America’s 2020 ethnic reality—and what it means for you

The most recent US Census updates showcase new data about young people that every ministry and family needs to know.[1]

If you’re a leader of teenagers, half of those you love and serve under 18 are likely to be white, and half are likely to be people of color.

If you’re a parent, half of your teenager’s friends are likely white, and half are likely young people of color.

Estimates predict that by 2060, young people under 18 will be roughly 1/3 Hispanic, 1/3 white, and hovering around 10% each for African American, Asian American, and multiracial groups. This means the percentage of multiracial young people in particular will double.[2]

Welcome to the new (and we think wonderfully diverse!) US reality for all generations, but especially our teenagers and young adults.

The two of us co-authoring this piece are a living example of the data. One of us (Kat) is Cuban and a person of color, and one of us (Kara) is white.

The two of us, along with the rest of our ethnically and culturally diverse team at FYI, find we need to work empathetically and intentionally to understand each other, as well as the diverse young people, families, and ministries we serve. It’s hard work. FYI’s journey toward cultural and ethnic inclusion has been a multi-year and at times bumpy one. Many of us feel like we learn a new insight almost every week, often from our mistakes or assumptions. But every tough and honest conversation gives us a new opportunity to learn, individually and collectively, how we can embody the Kingdom community from “every nation, tribe, people and language” envisioned in Revelation 7:9.

As you love and serve young people in our increasingly diverse world, your own road might be bumpy and uneven—some stretches of smooth highway punctuated with patches of rough misunderstandings. Because the quest is so worthwhile, we want to equip you with the data, insights, and questions you need to journey well, and to bring others along with you. Whether you’re just beginning your understanding of cultural inclusion or you’ve been on the journey for a while, these five steps are geared to help you better love and serve the diverse young people who are part of your church and community.

Tweet: Whether you’re just beginning your understanding of cultural inclusion or you’ve been on the journey for a while, these 5 steps can help you better love and serve the diverse young people in your church and community.

Step 1: Learn the reality of your community and reflect on the reality of your ministry.

Do you know the ethnic makeup of your community?

If not, do you know that you can find out in less than 30 seconds?

One of our first recommendations to ministries and families who want to find out more about their community is to visit data.census.gov and enter your zip code and the word “race” in the search bar.

While the data isn’t parsed by age, that website immediately highlighted that my (Kara’s) church is located in a zip code that is 27% Latino, 7% Black, 23% Asian, and 41% White.

Once you know the racial and ethnic reality of your community, here are some specific ideas to help you reflect on what that means for your ministry.

Start With:
  • Ask yourself a few key questions. Does our ministry reflect our community? Do my friendships reflect our community?
  • Consider discussing these questions over coffee with a trusted friend or fellow leader, maybe even someone from a different ethnicity than yours, to jumpstart your sensitivity to how your ministry feels to someone different than you.
Next steps:
  • Take photos of your church members during a worship service, talking before or afterwards, and during various ministry opportunities.
  • Gather a group of close friends or fellow leaders and reflect together on what you’ve learned about your neighborhood from census data. Then show the pictures you’ve taken of your ministry.
  • Discuss together: How do the pictures of the people in our ministry reflect the demographics of the people our neighborhood? How are they different than our neighborhood? What in our ministry gatherings might make someone from our neighborhood feel especially welcome and included? What might feel foreign or unfamiliar to them?

Step 2: Listen with the goal of learning.

Cultures vary. For example, although I (Kat) am a Latinx person, my Caribbean background can sometimes make me feel like I come from a different world than my Mexican friends. I find myself having to be intentional about listening to and learning from those who may look like me, but have different cultural norms or realities. It’s important to be sensitive to nuance and be willing to learn the specifics about the cultures that represent your community.

Start with:
  • Do some basic research. Those of us who are trying to grow in cultural awareness can read books and articles, and listen to podcasts by people of color—specifically those whose demographic mirrors our community.
  • If you’re not sure where to begin, you can start by exploring these helpful recommendations from IVP.[3]
Next steps:
  • It seems obvious, but it’s important to spend time with youth of color in an attempt to listen and get to know what the world looks like through their eyes and their cultural norms.
  • Are there foods that are specific to the culture of the young person in your life? Perhaps you can share in those meals together in an attempt to not only grow in cross-cultural awareness, but learn from them in meaningful and intimate ways.
  • Are there movies or music specific to the culture of the young person in your life? Perhaps you can enjoy those together.

Remember to be thoughtful in your approach. Learning from someone of another ethnicity or culture is not an invitation for them to “educate” you. In some cases, this can end up feeling like an unwelcome burden. Part of listening is allowing others to share naturally, as they feel comfortable.

Step 3: Ask what your specific community needs.

Needs differ among communities. We may think we know what’s best for a community without actually asking those in the community what they need.

Start with:
  • Spend time in local spaces. Walk the streets and engage in conversations with local business owners and other residents of all ages to find out the specific needs within the community, particularly the needs of young people.
  • Host focus groups or interview students and their parents about what their day-to-day routine looks like and what needs emerge during the course of their schedule.
Next steps:
  • Once needs are identified, ask what or who your ministry has that can meet the needs of those in the community, and how young people can get involved. Perhaps your ministry has extra space for community meals or after-school programs. Maybe students have gifts or passions that meet community needs or desires. They could engage with others by offering tutoring, babysitting, or music lessons. 

Step 4: Provide ethnic/culture-specific spaces.

People of color, particularly young people of color, need safe spaces to connect and feel seen and understood. Oftentimes this means finding a space that feels familiar in terms of language and culture.

Start with:
  • Participate in events that celebrate the cultural heritage of those in your community. Are there specific art exhibits, fairs, book launches, festivals, or other activities that can be attended as a group?
  • Visit your city’s (or surrounding cities’) website in order to get acquainted with upcoming events, and then attend the ones that celebrate the culture of those in your community. These can be great opportunities for both fellowship and learning.
Next Steps:
  • Provide language-based small groups. Whether or not your ministry offers small groups, consider offering a language or ethnically-based space for people of color to join.
  • Grow these groups within your youth group if it’s big enough, or even intergenerationally if your ministry is smaller. Whether they function as a Bible study or simply a time of fellowship and reflection, allowing a space for young people who typically speak another language at home to retreat and release while they engage with one another is crucial to their emotional and spiritual health.

Step 5: Make sure your leadership reflects those in the community.

As Census data makes clear, we’ve already crossed the 50/50 line when it comes to diversity. Representation is important for young people of color because it not only affects how others see them, but also how they see themselves. Seeing leaders who reflect their ethnic background is crucial for their faith journey as they get to know God and envision their role as leaders in the Kingdom.

Start with:
  • Take a few leaders with you and visit another church’s worship service, or another ministry activity that has leadership of a different ethnicity or gender than you.
  • Pay attention to how it feels when you don’t see someone who looks like you up front.
  • Afterwards, debrief together with questions like: How did it feel when we didn’t see a leader who looked like us? What genders, cultures, and ethnicities are currently well represented in our up-front leadership? Given that, who’s not so well represented? What could we do differently so that our leadership becomes even more inclusive?
Next steps:
  • Invite a few diverse members of your ministry (and maybe even your local community) to conduct an “audit” of your ministry’s leadership.
  • Ask them to check out your ministry’s website, and to visit your worship service and other events. Invite them to take notes on what feels culturally welcome, as well as what feels unfamiliar and maybe even off-putting.
  • Invite a few other leaders to join you in meeting with them, either one at a time or as a group, so you can glean new insights