youth worker Mary Glenn this question, her response is quick and easy: become a law enforcement chaplain.  Mary has been a youth pastor and is now a city development worker in Alhambra, a community in Northeast Los Angeles.  I recently talked with Mary and asked her to share some of her thoughts about why chaplaincy can be a surprisingly important role for youth workers to fill.

“Law enforcement chaplaincy is simply a way to be a partner for law enforcement officers,” Mary says.  When Mary began looking into the police chaplain realm here in Los Angeles, she started to think, “What would it look like if we started to encourage and recruit youth pastors to become law enforcement chaplains, opening a new window of influence in the community?”  Like many communities, the one in which Mary serves has 20,000 students in schools and only two school resource officers.  Being a chaplain can mean helping those resource officers reach students.

There are different levels of chaplaincy—volunteer, part-time, and full-time chaplain roles are all possible, depending on the size of the law enforcement agency you’re working with.  Mary was a youth pastor who asked her church if she could dedicate part of her time to chaplaincy.  “It’s a ministry of presence.  It’s bringing the presence and peace of God wherever you are.  Sometimes it’s sitting in silence with officers, sometimes arranging funerals, or working with runaways.”  Mary began by meeting with the chief of police regularly as a youth pastor and asking him how she could pray for him.  While this was a bit disarming, it turned out to be a great way to build a relationship with the department.  When the next chief came in, she was able to be one of the first to welcome him, and he eventually asked if she could help start a chaplain program in their community.

In terms of building relationships with local schools, Mary has discovered that chaplaincy has opened new doors.  “Now when I want to go on a school campus, I’m not a threat—I’m welcomed by the resource officer and often asked to come along.  I hope we can get youth pastors to see that when God has called us to a city, part of that is being called to all the kids in a school district and a community—perhaps especially those who get involved with criminal activity.”

Case Study: Reversing Violence through an Innovative Youth Ministry

William Portillo knows a lot about youth violence—sixteen years ago he was a gang member sentenced to prison.  After experiencing Christ while in solitary confinement, William felt called to begin a ministry that is now known as Prevencion y Rescate (Prevention and Rescue) in Los Angeles, working with families on both sides of the snares of drugs, violence, and gangs. Through one-on-one counseling with certified drug and alcohol counselors, group therapy, communication skills courses, and training in time and anger management and self-esteem building, Prevencion y Rescate is making an impact in several neighborhoods across L.A.

Working mostly with Spanish-speaking immigrants who have experienced family separation and multiple hardships, the ministry targets kids through street outreach and juvenile hall visits.  Their work is holistic, touching physical, emotional, and spiritual needs for kids and their families.  “What we do to specifically address violence in the lives of kids is first to be the example ourselves.  Most of us were former gang members and drug addicts and we have changed our lives, redirecting them towards God. We also focus on education and on spiritual retreats,” William noted.  Taking kids out of the city and into the mountains for four-day retreats can be disorienting, but can also allow enough space from the issues of home for real breakthroughs to take place.

A big proponent of education, William encourages youth workers to act towards preventing or reducing violence in their communities by educating people on anger management and communication skills.  “Youth and parents both have a lot of incorrect myths about anger and feelings, and most need to learn how to communicate them properly.”

We all wonder about the right way to handle “fights in the youth room.”  These happen sometimes in the ministry programs of Prevencion y Rescate, and William’s team always confronts violence head-on.  “We automatically remind the youth involved that the outside gang mentality is not accepted here at church.  We say, ‘Leave the barrio outside, because this barrio (the church) belongs to Christ.  If you take it further you are disrespecting the Homeboy’ (as we like to call Christ).”

They also emphasize that kids need adults who can be willing to withhold judgment of those involved in gangs and drugs for the ways the media, police and movies tend to portray them.  Instead, they urge youth workers to “get close to them as a homie, talk to them, listen to them in a non-judgmental way, and you will find Christ in them—a Christ who has suffered and has been abandoned and abused in every way you can imagine.”  Seeing beyond the stereotypes in this way, Prevencion y Rescate is also seeing a reversal in the prevalence of violence among the kids they serve.

Marcos is a living testimony of change through William’s ministry.  A former gang member, tagger, and drug user, their team visited his house after his mother asked them to try to reach him.  They shared Christ with Marcos that day, and eventually he attended their Encounter weekend retreat and got involved in their counseling and education classes.  Now off the streets, married, and a father, Marcos has also received a full grant to finish college and is a 4.0 student.  Still following Christ and serving in ministry, Marcos now works with the new English arm of Prevention and Rescue.

Starts and Stops

Most of us know that it’s harder to stop something than it is to get something started.  Whether a ball rolling downhill or a habit that morphs into a lifestyle, we’ve experienced the surprising ways momentum can develop.  When it comes to violence prevention, we must help kids find ways to get started towards positive futures, increasing their chances of avoiding violence and other risky pathways.  In fact, the investments our ministries make by pouring resources into kids might just pay off for everyone in the long run, because we helped them START non-violent lifestyles before anyone had to try to STOP them from making violent choices.

Action Points

  • How do you assess the level of violence in your community?  By what the schools report?  By what the media reports?  By the concerns of kids or parents?  Who in your community (perhaps the police chief or a school administrator) could you talk with about the level of youth violence and the needs of violent youth?
  • Gather a group of kids together to talk about how they experience violence in their schools and neighborhoods.  Is the fear of violence real for them?  How much of the time are they afraid?  What do they do or where do they go to feel safe?  Do they perceive violence as increasing or decreasing, and how do their perceptions impact their own fears and actions?  How and when do they get involved in violence?  What can your ministry do to help kids find other alternatives to violence?
  • Gather a group of parents and other adults in your church to discuss some of the same issues—perhaps email them this article first.  Brainstorm together ways your ministry might become a safe haven for kids and families impacted by violence.  Make a list of other ministries and community groups you could partner with to make a unified impact on preventing and reducing youth violence.  Maybe even become advocates: Go together to a school board or city council meeting and gather support for new initiatives towards positive youth development in the community.
  • Educate and train your ministry volunteers to respond to violence in your ministry.  What is your plan for handling fights that take place on or near church property?  What steps are in place for addressing and diffusing violence?  When do you get the police involved?  How do you communicate to parents after an incident of violence within the group?  How do you strategically create a safe community for ALL students who are part of your ministry, even when there are kids with violent histories among them?

  1. Doctoral fellows assisting in this research: Hana Carmona, Kevin Newgren, & Lara Sando. The Initiative grant was funded by award #2002-JN-FX-K2002 from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
  3. Snyder, H.N., & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 national report (NCJ 212906). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  4. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
  5. Pettit, G. (2004). Violent children in developmental perspective: Risk and protective factors and the mechanisms through which they (may) operate. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, (5).
  6. For more information about different resources that can be strengthened in a child’s life and that provide a positive impact, see the Search Institute website’s 40 Developmental Assets at (For .more resources from FYI on asset-based ministry and research, type “assets-based ministry” into the search feature on our web site).
  7. For more information, see: Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Rowell Huesmann, L., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N. M., & Wartella, E. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(3), pp. 81-110. Browne, K. D., & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005). The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: A public health approach. Lancet, 365, pp. 702-710.
  8. Thornberry, T., Huzinga, D., & Loeber, R. (2004). The causes and correlates studies: Findings and policy implications. Juvenile Justice, Journal of the Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention, Volume IX. Number 1, pp. 3-19.
  9. Coolbaugh, K. and Hansel, C. (2000). The comprehensive strategy: Lessons learned from the pilot sites. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, pp.1-11.
  10. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2001). Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, M.D. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national Center for Injury Prevention and Control; substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services; and Nation Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Mental Health.
  11. Note—if you have concerns about a students’ behavior, you can call hotlines such as 1-888-suicide. This is a number for all serious concerns (beyond just suicide) and, in many states, will connect you to a local help-line when possible.
  12. For more on Positive Youth Development, see the article entitled “A New Perspective on At-Risk Youth” on our web site at
  13. For more information and tips about this topic parents can go to:

Bring ‘em Out

Evangelizing and Pastoring the Hip Hop Generation

May 01, 2007 Ralph Watkins

Bring ‘Em Out: Evangelizing and Pastoring the Hip Hop Generation

The church is called to evangelize the hip hop generation, but the call doesn’t stop there. The church is also called to disciple and pastor the hip hop generation. They are our children, and we can’t detail this work to the children. Hip hop churches that are made up of all young people aren’t healthy families, because healthy families need inter- and cross-generational relationships. The family of God that isn’t diverse in age, class, and gender is an unhealthy family. Some suggest that churches who don’t feel called to minister to the hip hop generation should partner with other churches that do.  But such a partnership abdicates their responsibility to the hip hop generation; African American congregations are called by God to take care of their young. The hip hop generation is waiting on the church to extend the olive branch and invite them back to the church. Here is your chance to improve on what you are doing or to begin your outreach to a generation that is waiting on us.

When it comes to evangelizing the hip hop generation, we know that they are anti-institutions and opposed to institutionalized religion. They see themselves as spiritual but not religious. This is an interesting dIrene Chotomy,  but George Barna and Robin Sylvan are among those who have been in touch with this population and who have all consistently found this spiritual identity of opposition-to-being-religious. 1 This means that the hip hop generation is looking for spiritual encounters that get them in touch with their feelings, encounters with the holy that are relevant, encounters that are applicable to their circumstances and aren’t shrouded in religious language. Much of the language the church uses is a jargon deeply rooted in church culture. Hip hop wants “plain speak” that is direct, honest,  and understandable.

Preaching to Save Hip Hop

As preachers and teachers seek to be more relevant and be heard by hip hop, a few hints can inform this shift in sermon preparation. According to Kool Mo Dee in There’s a God on the Mic:  The True 50 Greatest MCs, there are some essential components shared by the great emcees or rappers. 2 Ten of the key areas Kool Mo Dee has identified are relevant for preaching to the ears of hip hoppers.

  1. Originality: Preachers must bring a fresh and creative slant on the text. Hip hop wants to say, “I never thought about it that way before. I heard this preached before but not put like that.” For preachers to achieve this goal, they will have to take exegesis of the text very seriously.
  2. Concepts: Preachers must be     able to paint pictures that are multidimensional and present coherent     sermons and teaching series that develop an idea from start to finish.    Sermon series need to be seen like a compact disc in development and     style, one CD consisting of tracks that connect and compliment each other.
  3. Versatility: Preachers need to     be free to experiment with new ways to present the Word, to vary the style     and approach they use. This pushes preachers to consider changing or     updating their style instead of developing and resting their careers on     one style. Hip hop embraces change.
  4. Substance: One’s preaching must     have social relevance. Hip hop wants preachers to answer the “so     what?” question. Hip hop wants to see connections as the preacher     samples and remixes Scripture with social commentary.
  5. Flow: Flow is about syncopation     and cadence. Preachers with a versatile flow based on the sermon will be     heard easier by hip hop. Preachers need to feel free to teach, preach, and     teach/preach. Hip hop wants the preacher to “bring it,” as the     old skool would say.
  6. Flavor: Flavor refers to the     preacher’s uniqueness in contrast to other preachers. Preachers must bring     energy and some sense of fun to their preaching. Hip hop is looking for     preachers who have a signature style that engages them, holds them, and     brings them close to the preacher and the Word by the power of the     preacher’s flavor. Remember that hip hoppers like high energy.
  7. Vocal presence: The voice of     the preacher is something else hip hop wants. The preacher should embrace     his or her unique vocal qualities. The vocal qualities need to be     developed and recognizable. The best of emcees are so recognizable that by     the time they finish a sentence or a bar on a track the audience knows     just who it is.
  8. Live performance: Hip hop is     looking for a performance. The church may find this suspect, but the best     of African American preaching has always been performance. In an     entertainment culture, preachers who want to reach hip hop must confront     the reality that they are looking for and expecting a great live performance.
  9. Poetic value: The use of story,    metaphor, and simile is also important for hip hop. Preachers who use     stories in their preaching to amplify the stories in the Bible and their     relevance/application for today’s life will resonate with the hip hop ear.    They are looking for the tricks and power of the metaphor or the story     within the story as a hook to keep them in tune and in touch with the     preached and lived word.
  10. Lyrics: Whether you are a manuscript     preacher, no-notes preacher, or freestyle preacher, the hip hop generation     is looking for well-developed, well-crafted sermons that flow like lyrics.    The preacher who wants to know more about the structure of lyrics should     study song structure or the structure of rap lyrics. The power of the     lyrics or structure of the sermon is key to hip     hoppers; it is how their ears have been trained to hear.

The preacher who wants to reach the hip hop generation and hold them will need to at least consider those ten ideas in sermon preparation and Bible study teaching.

Radical, Relevant, and Reflective of Church:

The Church Hip Hop Is Looking For
Churches that will be effective in evangelizing the hip hop generation will be churches that are somewhat radical while at the same time not being too radical. This means that the church’s being radical and relevant must be held in tension with the church’s bearing some resemblance to the old church. Hip hoppers want their cake, and they believe they can eat it too. They want the ministry to be cutting-edge by trying new and relevant things that look nonreligious but have a spiritual appeal. These events can be concerts, coffee hours, luncheons, parties, or practical seminars that are life affirming (not revivals or with God big in the headline); the events have to be designed in a clever way that appeals but doesn’t offend. By “clever” we are not implying sneaky or deceptive; we are suggesting that much thought needs to go into planning the event to look like and be something that will touch hip hoppers where they live. They don’t want another religious service. They have said no to organized church and yes to events that are more spiritual where they can connect in community.

While the church is doing all of this, we also have to remember that hip hop is not asking the church to be the club. They still want some of those things that resemble the old church. Each church has to walk this fine line of being cutting-edge while being old school. This is a tough walk, but each church must be led by God and its pastor as to how God is calling it to negotiate this balance.

Whatever event a church puts on with and for hip hop must be done with excellence and with hip hop intimately involved in the planning and implementation. Hip hoppers demand high quality ministry that is built with them, not for them. This in part explains why they are attracted to mega-ministries with professional staff. They want the best while also searching for small, intimate communities.  This means that smaller churches can also meet them where they need to be met.  Churches who want to reach hip hop have to be as professional as they can-we are talking about polished ministry. It is better for a church to do one thing well that reaches hip hop than ten things poorly.

The quality of the initial experience hip hoppers have with your church will have a lasting impact. Churches shouldn’t rush to meet and greet hip hop. Churches need to be prayerful and intentional. Start with what you have. Invite hip hop to the planning table and empower them to build with your church leaders. When we started the Young Adult Ministry at First African Methodist Church in   Los Angeles, where I serve on staff, the first thing we did was ask the young adults to sit down with us to plan the ministry with us. This didn’t mean that we abdicated our role as leaders, but we engaged in a ministry of mutual submission. As much as I think I know about hip hop, I can always learn. After all, I am a member of the bridge generation;  I am not a member of the hip hop generation. I am not going to try and think for them, but I will think with them. Even as you read this book, remember I am sharing what I have learned, but this isn’t the end of the story. It is important for each church to get the rest of the story from the hip hoppers in and around the community.

Rough But Caring: Raw,  Real, and Relational
Hip hop is raw, real, and edgy, but its adherents are looking for love.  Congregations that aren’t loving will not do well with hip hoppers. They have to feel that the congregation-not just the pastor-wants them there and that the congregation is willing to integrate, appropriately,  parts of hip hop culture into the life of the church. A soft heart is what they are looking for, but they are not afraid of being confronted with the truth in a real and raw fashion. They want it straight-no chasers-but this must be done in love, not in a way that is demeaning, dogmatic, and “superior.”  This calls for a delicate balance, but it is one the church must strive to achieve. This means that the church must rethink not so much what it says but how it says what it says. An honest approach, based on love and sensitivity to the audience, using the language they use, and realizing that hip hop is on a spiritual journey, will go a long way toward reaching the hip hop generation.

The key to the communication with hip hop is honesty and transparency. Hip hop will not tolerate folk who aren’t “real.” By this I mean they embrace struggle, paradox, and tension. Church has a tendency to present things simply or simplistically in dualities of right and wrong. The church has a hard time walking in or dealing with the gray areas. Church culture has a tendency to pretend that those in the church have it all together, especially in our middle-class and upper-class churches. In reality, all in the church are not free from sin, but there is this great Sunday-morning cover up. When churches do talk about sin, it is often limited to sex, smoking, chewing, or drinking-with media culture appearing as the enemy of the church. Sin, the temptation to sin, and falling into sin is a complex topic; it is deeper than many churches are willing to go. Hip hop wants the church to deal honestly with the complexities of sin and the times we all fall into sin. Hip hop does not want the church to sweep all the dirt under the rug. Pull the rug up, uncover the dirt, and help them deal with the complexities and paradoxes that hip hoppers face each and every day. Hip hop isn’t afraid to deal with the messiness of trying to live right. This generation understands that many times this reveals an appearance of contradiction, but they are willing to work through this. Their music embraces the appearance of the contradictions, and the church can learn a lot from hip hop in this regard.

Keeping the World Out or Letting It In:

Teaching through the Culture
The complexities that hip hop embraces as it relates to sin, holiness, and right living are found in the culture. The greatest teaching about the way hip hop handles these complexities can be found by listening to the average compact disc if you follow it from the first track to the last. There is a flow in the construction of most CDs that can guide the church in both hearing and talking back to hip hop. I’ve learned to deal with the complexities of hip hop culture by listening, to have success with young adults not by condemning their culture but by embracing their culture. I have found that teaching through the culture gets me where I need to be as it relates to rough, honest caring and growing in my ability to understand their complex minds. The culture educates me and informs me as to what is on their minds. Hip hop culture also lets me know what is at the root of their spiritual quest and what things they want me to walk through as we search together for answers. To get to the point I am describing calls us in the church to respect hip hop culture and realize that the culture has something to teach the church.

Teaching through the culture means using the culture as the church’s friend rather than the enemy. The church has to remember that this generation defines itself by a culture it has embraced: hip hop. While parts of hip hop culture are unhealthy,  other parts of the culture are affirming and life-sustaining. The church can use the culture as a window for dialogue and relationship building while learning from the culture. I am in no way putting the church above hip hop. I am not trying to argue for a hierarchy as much as I am trying to suggest a point of mutual respect and engagement that can inform the church’s evangelistic appeal to hip hop. I am not saying that the church should manipulate the culture to trick people into making faith commitments. I firmly believe that hip hop culture has something to offer the church: The church can learn a lot about honesty, truthfulness, and being real from hip hop. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. What I am saying is that as the church listens and learns from the culture, these learning and listening moments can be transformed into teaching moments.

Let me offer an example of how I teach through hip hop culture as I understand how hip hop culture sees the church, using my encounter with the recent release from Ice Cube. Ice Cube’s latest compact disc, Laugh Now, Cry Later, has a cut titled “Go to Church.” The chorus of the song has the line, “If you a scared mother—-, go to church.” 3 The implication is that only weak or scared brothers go to church. The song raises the issue of what a man is or what it means to be tough and street. If one is street or tough, one doesn’t go to church; people handle their business; they do whatever needs to be done to squash battles or beefs with another brother. What I do in my teaching is deal faithfully with this construct of how to resolve disagreements that exist in the inner city. I don’t condemn the way to deal with disagreements that Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg present, but I engage it.

What I have done as a DJ and Bible study teacher is to use the radio play list as my teaching and learning tool. I consciously listen to what the radio is playing,  and I look for themes in the top five songs. I then go to iTunes or some other source like Wal-Mart or a record store and buy the music. To break down the lyrics, I go to and print the lyrics. I study the song for understanding, not in order to critique. After understanding the song and giving the artist and the art the benefit of the doubt, I allow my teaching to faithfully engage the art, the artist, and his or her work as I put them in dialogue with the Bible. In no way do I belittle or unfairly judge the artist,  but I treat them, their work, and their position with the utmost respect. In many instances I don’t just deal with the radio song, but I deal with the breadth and scope of the artist’s work and his or her own biography. I like to come to the table at study knowing a great deal about the artist and his or her life and work. I may engage the entire album the artist has just released and let it enter into dialogue with the Bible.

The beauty of this approach is that it brings instant relevance and engagement. But more importantly, we are teaching our people how to make their faith inform and engage their daily lives. The principles of fairness are so important when doing this. Bible teachers must take an even-handed approach in teaching through the culture by realizing that many of those who are sitting under your tutelage listen to the culture for direction, affirmation, and religious instruction. To blast the work and put it down does us and them no good. To faithfully engage the work and respect it and find some good or redeeming qualities in it is what will advance your work with the hip hop generation.

Reaching Them Where They Are:

Being in Tune and on the Internet
The culture tells us where the hip hop generation is. As you listen to the music,  read Vibe magazine, The Source magazine, XXL magazine, and tune in to the culture, this will give the church a sociogenerational tracking system to tell you exactly where they are, what they are dealing with,  and how to speak to them. The themes are repetitive; the cycle of life that young people are experiencing is in itself predictable. Yet to understand hip hop you can’t stop at printed material; you must go to the virtual world of the Internet in which they live.

Hip hop uses the Internet and the virtual world in a complex way to develop community. The construction of their community is linked to the way they share information about each other and the worlds they live in. The explosion of Facebook and MySpace are just two examples. Churches that hope to effectively evangelize the hip hop generation must think about how to strategically use the Internet-that is, to use the Internet the way the hip hop generation uses it. For hip hop, the Internet is not just about e-mail and visiting web pages; the Internet is about community.  It is about being in a space and developing space for communication,  relationship building, identity development, values clarification, and a host of other functions. Churches have to catch up with the way hip hop is using the Internet, because this will inform churches on how they can effectively use technology to reach out and touch hip hop. While churches are knocking on doors and street witnessing they could be blogging or podcasting.

The church can learn a lot from the club flyer culture that is hip hop. If you go to any local college campus, club event, or concert, you will get bombarded with club flyers. Club flyers are bold 4 x 6-inch cards printed on glossy cardstock and handed out by people who are unashamedly promoting their events.  When you stand in line to go into an event or you’re leaving an event, people promoting similar events are handing out flyers. When I have been at these events, concerts, college campuses, or club events, I haven’t seen churches promoting their events.

At First African Methodist Episcopal Church in   Los Angeles, a major project of our Young Adult Ministry has been to work with a firm to design our website and ministry flyer to look just like a club flyer. We then go to concerts, clubs, and college campuses and hand out our flyers. The response we get is interesting, because the flyer is so well done that the first thing the recipient does is admire the flyer. Thinking that it is a club flyer, a person takes it, and then with surprise says, “Oh, this is a church.” The look of amazement is worth all we spent in making the flyer.  Normally one of two things happen next: people say thank you or ask questions about what we are doing. They are excited that we are there, not confronting them or street witnessing but only handing out flyers like everyone else in the crowd. We also give away CDs and DVDs of our ministry so they can see and hear what we are teaching and what we are doing.

When we go into the streets to hand out our club flyers, we fit in. We dress hip hop, we talk hip hop, we walk hip hop, and we have all the paraphernalia in terms of flyers and CDs that accompany such an event. People are surprised to see us there when they realize we are from a church. The response is overwhelmingly positive, because where many of the hip hop feel like the church has dissed them, we are reaching out to them. They want the church to reach out to them, welcome them, and show them how the church is integrating hip hop culture into the church. That is why our dress, walk,  and talk is so important. We are showing them how First AME Church is becoming hip hop and demonstrating that you can be hip hop and holy. When they see how this is being done, they feel affirmed and are much more likely to visit our website, subscribe to our podcast or videocast, or come to one of our bridge events.

While doing street ministry, if a person pursues conversation with us, we don’t invite him or her to worship first. They know church goes on Sunday morning; we aren’t doing anything revolutionary by pointing them to Sunday morning. As a matter of fact, we don’t invite them to anything that is happening on Sunday morning. The event we want to invite them to may or may not be overtly religious, but it will be something happening relatively soon. We want to give ways to respond to our connection that doesn’t lock them in to Sunday. We are trying to get them to give   First AME Church and God a second look in the context of Christianity. We may invite them to our Tuesday night Journey Experience, which is a type of Bible study that includes performance, spoken word, and rap. We may invite them to our First AME Church FAME and Faith lecture series, our young adult party nights, a dinner, or other event we have planned with hip hop for hip hop. The key here is making the invitation in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. We leave it open.  There is no pressure. If we apply any pressure, it is for them to visit the website.  What we have found is that people respond. Once some momentum begins to build around your events and hip hop embraces them, they will spread the word.


  • Ralph states at the beginning     of this article, “Hip hop churches that are made up of all young     people aren’t healthy families, because healthy families need inter- and     cross-generational relationships. The family of God that isn’t diverse in     age, class, and gender is an unhealthy family.”  How do you respond to this?  How would you analyze your own church’s     response and reach across generations, and who do you need to engage in     conversation about that?
  • One of the key suggestions     Ralph makes is to become a learner of culture, recognizing that you are     coming from a different cultural perspective when you speak across     generations, whether the audience is hip hop or not.  To what extent do you see your ministry     as a cross-cultural learning experience?     What about the other volunteers or staff, or your church’s other     pastoral staff and lay leaders?     Begin to map out a strategy for communicating this shift in     thinking to other ministry leaders, and perhaps forward this article to them     to start the conversation.

Dr. Ralph Watkins, who leads Fuller’s African American Church Studies Program as Assistant Dean of the School of Theology, is committed to helping churches and leaders prayerfully respond to the hip hop culture that permeates much of America today.   What follows is an excerpt from Ralph’s recent book, The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation.  As we’re hearing at CYFM, more and more youth workers in American suburbs and small towns are realizing that hip hop culture isn’t contained to urban cities anymore.  Wherever you serve kids, we hope that this portion of The Gospel Remix helps you respond to hip hop as well as other cultural threads that weave their way through your kids’ lives.

The following material is reprinted by permission of Judson Press, excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation by Ralph C.  Watkins (Valley Forge,  PA: Judson Press, [2007]), [pages 61-78].  1-800-4-JUDSON.

  1. George Barna, Evangelism That Works: How to Reach Changing Generations with the Unchanging Gospel (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1995); Robin Sylvan,  Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music (New York:  New   York University Press, 2002).
  2. Kool Mo Dee, There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003), i.
  3. Ice Cube, “Go to Church,” Laugh Now, Cry Later, CD (Lynch Mob Records, 2006).

FAQs and The Low Down Dirty on Hip Hop Culture Fo Yo Ministry! Part II

Oct 09, 2006 Dan Hodge

As stated in [intlink id=“162” type=“post”  target=“_blank”]Part I[/intlink] of this series, we have put together a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that come up regularly in discussions about Hip Hop and youth ministry. While this is not an exhaustive list of questions, our intention is to introduce you to the culture of Hip Hop and help you know how it relates to your ministry. Whether you are out in the “cutz” doing rural ministry or in the heart of the Bronx, sooner or later (probably sooner), Hip Hop will be at your front door.  Our goal is to aid you in your ministry to young people involved and engaged with Hip Hop, and to dispel some of the misunderstandings about Hip Hop culture.

Question # 1:  Evangelist Craig G. Lewis says that all Hip Hop culture is evil.  Is he right, and if he is, should we destroy all of our rap CDs?

This is a question that I get every time I speak on Hip Hop. If you have not heard of Lewis, you might want to check out  Lewis argues that none of Hip Hop culture is redeemable and all of it is of the devil. I disagree. As I stated in the first article, I believe that no culture is either totally evil or totally holy.

I’d like to respond to a few of Lewis’ claims individually.  First, on the Bone Thugs album, Lewis argues that there is a “curse” on the back of the album derived from black magic and sorcery. 1 The curse would be activated when the words were read; typically, the words would be backwards and would have to be read in a mirror for the curse to be implemented. 2 However, the group Bone Thugs wanted to have original cover art on their album that represented life and death. The entire “E 1999 Eternal” album was about life after death and how God could love and save a thug or street hustler. The “curse” on the back of the album that Lewis vehemently claims is a “curse” is actually a blessing for those who read it. It was meant to encourage and help the young person living a life on the streets and to present a message of hope where there is little. Lewis misinterpreted it to mean that the “devil” was cursing young people.

Second, Lewis claims that all of Hip Hop culture is derived from satanic worship and musical trances that originated with the founding fathers of Hip Hop. Yet if we are to agree with this argument, then we must apply Lewis’ reasoning to every aspect of culture.  If we do that, then we must dismiss many of the current songs what we hold as classic “Gospel Spirituals” because they were derived from bar room songs. 3

I wish Lewis would more clearly reveal his sources and methods of evaluation. While I agree with Lewis that we must protect our minds and think on those things that are of God, I would also add that this is subjective. What I consider “godly” is often different than what my neighbor considers to be “godly.”

Question # 2: What is the future ministry of the church as the Hip Hop generation replaces the church’s current leaders from the baby-boom generation?

This is a deep question. I remember a scene from the classic 1985 film The Breakfast Club in which Paul Gleason (Principal Richard Vernon) and John Kapelos (Carl the Janitor) were having a conversation about the current generation. Gleason stated that this generation had turned on him and had rejected him.  Kapelos corrected him and said that kids were basically the same; it was the principal who had actually changed.  Gleason disagreed and argued that the kids were just “bad” today. But then he said something that resonates with many “older” folk today, “You know what I’m really afraid of? You know what really keeps me up at night?  It’s the fact that when I’m old, these kids will be taking care of me! That scares me!”

Twenty years later, many view future leaders, especially those influenced by Hip Hop culture, in the same way.  The problem with those who fear the future is that they fail to understand contextualization and its role in translating culture, norms, values, and customs of the church and its leadership for each generation. Fuller Seminary faculty member Wilbert Shenk describes key features of contextualization:

Contextualization is a process whereby the gospel message encounters a particular culture, calling forth faith and leading to the formation of a faith community, which is culturally authentic and authentically Christian.

Control of the process resides within the context rather than with an external agent or agency.

Culture is understood to be a dynamic and evolving system of values, patterns, behavior, and a matrix shaping the life of the members of that society. 4

A contextual gospel message reflects the values and needs of the current culture. Therefore, if the Hip Hop church is going to keep developing, then it must look, feel, smell, taste, worship, love, and preach like Hip Hop. While God’s Word never changes, we do, and so does our culture.  When this occurs, Hip Hoppers are able to not only hear the Gospel, but to do something that is key to the culture, and that is feel the Gospel message.

In the midst of our efforts to contextualize, Shenk asserts that we should not water down the Gospel message in our efforts to finding the “right” technique or approach. 5 For example, we might have such a strong desire to reach a certain group of people that we back down on certain concrete doctrines — like salvation through Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity. In some cases, folks have even gone as far as allowing all types of “sin” in order to attract many.  While I can agree with being relevant and contextual, we must remain true to what God has called us to as laid out in the Bible.

Question # 3: What is the fascination with Tupac?

Tupac Shakur was a rap artist who was born in 1971 and died as a result of several gunshots in September 1996.  Tupac forever changed the landscape of the Hip Hop community. Tupac’s name is still stated with reverence and much respect and admiration in many Hip Hop circles, especially the East Coast and Dirty South (a Rap music genre that originates from some of the southern United States like Georgia, Alabama, and Texas). Tupac influenced Hip Hop culture in six significant ways:

  1. His authenticity: Tupac’s uncanny way of being real and transparent influenced many. To this day, many Hip Hop artists gage their authenticity in the Hip Hop community by the standards Tupac set. Tupac also was granted lifetime ghetto passes (passes that actually allow certain individuals into certain neighborhoods and grant them certain levels of access in that neighborhood) in all hoods—an unprecedented move for anyone.
  2. His work ethic: In the rap industry, Tupac modeled a strong work ethic. When he was working, he was working. He inspired many to get the job done, and when it was time to party, it was time to party. But Tupac never confused the two; he knew his mission and passed that along to many.
  3. Tupac’s missional mindset: Tupac had a calling to the inner city, especially to young Black males of the ghetto. Tupac spent countless hours doing work for them (raising money, visiting sick youth in the hospital, locating housing for many who needed homes, and sponsoring young people’s education). Hip Hop Culture now has a bigger concern for the ghetto because of Tupac’s efforts and vision.
  4. Tupac’s martyr image: No other Rap artist in Hip Hop has had the image of a martyr to the same degree as Tupac.  Tupac is, and continues to be, a ghetto prophet and saint because of his prophecies about Rap music, ghetto life styles, and his own death. Tupac predicted that Hip Hop Culture would change once he died—it would change to a more “party style.” This has been true for mainstream Rap music and Hip Hop culture.
  5. His lyrics: Tupac is considered to be one of the greatest rappers in Hip Hop. Not just because of his Rap flow or stylings, but because of the depth of his songs and music. Tupac often chose music to fit his lyrics, not the other way around as most Hip Hop artists do. Tupac told stories and fables about the ghetto life. He presented all points of view, not just one. His lyrics continue to make the charts, even today. Tupac recorded over three hundred songs in his career that never even made it to the radio. 6 There is still much more to come from Tupac, even almost ten years after his death.
  6. His theological message: Tupac was the irreverent natural theologian that gave voice to a community who was suffering. 7 In other words, Tupac had no formal training in theology, but connected deep theological matters — like the personhood of Christ — to everyday life within the hood.  Tupac’s lyrics were a messianic message of hope, vision, blessings, and care for the broken and brokenhearted dwelling in the inner cities of America. As James Cone argues, African Americans needed a “Black Jesus,” or a leader that blacks could relate to who was socially aware of their struggles, and would have compassion on them because of their hardships. 8 For many, Tupac became that person.

In the midst of Tupac’s influence in Hip Hop culture, I see many similarities between Tupac’s message and that of Christ.  Both preached love, tolerance, compassion, social justice, education, and loving your neighbor. Tupac had a “nitty-gritty” hermeneutic 9 that connected with others, which in turn made them feel connected to not only Tupac, but to God as well.

Question # 4: How can we have true dialogue with Hip Hop culture given its obvious sinful appearance (e.g., its pride & lack of respect)?

The key word in this question is dialogue. Without dialogue, we will make little progress in our ministry to those embedded in Hip Hop culture.  That means that first we need to listen so we understand the pain and experiences of Hip Hoppers.

If one of your students is listening to a particular artist that you don’t agree with, some good questions to ask are: “So what makes this artist good?” “What about the beats, what makes them good?” “What is your favorite song on the album, who produces it and are they a part of someone else’s clique?”  If students don’t seem to want to say much, try asking questions that can be answered by either “yes” or “no.”  As Fuller faculty member and renowned scholar, theologian, and church and culture specialist Eddie Gibbs teaches, we don’t have to “win” a person on the first conversation.  We can give the relationship some time.

Second, do your homework. Find out everything you can about that artist or artists. You can do that at Who was the producer?  Who was the executive producer?  What is their bio?  What other groups are they affiliated with?  Are they East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, or Midwest? What are their lyrics like? You can download and view the majority of rap artists’ lyrics at All of this can add more depth and substance to your conversations with kids.

When I was running a Young Life club a few years ago, one of the games I played during our announcements was “Hip Hop Trivia.” Kids loved it and looked forward to it every week. It even got to the point where we were actually giving out big prizes like camp scholarships if they could answer tough trivia. Some students came to our meetings just for that. Besides creating solidarity and community, it gave us as leaders great credibility and standing with kids. Moreover, when we were critical about certain rap artists, the kids knew that we really did understand and know what we were talking about, and not just condemning their music.

Third, help kids think critically about what they are hearing.   After you have listened and done your homework, you are now ready to help kids analyze Hip Hop for themselves.  For example, if students are listening to music that objectifies women, ask, “I noticed that this particular artist refers to women as ‘sluts’. What do you think about that?” “Do you feel that is a helpful way to refer to women?”

After you ask the question, you once again get to practice listening to their answers.  Some people (women included) will have no problem with an artist calling women “sluts.”  If that is the case, then an entirely different conversational door has opened up about their views on women. If the student is confused about the issue, now is an opportunity to begin to reason with them, and help them realize God’s perspective on women. Keep in mind that you should be helping them come to conclusions themselves instead of you telling them what the answers are. That may take some time. That’s good, it should!   After all, when we have conversations with Hip Hoppers, we want dialogues and not monologues.

Action Points:

  1. If you are new to the whole Hip Hop scene and want to listen to someone “easy” to get your feet wet, download a couple of artists and listen to them and then download their lyrics. Some “easy” artists might include Will Smith, Outkast, Bow Wow, and Kanye West’s first album “The College Dropout” (2004). What do you hear? What do you feel? How are the artists connecting with the people? What differences are there in the music and/or styles? Are there any theological connections? Why or why not?
  2. If you can, buy Craig Lewis’ 1st DVD, The Truth About Hip Hop, and watch the entire thing. What points does he make? How, if at all, does he connect to your particular context? Where is he right? Where is a little off? Might you show this to your youth group? Why or why not?
  3. Spend some time with a key student in your group with whom you have a close relationship. What artists are they listening to? Are the artists good or bad in your opinion? Once you answer that, now ask the student to describe why they listen to this artist. What about this particular artist makes them good? Where might you, the leader, bring in some salt and light into the message of the artist? What theological connections, if any, can you make with the artist’s message?
  4. Let’s go a little deeper into Hip Hop culture and rap music. Read KRS-1’s book Ruminations and pick apart his message. Download some of his lyrics (  Is Hip Hop larger than what’s on MTV, BET, and the radio? What about Tupac? Look at Tupac’s “Me Against The World” album ( What is his overall message? What are some themes that arise in his lyrics? Sometimes, seeing the lyrics without the music is far more powerful than hearing the entire song (plus you can actually understand what the artists are saying).
  5. With your entire leadership team, rent two DVDs: Rhyme & Reason (1997) and Letter to the President (2004). Both of these films are documentaries on Hip Hop culture. Rhyme and Reason is a more of a “101” on the culture, while Letter to the President deals more with socio-cultural issues within Hip Hop culture.  After watching them, debrief as a team:
  • What were your initial thoughts?
  • What are some of the main points made in Rhyme and Reason?
  • What are the fundamental foundations of Hip Hop culture?
  • Why do you think Hip Hop is attractive to so many people, adults included?
  • Why do you think it all started?
  • In the film Letter to the President, what are the main arguments?
  • How does that connect with the fundamental foundations of Hip Hop?
  • Where are some areas that you disagree with in Letter to the President?
  • What points were hard to hear, yet made sense?
  • Now, what is your missional response to Hip Hop? Where is Christ in all this?
  • How could you develop an intentional approach to reach Hip Hoppers to proclaim the word of God in that culture?

  1. See Craig Lewis’ DVD, The Truth About Hip Hop.
  2. See  Rodgers, Perry M. 1997. Aspects of Western Civilization: Problems & Sources in History. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., pp.281-371 (The Medieval World).
  3. See Burnim, Mellone V. 2006. “Religious Music.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by M. V. Burnim and P. K. Maultsby. New York, NY: Routledge;  Epstein, Dena J. 2006. “Secular Folk Music.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by M. V. Burnim and P. K. Maultsby. New York, NY: Routledge; and Merriam, Alan P. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Northwestern University Press.
  4. Shenk, Wilbert. 1999. Changing Frontiers of Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, p.56.
  5. Ibid. p.58.
  6. According to his mom, Afeni.
  7. Dyson, Michael Eric. 2001. Holler if you hear me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. New York: Basic Civitas Books, pp.201-229.
  8. Cone, James. 1989. Black Theology & Black Power. Markyknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 1997. God of The Oppressed. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  9. Anthony Pinn was the first to coin the theological term nitty-gritty hermeneutics (1995). In this, Pinn too uses hermeneutics as a model for understanding culture and theology. He states, “Hermeneutics denotes interpretation of the meaning submerged in events, texts, etc. That is, words and texts contain valuable information that must be recognized and processed within one’s system of values and concerns. Hermeneutics makes this possible” (1995:115). Here Pinn argues that there are greater issues at large at work in society, especially when it comes to Black culture and the issues that arise within that culture. Pinn states, “Only the broadened frame of reference implied by Bennett will allow for a full explanation of all vital materials relevant to the problem of evil” (1995:114). In other words, the nitty-gritty allows the person to state that there are forces larger than the simplistic answers given to us by many pastors that “God just allows evil and evil has to exist.” Tupac uses his own nitty-gritty interpretation from life that tells him that things in life are not that simple and easy to explain away.  For Tupac, the nitty-gritty helps explain the entire context behind each event and why Brenda had the baby, got the abortion, and was left out in the cold. See Pinn, Anthony B. 1995. Why Lord? Suffering & Evil in Black Theology. New York, NY: Continuum.

FAQs and The Low Down Dirty on Hip Hop Culture Fo Yo Ministry

Aug 14, 2006 Dan Hodge

Have you ever wondered what Hip Hop is exactly? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What is it with this music that has consumed many of our youth?” Is Hip Hop nothing more than glorified rap? Are there any redeeming qualities within Hip Hop that I, a minister of the Gospel, need to pay attention to?  These are just some of the questions that emerge whenever I speak to others about Hip Hop.

Our goal in this first of a two part series is to provide you with some basic answers to these frequently asked questions (FAQs).  By doing so, we hope to provide you with some deeper insight into Hip Hop’s culture, its music genre, its people, as well as its missiological and theological significance.

Question # 1: So what is Hip Hop culture, anyway?

Great first question! Like most current cultural phenomena, Hip Hop is hard to define precisely, but there are some important descriptors that help us understand its nature.

First, Hip Hop is a type of “culture”. By “culture”, we mean “a learned meaning system that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs, values, norms, meanings, and symbols that are passed on from one generation to the next and are shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community.” 1 According to Tricia Rose, Nelson George, Bakari Kitwana, 2 Michael Dyson, 3 Efrem Smith, Phil Jackson, and Jeff Chang, we are entering the third generation of Hip Hoppers.

Nelson George, author of “Hip Hop America,” argues that many Hip Hoppers are comprised of “post-soul” aesthetics. As children, they witnessed the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as fathers returned home from the war with severe post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Hip Hoppers’ mothers also had to face the fact that their husbands were not the same men as when they had left. 4 For George, Hip Hop is “the spawn of many things. But, most profoundly, it is a product of schizophrenic, post-civil rights movement America.” 5

While George takes a sociological approach to defining the culture, Dawn Norfleet states:

Hip-hop is a creative expression, sensibility, and aesthetic that first emerged in largely African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino communities of the Bronx and then spread to Harlem and other sections of New York City in the early 1970s. It encompasses a wide range of performance expressions: aerosol art (‘graffiti’); b-boying/girling (‘breakdancing’); DJing, or the art of using turntables, vinyl records, and mixing units as musical instruments; and MC-ing, (‘rapping’), the art of verbal musical expression. 6

Others, like Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson, also add street language, street entrepreneurship, beat boxing, street knowledge, street fashion, and Hip Hop spirituality. 7

As you can see from these divergent definitions, Hip Hop is vast and complex. Rap icon and Hip Hop pioneer Grand Master Flash states, “Hip Hop is the only genre of music that allows us to talk about almost anything. Musically it allows us to sample and play and create poetry to the beat of music. It’s highly controversial, but that’s the way the game is.” 8 Hip Hop is not a simple video or rap song that you hear on the radio. It encompasses a vast arena of voices, art, customs, and people.

In his book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of The Hip Hop Generation,” Jeff Chang describes Hip Hop as a voice for people. 9 It gives meaning to everyday life, just as most types of music have for people throughout the ages. 10 Tricia Rose states, “Hip hop culture emerged as a source for youth of alternative identity formation and social status in a community whose older local support institutions had been all but demolished.” 11

Question #2: So what is the difference between Rap & Hip Hop?

I get asked this a lot, and I have to admit that for a long time I did not know the difference myself. The table below spells out some of the differences.


  • Something Being DONE.
  • The music and genre of music that drives the culture.
  • Can be stale and McDonaldized.
  • The verbal part of the music, derived from the 1970’s slang term meaning “to talk to.”
  • Anyone can do it and still not be apart of Hip Hop Culture; for example, the differences between Vanilla Ice and Ice Cube.
  • Can be made into a fad.
  • At times can be extremely counterfeit and record industry-based.

Hip Hop:

  • Something being LIVED.
  • The beliefs, norms, values, and customs that comprise the culture of Hip Hop.
  • Can be creative and artistic.
  • The culture as a whole which, at times, reflects the music and musical genre.
  • A little harder to fake. It’s a lifestyle. The personalities, clothing, language, and ensuing attitude that derives itself out of the music while still recycling itself within the culture. In other words, the two are separate yet symbiotically connected.
  • Is usually a lifestyle and NOT a fad.
  • Authentic & real; no fakes or commercialization of the genre.

In other words, rap is simply the music that drives the overall culture of Hip Hop. One of the arguments currently is whether the rap music that is being played now is really part of Hip Hop culture or just a cheap commercialization of it. 12

Question #3: Isn’t Hip Hop a “Black” thing?

No, Hip Hop culture is not only for and about Black youth—although many times it is stereotyped that way. Hip Hop has reached into almost every facet of our society and the world. For example, about a year ago, I heard of an Iraqi rap artist named The Iron Sheik. His message was a politically-conscious one, but is gaining much momentum with young Iraqi youth. In Kenya, another rapper fashions himself off the rap artist Nelly and brings in great crowds at his concerts. And in Latin settings, Reggaeton (a hybrid of Banda, Salsa, and rap beats) is gaining much momentum. Further, Hip Hop has taken on a huge identity in the Korean culture. A good friend of mine who is a youth pastor in a Korean church reports that his younger kids are listening to Snoop and Tupac.  Elizabeth Blair adds:

Rap music, with its boastful rhymes and synthesizer-created claps and pops, has moved out of the inner cities and into the mainstream of popular culture. Mass media advertisers have recognized the value of using rap to sell their products, even though they do not always have a thorough understanding of the subculture from which it came. 13

As we see from the above examples, Hip Hop has reached into cultures – suburban, urban, and even rural – worldwide.  Hip Hop is a culture and music genre that can be translated across cultures. 14

Here in the United States, the history of Hip Hop in the Bronx includes Latinos; more specifically, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Many times the media portrays Hip Hop as a “Black Thing” in its early history, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Latinos were intimately involved in launching and developing Hip Hop and its culture. 15

Question #4: Is Hip Hop evil, and therefore should we avoid it?

I am of the opinion that there is no one evil culture that creates all sin and harm. Nor is there one single culture that is all good and perfect that emanates pure life and love. All cultures are mixtures of the good, the bad, and the ugly. 16

Therefore, I feel that Hip Hop culture is neither inherently evil nor totally pure.  As George Nelson would say, I have a “love-hate relationship” with Hip Hop. 17 On one hand, it can be a very liberating and uplifting culture, but on the other hand, it can be a very degrading, vulgar, and male dominated culture.

Question #5:  If Hip Hop is a mixture of good and evil, how do we evaluate it?

Given that Hip Hop isn’t 100% good or 100% evil, we must be able to critically assess and evaluate different rap songs. To do this, we must understand how the different genres within Hip Hop culture are categorized: 18

In the figure above, there are seven different genres of Hip Hop culture, each representing its own sub culture, language, dress, and customs. While each has its own structure and autonomy, each is also dependent on the next (as indicated by the arrows). Currently we are in a “party rap” mode. This is the music that is played on the radio and is what most of our students are listening to right now. The R & B/ Smooth Rap genre with artists like Beyonce’, Usher, Joe, and Neo is a subset of Party Rap.

For any one genre to take precedence, there must be some sort of dramatic change. For example, we emerged from a Gangsta Rap era in 1997 when the music industry began downsizing its gangsta rap artists due to several deaths of its engineers and executives. 19

With this understanding of genre, we can now begin to do what 1 John 4:1 20 encourages us to do, which is to critically test every notion, idea, concept, and opinion to see what is “right” and what is “wrong.” This critical examination helps us move beyond our spiritual and intellectual laziness or our blanket acceptance of whatever our leaders teach.

Hip Hop is a very challenging culture to engage.  With its “in your face” approach, it can seem intimidating and “sinful” to the naked eye. But if we begin to take a closer look, we are able to find artists such as Mos Def, Common, Eve, and Tupac who give us deeper insight into tough questions and struggles that we and our students face regularly.

Question #6:  The kids in my youth ministry don’t listen to Hip Hop artists, so what does Hip Hop matter to them?

If your students are listening to Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson, and the Backstreet Boys, then you have to ask yourself: where does most of their inspiration come from? Moreover, who is producing their music? More often than not, it is the same producer or producers who are doing Snoop Dogg’s and Common’s tracks.  Simply put, Hip Hop is everywhere. When Grammy-winning producer QD3 (Quincy Jones’ son) was interviewed, he shared how he had worked on many different albums including some rock and even jazz albums.  For music artists, using a producer who also has connections in Hip Hop can help expand your music’s influence.

Question #7: As far as rap lyrics go, where do we draw the line?

This is a question I get asked frequently.  I typically start off by reminding youth workers and parents that Hip Hop is not the creator of all this “mess.” While it is easy to point the finger at Hip Hop, the reality is that music lyrics were controversial long before Hip Hop. 21 You could pack up all the Hip Hoppers on a boat and send them far, far away and you would still have sin and “mess” in our society today.

Lyrics are the “meat” of the song. 22 Keeping that in mind, let us take a closer look at language. Well-known scholar and renowned linguist, Edward Sapir, claims that “language is a cultural, not a biologically inherited function.” 23 Moreover, language is defined by humankind and we, as humans, put limitations on speech and language. “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” 24

Language is set by the terms of different cultures. Values, tone, what is right, and what is wrong are all set by each culture. In other words, what is a curse word in one culture may not be in another. 25]] I observe this when I go from the academic classroom to the street. Each culture has its own language hierarchy and defines its own words. Thus we must always remember, the meaning of the word is not in the word itself, it is within the person!

Does that mean we can listen to the “F word” all day and not be affected? I don’t think so.  However, if we are going to critically examine lyrics, then we must ask what is the overall message of the song? For example, many of Tupac’s lyrics contain language that some might consider “vulgar” and “profane”. But let’s look closer and ask, what is the message behind the song? What is the story? Does it hold truth? And if so, what type of truth is it?

An example of this is Tupac’s song “So Many Tears.” In it he lays out a basic “sinners prayer” and gives us a Hip Hop version of the Lord’s prayer. 26 Another example of a great rap song is Common’s song “Faithful” in which he talks about being faithful and living up to responsibilities. 27 Moreover, Common gives great support to women in this song.

This is not to say that there are not inappropriate lyrics in rap music.  Personally, I have a problem with artists who continually speak of “booty”, refer to women in a negative fashion, profanely address sacred issues, and just plain outright do not know how to rap. But far too often, we throw out the entire song because of individual words that we might consider to be “bad” or “sinful”.

Question # 8: What can we as Christians do to gain control of Hip Hop?

This question in and of itself poses a problem. My typical response back to someone who asks this is, “Why do you feel you have to ‘control’ something?” Far too often, we Christians attempt to control something so that it remains within our perceived grasp (me included!).

God gave us the power of free will. He does not “control” us; we make decisions every day. So if God is not a control freak, why should we be? Hip Hop is not something that can be “controlled” and regulated. In fact, no culture or person is. So, we must first get that out of our mind before we venture forward.

If Jesus were around today, how would He respond to Hip Hop and rap music? Would He want to “control” it? Or would He begin by breaking bread with some Hip Hoppers and asking questions to better understand where they were coming from?

In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus is once again sitting and eating with “sinners” and tax collectors. The religious people of that time thought He was crazy for sitting down with sinners. But Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  I believe that Jesus would sit down and talk with those who are part of Hip Hop culture, sagging pants and all.

Action Points

  • Think about the students – and adults – in your ministry.  What are some ways Hip Hop culture has impacted their worldview, musical taste, clothing style, language, and spending habits?  What elements of this influence have been positive? Which elements have been negative?  How have you responded?
  • What still remains unclear when you think about Hip Hop?  Who could you have a conversation with in the next week to help clarify what Hip Hop is or how students (or volunteers, or parents) think about and interact with it?
  • Where do you draw the lines when it comes to listening to rap lyrics or allowing your students (or children!) to listen to them?  How do you balance engaging Hip Hop culture with pursuing a holy life, and how do you help your students walk that line?
  • Do think it’s true that Christians tend to want to “gain control” of cultural influences like Hip Hop?  What do you make of that?  How do you usually respond to “non-Christian” influences, and how do you suppose Jesus would respond? In what ways do you see those response patterns impacting the ministry you have with students?

  1. Ting-Toomey, Stella, and Leeva C Chung. 2005. Understanding Intercultural Communication. 1st ed. Los Angeles, CA.: Roxbury Publishing. p. 376.
  2. Kitwana, Bakari. 2005. Why White Kids Love Hip-hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America. New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books.
  3. Dyson, Michael Eric. 1996. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. George, Nelson. 1998. Hiphop America. New York NY: Penguin Books pp.x-xi.
  5. Ibid.p.xiv. In this book, George gives a great social and cultural analysis of Hip Hop culture and how its influence has affected America; a great read for anyone.
  6. Norfleet, Dawn M. 2006. “Hip Hop and Rap.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by M. V. Burnim and P. K. Maultsby. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 353.
  7. Smith, Efrem, and Phil Jackson. 2005. The HipHop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture. Downers Grove, IL.: Inner Varsity Press, pp.74-80.
  8. Taken from the forward of The Vibe History of Hip Hop; Alan Light ed. (1999).
  9. See Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of The Hip Hop Generation. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, ch’s 1-4.
  10. See Nettl, Bruno. 1983. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts.  Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press.
  11. Rose, Tricia. 1994 . Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown CT.: Wesleyan University Press, p.34.
  12. See Kitwana, Bakari. 2005; Quinn, Eithne. 2005. Nuthin’ but a “G” thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap, Popular cultures, Everyday Lives. New York, NY: Columbia University Press; Boyd, Todd. 1997. Am I Black Enough For You? Popular Culture from The ‘Hood and Beyond. Bloomington& Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; Kitwana, Bakari. 2004. The State of the Hip-Hop Generation: How Hip-Hop’s Cultural Movement is Evolving into Political Power. Diogenes (International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies), 115-20.
  13. Blair, Elizabeth M. 2004. “Commercialization of the Rap Music Youth Subculture.” In That’s The Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader, edited by M. Forman and M. A. Neal. New York, NY: Routledge, p.497.
  14. There are many different books that deal with the rise of Hip Hop culture, commercialization, the history, and the affects on Western culture. I would recommend Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal’s edited book That’s The Joint!: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, Jeff Chang Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, and George Nelson Hip Hop America. That should give you a solid foundation on the history of Hip Hop and why it came to be.  Also check out & as a start.
  15. Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of The Hip Hop Generation. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  16. This includes the overall Christian culture.
  17. George, Nelson. 1998. Hiphop America. New York NY: Penguin Books, p i.
  18. There are several renditions of this: Pinn, Anthony B. 1995. Why Lord? Suffering & Evil in Black Theology. New York, NY: Continuum; Quinn, Eithne. 2005. Nuthin’ but a “G” thang: the culture and commerce of gangsta rap, Popular cultures, everyday lives, Columbia University Press; but this particular one is what I have derived from my years within the culture itself.
  19. This was a direct result from the death of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. After their deaths many others died too, but most were never covered in the media. The major record labels decided that Rap was out of control and they needed to not fund these types of artists. Thus, the party rap era began, and rap artists, for one of the first times in history, were paid large sums of money to talk about women, sex, alcohol, big cars, and a fancy lifestyle.
  20. 1 John 4:1 (ESV):  Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
  21. See Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V Palisca. 2001. A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, where Grout discusses historical aspects of all music and how around the time of Bach, there was no distinction between “secular” music and “Gospel” music.  Just something to think about.
  22. Bruno (1983).
  23. Sapir, Edward. 1949. Language; An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Harvest books; HB7. New York: Harcourt, p 1.
  24. Ibid. P.7.
  25. Take a look into the Sapir/ Worph Hypothesis. There are many different levels of language and one of the stronger theories that exists in human communication is this one. Check out the website and explore for yourself; language is a lot deeper than we think. Moreover, what we might think of as profane, might actually not be;
  26. Check out

The Place & Space of the Hood

Space and the Reality of Identity in the New Millennium

Feb 14, 2006 Dan Hodge

Have you ever wondered why it is so important for some young people, particularly urban youth (be it White, Black, Latino, Asian, or Somali), to let others know where they’re from? Moreover, have you ever noticed at a summer camp how upset a group gets when you do not mention their city or area at “roll-call” during a meal? Why is that? Why is “space” so important to some, and not to others? Why is it that some will even go to the extent of tattooing an area code to their body even when that area code may change in a few years?

For some young people, “space” is the difference between being known and not-known; it’s the difference between being represented and being marginalized.  In The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop 1 , Murray Foreman begins to construct how and why space came to be so important. Foreman examines the dimensions of space and place and their relationship to race, particularly for young people involved in Hip Hop Culture. The emerging issue of “space” is an important reality for all youth workers to understand as we minister to a new generation of young people influenced by Hip Hop.

Modern v. Postmodern:  Changing Views of Space

In the modern era (meaning approximately the mid 1800’s to the 1970’s or 1980’s), urban and non-urban communities often held different views about the degree to which a belief or paradigm had to be “proven.”  For example, Foreman suggests that within the urban community there has always been an understanding of a deity, a “higher-power,” and/or God.  In both the modern and postmodern eras, this spiritual awareness has meant that urbanites have tended to be more aware of their “space” with God. 2 For example, slaves often felt they needed a “higher-power” to survive; that “higher-power” was Jesus Christ. That understanding of who Jesus was and how He operated in their lives has given African Americans historically their deep sense of their space within Christ in the midst of their suffering.  In contrast, the modern era outside of the urban community held quite a different view of the divine.  It was assumed that a deity or God has to be explained, or proven by “facts.”

Yet in the midst of these differences in the modern era, both urban and non-urban communities viewed space through similar lenses.  Quite simply, it was the area a person occupied.  In the modern era, our world, or our “space” could be explained, and often that explanation came from outsiders who were deemed experts in the following spheres:

  • Science: In the modern era, science helped people wrestle with unexplained events in their lives and space through empirical validity tests that would “prove” what had been unexplainable.
  • Morality: In the modern era, morality and the rules that guided how we acted in our “space” was given by “professional experts” who laid out the “rules” for behavior.
  • Art:  In the modern era, the meaning of art was generally determined by wide consensus based on the opinions of others.
  • Language:  As with art, language in the modern era was regulated by the consensus of those who decided “correct” and “incorrect” uses of language. 3

Now fast forward to today.  For youth in the postmodern era, views of our world and our space are different.   Kids often believe that the “expert” institutions, legislators, establishments, and societies cannot be trusted; all of them can let you down.  While this view is pervasive in both urban and non-urban communities, it seems to be even more keenly felt in urban contexts.

In urban communities, what can be trusted?  Your community.  Your community is the force that can help you in all four spheres that were previously the domain of outside experts.  In the field of science, the only “validity” test is what you and your community develop.  Morality is left up to the code of the streets. 4 As we see with Graf Artists (Graffiti Artists), art is a representation of the self.  Similarly, we don’t have to have broad consensus about the meanings of certain words; language is what we make of it. 5 Space, therefore, is subjective and cannot be easily explained in the postmodern urban context.

Space Within The ‘Hood

Perhaps nowhere is space more an issue than in the inner city. Gangs set their territory by space; families relegate themselves to a certain square mile and rarely leave that space; urban neighborhoods are “sectioned” off by city officials; and Rap artists identify themselves with the “space” they are from (or the Hood they are from). 6 Many within the inner city use streets, area codes, zip codes, and even street letters and numbers to identify themselves with their hood. Hip Hop Culture embraces that identification and gives the young person identity through the music and culture as a whole.

Space can also determine how much of a “woman” or a “man” you are. 7 For example, the amount of “turf” or “sets” you have in your community can reflect upon your manhood or womanhood.  Similarly, your fighting win/loss record in your space also reflects upon your manhood and womanhood.  In my community, there is an arranged place for fights when beefs and disagreements cannot be settled. The amount of fights people win in that space often determines how “tough” or “manly/womanly” they are. Moreover, that space is often named after that person after they set up a precedent of fight wins.

Area codes play a large part in the reality of space in the hood. This is one of the reasons that Rap artists yell out their area code. In films such as 8 Mile, the characters are distinguished and categorized by which area code they are from. For many urban youth, this is one of only a few self-identification factors they have; therefore, area codes become a large identification factor for the inner city and Hip Hop Culture. 8 This is also why certain rappers often talk about which part of the country they are from—West Coast, East Coast, Tha’ Dirty South.

Space can highlight different sections, or Hoods, of various cities for the outside world.  In 1992 West Coast Rap artist DJ Quick recorded “Jus’ Lyke Compton.” This track made Compton, a sub-section of Los Angeles, identifiable for youth whether they lived in the city or not. Compton was further made popular in earlier years by the famed group N.W.A. 9 who joyously claimed to be from Compton. 10 Hip Hop groups were, and still are, notorious for “representin” their area. In other words, they make the listener take notice of what area or space they are from. 11

Not all urban youth see “space” in the same way. Another interesting concept about the postmodern urban space is stated by Jude Tiersma Watson, Associate Professor of Urban Mission in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies:

One of the things I notice being around ‘taggers’, or ‘writers’ or ‘graffiti artist’ as they call themselves, is how they use space differently than gangs. It is one of the things they fight over. So while gangs are more tribal (pre-modern) in sticking with a few blocks of territory that is theirs, ‘writers’ write all over the city. To be really good means to get your name up in as many spots as possible, as far reaching as possible. They are a network, and thus more postmodern than gangs. One of the reasons they fight is because they use space differently. So the gangs don’t understand why a writer will put his name on a wall in the gang’s claimed territory — (they have) different rules about use of space and how identity is marked. 12

Connecting Space To Ministry

As conscious and missionally-minded youth workers, thinking about space through the eyes of urban youth is another way to add to our growing understanding of Hip Hop culture. Whether you live in rural North Dakota or inner-city New York, Hip Hop and urban popular culture are cultural realities. Black, White, Latino, Asian, and other ethnicities are attracted to this culture and its music.

For some, their “space” and location is all they have. For others, it’s a symbol of hope and prosperity. 13 Most young people, particularly urban youth, define themselves and identify with some spatial reference: a t-shirt with their city’s name on it, a jacket with their area code on it, a tattoo with their street’s name, or maybe even a city subsection for a film title such as 8-Mile.

First, as youth workers, we must begin to see that this is normal and not evil if it occurs in our youth groups. To go even deeper in our relationships and ministry with students, we can begin by asking the young person what makes their space so important to her or him.  We might even want to ask to go with that young person and see where they hang out and how they define their space.

Second, since space is such an issue for many young people, we need to ask ourselves: what elements of space are we ignoring? For example, when young people talk about their space with that certain twinkle in their eye, do we dismiss them by laughing at them, minimizing their space, or even worse saying, “That’s not important”? If you are from a background that holds space as a high cultural value, then this will be easier for you. But if you come from a cultural background that values space differently, or come from a community where people do not tattoo their street name on their necks, then this will be a little harder to understand, but it’s vitally important in your relationships with kids.

Third, we must begin to move towards a theology of space. Urban, rural, and suburban students alike take space and geography seriously. As youth workers, it is important to see how the young people we work with define space and the places they call “home.” The places we occupy have real meaning and value.  As we see in John 4:1-42 and chapter 6, Matthew27:32-33 and 57-60, and Luke 23, space and geography can carry significant meaning.

Last, we need to make room for different spaces in our ministries. In other words, we need to “represent” the different areas that are within our groups. Even simple acts like allowing a wall for graffiti art, mentioning different parts of our city in our talks, or having those groups of young people that are a little underrepresented over to our house for a film night make a difference. Even if we minister in a youth group that represents just one city area there are still elements of space and representation taking place in our community.

These are simple things that can be done to give voice to different groups of young people. Every generation has to make its mark and make itself distinct from the next. For many today, that distinction is their space.

Actions Points

  • Take some time and see the film Wild Style. How do the young people make their mark in the space they live in? How important is that to them? Why do you think that is? Where are the connections in your own youth group?
  • If you have the time and opportunity, drive down some streets that have graffiti art. Bring students with you if possible.  Observe some of the different styles. What do you notice? Are there any themes? Are there any artists that re-occur? How does this relate to your group?
  • Read John chapter 4 and 6. Why was location so important at the time? What about the location of Jesus made it special or not special? How did this connect back with the people? How can you apply some of these concepts to your own group?

  1. MurrayForeman, The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, (Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
  2. Murray Foreman, 68-69.
  3. Adapted from David Ashley in which he discusses the philosophy of each subject within the modern worldview (1992: 92-93). Ashley, David, “Habermas and the Completion of ‘The Project of Modernity’”. In Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, edited by B. S. Turner. (Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 1990).
  4. See Elijah Anderson, Code of The Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. (New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).
  5. See Russell A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism, New York NY: State University of New York Press / Suny Series, 1995.
  6. Murray Foreman, 2-3.
  7. MurrayForeman, 190.
  8. MurrayForeman, 263-277.
  9. Niggas With Attitude
  10. SeeMurrayForeman,193-198.
  11. MurrayForeman, 256-257.
  12. Taken from an email conversation with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson on 1/30/06.
  13. MurrayForeman, 39.

An Empirical Analysis of Acting White

A Study You Can’t Afford to Ignore

Dec 13, 2005 Dan Hodge

Let me ask you a few questions that you may not have thought about recently but the answers are probably impacting your students every day. Are Black students less intelligent than White Students? Are White students smarter because they attend college? Are high Grade Point Averages (G.P.A.s) a result of a high I.Q.? No matter what your skin color, does being smart mean “acting White”?

An interesting article by Roland Fryer Jr. and Paul Torelli originating from the Harvard University Society of Fellows begins to help those of us who care about kids unpack these questions.  Regardless of your ministry’s context and your students’ ethnic backgrounds, education is a very real, daily issue. Chances are there are some students in your group who are Black and may have low grades, but does this mean they are “stupid?” Well, let’s look further into these issues by discussing the results of the acting White study.

To begin, let’s first define acting White. According to Fryer and Torelli, acting White is a state of:

  • Having perceived “smarts”
  • Doing well in school and maintaining a high G.P.A.
  • Popularity being derived from good grades
  • Using proper English
  • Following rules (i.e., school standard rules and societal laws) 1

This description of “acting White” emerged from Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli’s 2 investigation into the large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement.  Fryer and Torelli utilized both a quantitative survey of G.P.A. scores and relied upon statistical data from school districts. From this data, they concluded that the pressure to be or act White is most intense among high achievers and in schools with more interracial contact. However, the pressure is non-existent among students in predominantly Black schools or private schools.

For Fryer and Torelli, the racial achievement gap in education is a vexing reality. They state, “Black children enter kindergarten lagging whites, and these differences remain throughout the school years. On every subject at every grade level there are large achievement differences between Blacks and Whites.” 3 Both of the authors argue that Blacks, even in affluent neighborhoods, still lag behind. These researchers do not suggest that Whites are simply smarter or that Blacks are dumb; it is far more complex than that reductionistic explanation.

In their analysis, Fryer and Torelli uncovered a rich set of new facts. For example, they found large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement. 4 Among Whites, higher grades yield higher popularity. For Blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5, when the slope turns negative. 5 A Black student with a 4.0 G.P.A. has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a White student with a 4.0. Among Latinos, there is little change in popularity from a grade point average of 1.0 through 2.4. After 2.5 however, the gradient turns sharply negative. 6 A Latino student with a 4.0 grade point average is the least popular of all Latino students, and has three fewer friends than a typical White student with a 4.0 grade point average.

Thus it seems that at lower G.P.A.’s, little difference exists among racial groups in the relationship between popularity and grades; Blacks with low G.P.A.’s are more popular than Whites with low G.P.A.’s.  At around a 2.5 G.P.A. (an even mix of B’s and C’s), racial differences start to emerge. 7 Latino students lose popularity at an alarming rate after this cut-off.  While Blacks and Whites continue to gain friends as their grades increase, the White slope is steeper. Fryer and Torelli state, “Black popularity peaks at a grade point average of roughly 3.5 and turns down afterward. Whites continue to gain popularity as their grades increase.” 8

Fryer and Torelli suggest that racial differences in the popularity-grades gradient may be due to various factors that are positively related to popularity (i.e., having high-income parents, having a privileged lifestyle, having affluence).  Perhaps that at least partly explains why Black and Latino high achievers continue to be much less popular than similarly achieving Whites.

The “acting White” effect is more salient in public schools and schools in which the percentage of Black students is less than 20, but non-existent among Blacks in predominantly Black schools or those who attend private schools. Schools with more interracial contact have an acting White coefficient twice as large as more segregated schools (7 times as large for Black males). 9 Thus it seems that the pressure to act White and the relationship between popularity and achievement has little effect on the average Black students who attend predominantly Black schools—but could potentially be a major reason for the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools or the lack of adequate representation of Blacks and Latinos in elite colleges and universities.

Fryer and Torelli also consider such factors as the self-fulfilling prophecy and self-sabotage. 10 Both occur when students begin to tell themselves that they are going to do poorly, they are going to fail, and that they are dumb; ironically the “prophecy” ends up coming true and reinforces the presumption that the student was “dumb” to begin with. They also suggest that Blacks may regularly “downplay” their actual G.P.A., while some Whites may consistently “up-play” their grades. 11

One possible reason that Blacks face a steeper popularity-grades gradient is short supply of high-achieving Black students, the researchers argue. In other words, there are few role models present for high-achieving Blacks; moreover, there are few popular high-achieving Blacks in high schools for other achievers to look up to.  Thus the cycle continues, since for Blacks being popular is associated with having lower grades.  The same is true for Latinos; especially males.  In contrast, for Whites, being popular is associated with higher G.P.A.’s and achievement. 12

Interestingly, Fryer and Torelli found no empirical support for the oppositional culture hypothesis, meaning that they found no opposing forces that would typically “hold-back” high achievement among Latinos and Blacks. For the authors, societal structures and typical “holding back forces”—such as racism and societal issues—were not a factor for young Blacks and Latinos. 13 In fact, they observed that most Blacks and Latinos were “free” to perform highly, but they decided internally to settle for lower grades in order to maintain a certain level of popularity.

Responding as youth workers…

How do we respond to this type of study? How does this affect the students we work with?

First, we can all recognize that middle or high school does not have to be the defining moment for any of our students. We will better serve our students if we project ahead to where we’d like to see them in ten years. For example, if someone were to have told me 15 years ago that I would be completing a PhD and teaching at the college level, I would have laughed in their face. But, someone believed enough in me to build in me and saw my future ten years out. That vision stayed with me. Quite frankly, I failed P.E. in high school, I never took one S.A.T. or P.S.A.T., I skipped most of my classes, and barley passed because I went to night school. But I have managed to maintain nothing less than a 3.7 G.P.A. all through college and graduate school – all because a mentor saw more potential for me than I even saw myself.

This does not mean we ignore bad grades and poor behavior in school. But it does mean that we begin to ask the question: what are the pressures at school or among friends that might be contributing to these grades? Then we try to get involved as we can.  One way youth workers can be involved in the educational system is to join the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). When I have been a part of the PTA, I have found many doors open for deeper relationships and impact with the faculty and the school. Another way to be involved is to attend school district meetings and voice our experiences and opinions.

Second, we can challenge the assumption that Black students are “dumber” than White students, or vice versa. That is a myth. As youth workers, we can begin to break down the negative stereotypes that exist within all of us regarding academic achievement—Blacks included! The reality is that many urban Blacks are extremely gifted and talented, but many of the schools they attend do not allow for such creative expression of those talents.

A young Black man I worked with who we’ll call “Troy” is a great example of this. Troy did not do well in school.  He reached high school and had a 2nd grade reading level, failed most tests, and had poor attendance. But Troy loved to draw. In fact, Troy loved to draw so much that he drew all over the bathroom walls. Troy was expelled from school at the age of 16.  However, the story is not over. Troy worked blue-collar work for several years. I helped Troy pass the G.E.D. test and helped him enroll in a school for performing arts in San Francisco.  He graduated magna cum laude and is now a set designer for major plays. Only God sees the end!

Fryer and Torelli present an intriguing study and many new ideas to talk about and reflect upon. Perhaps my favorite part of their work is that they do not give us a long list of clear, easy answers. It is up to God and us to figure that out for our own kids in our own communities. We are faced with a strong challenge in the years ahead. Keep hope alive and may God continue to use us as we all face these challenges head on.

Note:  you can access the “Acting White” study in its entirety at

Action Points:

  1. Take a few minutes to think about the students in your own ministry.  Do you have Black and/or Latino students?  What do you know about their academic performance, and about their popularity among their own and other ethnic groups? If not, who are the minorities specific to your communities, and how (if at all) do you see the ‘acting White’ principle playing out?
  2. How do you respond to the findings of Fryer and Torelli?  What would you challenge?  What other dynamics do you think are involved in educational performance and popularity in your community’s schools?
  3. In our previous E-Journal we published an article about White students acting Black (  Do you think there is any corollary principle related to White kids who love hip hop and their school performance?  Does ‘acting Black’ include performing poorly in school in order to keep up a certain popularity level or friend group?  How should we respond when we see our students following this path?
  4. What are some ways your ministry can help address these negative forces in students’ lives?  What insights can scripture bring to the conversation?

  1. These are the basic parameters presented by Fryer and Torelli. The term “Acting White” is a slippery and politically loaded phrase, with little consensus on a precise definition. For Thankeka (2002), it is the “acting” of a Euro-American in their values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, and patterns; this “acting” takes on no certain skin color and can take its form in a Black person. For Fryer and Torelli, “…we say ‘acting white’ exists if there are statistically significant racial differences in the relationship between popularity and grades” (pp.6-7). For nearly 2 decades, there has been a large debate among sociologists, cultural anthropologists, newspaper journalists, and policy wonks on the existence of “acting White.” For further study, I suggest you enter “Acting White” into any academic search engine to see others’ approaches to the topic.
  2. Fryer, Roland G, and Torelli, Paul. An Empirical Analysis of Acting White. Harvard University &National Bureau of Economic Research: 2005.
  3. Fryer & Torelli (2005) 2.
  4. Ibid. 4 & 45-46.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. 45-48.
  7. Ibid. 13 & 45.
  8. Ibid. 13.
  9. Ibid. 5-6.
  10. Another potentially related factor is Claud Steele’s theory of disidentifaction. Steele’s theory suggests that young African American males as well as females disidentify with school when faced with poor academic attainment. He states that they do not allow achievement, whether it is negative or positive, to affect their respective views of themselves. Moreover, this psychic alienation, this act of not caring, makes the African American youth less vulnerable to the specter of devaluation that haunts them (1993:74). Steele’s main components of the theory are that the young African Americans begin to disidentify with any component of the social structure around them that would harm their already fragile ego. Moreover, to keep hope they dislocate themselves from any component of society that would damage their self-perception. Steele states that to maintain a paradoxically high self-perception they engage in dubious activities in their environment to maintain a perceived identity (p 75).
  11. Fryer & Torelli (2005) 13.
  12. Ibid. 17-19.
  13. While I disagree with the authors, I do believe we are making progress in these societal issues, but we still have a long road ahead.

Wankstas & Wiggas

Dealing with the New Generation of White Hip Hop Culture

Oct 17, 2005 Dan Hodge

So have you ever thought, “What ever happened to Vanilla Ice?” Or, “What about the Beastie Boys, are they still even alive?” House of Pain, 3rd Bass, Kid Capri, where did the “vanilla” flava of hip hop go? Moreover, was there ever really a “vanilla” flavor of hip hop? Maybe these are questions you have asked yourself or your friends. Or maybe you’re reading this whole paragraph and still wondering who these people even are.

We have seen through the media that hip hop culture has evolved significantly over the last 15 years. What was once thought of as only a “Black” culture, hip hop has become a multi-ethnic, multi-dimensional culture that embodies a host of languages, colors, music, and life. Hip hop culture is more that just the music itself; it’s a way of life for many. But what about you? What if you’re reading this article and wondering what to do with all the white students in your group who want to be like Ludacris? Or, what if you are serving some white students growing up in suburbia, but in many ways act like they have lived in the “hood?”

Well, believe it or not, you’re not alone. In fact, today’s white youth are more attracted to rap music and hip hop culture than they were even 10 years ago, suggests Bakari Kitwana, former editor of The Source Magazine and author of Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. If you’re wondering why Hootie and the Blowfish, Haley Duff, and Britney Spears are not as “popular” with your students as Snoop Dogg, The Ying Yang Twins, and Jay-Z, then hopefully we can begin to uncover some of the mystery for you. More importantly, we can begin to better understand how to see all of this through the missional eyes of Christ.

To begin, as any good practioner should do, we must delve into a little bit of history.  The historical perspective described by Kitwana in his book, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop 1 , helps uncover some reasons that hip hop culture is so attractive to suburban youth.

Knowing the Roots, Man!

Hip hop developed in the early 1970´s in the South Bronx. 2 Its initial practitioners were DJs (often playing disco, funk, or reggae records) such as Kool DJ Herc and Pete Jones who began to draw huge crowds at clubs and block parties. As DJs started to develop the beats and breaks of hip hop, some of the focus was transferred from the turntables to other things such as MCing and B-Boying. The MC was originally a “master of ceremonies” who would assist the DJ by addressing the crowd and leading them in call and response routines and vocal chants. The emcee began to develop a rhyme, and vocal routines of his own. Emceeing became MCing: the “Master of Ceremonies” became the “Mic Controller.”

The live atmosphere and the ability of the DJs to continuously keep the beat flowing between records also created B-Boys. B-Boys were fanatical followers of the music who battled on the floor with dance moves. This became known as “break dancing.” Hip hop also created its own visual art: graffiti. Graffiti has existed in some form for centuries, but the colors, design, and attitude of hip hop graffiti have given hip hop an accompanying aesthetic presence that has survived the years virtually intact.

Despite an impressive urban following and an expanding live circuit, many of these musical acts never released a commercial record. Even still, white urban youth were attracted to the “rebel” feel of the music and the outspoken lyrics.  According to William Perkins, “Until 1979 rap was a key component of a flourishing underground culture in the Bronx and upper Manhattan, where parties went on all night in seedy nightclubs or the music was played in schoolyards and small public parks” 3 . Of the groups that did release albums, most never enjoyed significant commercial success on the airwaves, as rapping was seen as a musical novelty.

The Attraction to White Kids

According to Kitwana, in the midst of these historical developments, several themes emerged in mainstream popular culture that made rap music 4 appealing to white suburban youth: 5

  • The Global Economy & Alienation: The 1980’s brought much economic displacement and uncertainty. “The generation of white kids in the same age-group, dubbed Generation X, was confronted by socioeconomic issues that alienated them from the mainstream as well.” 6 White Gen X youth were being displaced and needed a form of identity. Rap music now had an open door and, more importantly, an open mind/heart with white Gen X youth.
  • A Changing Pop Music Scene: It was during this time of rising alienation and displacement that the first young whites were drawn to hip hop. Rap groups such as X-Clan, KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Public Enemy were inspiring many young whites politically and allowing them freedom of expression through music. Rap music was also giving them deeper insights into social and economic issues through such artists as Tupac and B.I.G.  Kitwana states, “As young Americans, Black and white, accepted hip hop as their own, hip hop CD sales set one record after another. By 1998 when rapper Lauryn Hill won five Grammy Awards for her album…hip hop had already begun to gain regular coverage in mainstream newspapers like the New York Times…” 7
  • The Institutionalizing of Civil Rights Culture: Throughout the 1990’s, it became cool for young white youth to wear African regalia and “apartheid” symbols.  By 1996, according to Kitwana, civil rights rhetoric was being adopted by politicians on both the Left and the Right. Black culture was becoming popular, and being “down” with Blacks was almost a rite of passage for many young white youth.
  • The Impact of Black Popular Culture: Television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Martin, A Different World, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son gave young privileged whites an opportunity to peer into the lives of Blacks. For many, this was an opportunity to see first-hand how Black families lived and operated. Music videos further affected young whites. MTV went from carrying 2-4 rap videos a day to almost 10-20 (during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s). Cultural icons such as Oprah and Maya Angelou were making headlines in white culture as well.  According to Kitwana, “The exposure to Black culture that Generation X’ers enjoyed as a result of mass communication should never be underestimated.” 8

All of these factors combine to bring us where we are today…lots of white kids love hip hop.  Hip hop has changed the way white Americans engage with race, and the authenticity of hip hop music made it appealing to live a different way.  Kitwana suggests that hip hop gives many white youth an opportunity to experience a unique sense of freedom. 9

1993 marked the first year that hip hop albums were to be sold primarily to a suburban audience. With the release of Dr. Dre’s Chronic album, millions of white youth now began to see into the world of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and the G-Funk era. 10 American popular culture, which was once governed by the Beach Boys and apple pie, now had to contend with popular rappers, “Crips and Bloods,” “pimps,” “ho’s,” and “baby daddies.”

Kitwana suggests six additional themes/ major phenomena that emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s which aided in Black culture’s integration into American popular culture: 11

  • Popular culture and the visibility of Black youth within it.
  • The rise of globalization and trans-national corporations (particularly those which took advantage of Blacks).
  • Persistent segregation in an America that preaches democracy and inclusion, yet contradicts itself by doing just the opposite.
  • Public policy regarding criminal justice, particularly policy containing clear racial implications.
  • The media’s negative representation of young Blacks.
  • The deadly disease AIDS, which was once thought to strike only gay white men, now took its toll on Blacks and the inner city.

These six areas had a significant effect on dominant popular culture, Black popular culture, and white youth in general. Cornel West, noted scholar in the field of urban postmodernism, writes about this phenomena:

“The Afro-Americanization of white youth—given the disproportionate Black role in popular music and athletics—has put white kids in closer contact with their own bodies and facilitated more human interaction with Black people. Listening to Motown records in the sixties or dancing to hip hop music in the nineties may not lead one to question the sexual myths of Black women and men, but when white and Black kids buy the same billboard hits and laud the same athletic heroes the result is often a shared cultural space where some human interaction takes place.” 12

Thinking this through as Followers of Christ

Well-known author Scott Peck 13 discusses four phases many Christians experience as they progress in their faith:

  • Chaos: The stage before we meet Christ.
  • Tradition: The churched area of the Christian life where things make sense at first and we have nice answers.
  • Doubt: When something happens that we cannot make sense of; some kind of “Job” moment in our lives that does not fit our traditional experience.
  • Mystery: If the church culture allows us and if we are brave enough, we enter into a stage where all the answers do not fit nicely into the events of life; it is a mysterious stage where God does not always answer us the way our “tradition” has taught us.

Hip hop culture has a unique connection to each of these four stages:


Hip hop culture speaks to that chaotic lifestyle that so many young people are living out today…even the “nice” suburban white kid. Hip hop gives a voice to that chaos and says, “It’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, it’s okay to deal with it, and we have your back, because we’ve been there too.”


There is a long history of tradition within hip hop culture. DJ parties, battle raps, and break dancing dance-offs are only a few of the traditional elements of hip hop culture. Hip hop gives a voice to the person who wants that liturgical element in their life. As a church, we cannot ignore this. Youth want some type of liturgy.  What if we began having spiritual battle raps and dance-offs as a part of a service for students? Hmm, imagine the possibilities.


Youth have to deal with an abundant amount of doubt, especially in the early pre-teen years. Hip hop culture allows the young person to be real and open – in other words, to live in their pain and come as they are—in all their doubt and mess.  Unfortunately, many churches who encounter kids who are doubting tend to try to turn them back to a more “stable” thought process. What if we, as a church body, actually allowed kids to deal with their doubt and helped them to arrive at an answer, even if that answer was not what we were expecting?


Hip hop culture neither answers nor presumes to know every answer to life’s problems.  Because of this, hip hop culture allows the young person to live in a sense of mystery.  Sometimes churches have a hard time fully admitting the mystery of faith and life in general.   Hip hop often wrestles with issues that most churches will not discuss—and lets the person live in that struggle/ mystery rather than solving the problem and providing simple answers.

As we move forward and embrace that young Eminem wannabe in our youth ministry, we must begin by asking the question: Why? Why is he/she that way, and more importantly, how can I help that adolescent move forward in their walk with Christ? While not every element of hip hop culture is positive—the objectifying of women, nihilism, etc.—we, as agents of Christ and culture, must begin to unpack those areas where Christ may be speaking.

Action Points

  1. Spend half a day and rent the films Malibu’s Most Wanted and 8-Mile.  Compare and contrast the two films. What are the similarities? Where are the differences? Did you know that one was written before the other? Guess which one! What does it mean for white students when a white rapper beats out the Black rapper? How is Brad Gluckman similar to some of your own students? What are some of Eminem’s struggles that are similar to impoverished whites? Did you notice that in the film 8-Mile, the battle raps take place in the basement of a church? Moreover, what is the name of the event in the film? Where is God in all of this?
  2. What have been your reactions to hip hop music and culture in your youth ministry?  Does Kitwana’s evaluation bring any new thoughts or ideas for engaging students (white or non-white) who are into hip hop?
  3. Given some of the ideas presented in this article from Bakari Kitwana, how do you respond to his assessment of why white kids love hip hop?
  4. How could you harness the potential of hip hop to help students engage with chaos, tradition, doubt, and mystery in meaningful ways?
  5. What are a few practical steps you can take this week to better understand hip hop culture?

  1. Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America, (New York:  Basic Civitas Books, 2005).
  2. Andy Bennett, Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity, and Place, (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 134.
  3. William Eric Perkins, ed., Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, Critical Perspectives on the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 9.
  4. In a nutshell, the difference between rap & hip hop is simple: rap is the music and hip hop is the culture…just thought you should know.
  5. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 23-49.
  6. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 24
  7. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 31.
  8. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 44.
  9. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 26-27.
  10. Gangsta Funk Era.
  11. Bakari Kitwana, Ibid, 9-24. Cornell West calls this “Niggarization.”  We think this is an important term to understand, so we will be addressing issues that swirl around this term in future issues.
  12. Cornel West, Race Matters, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 121.
  13. M. Scott Peck, The different drum: community-making and peace, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).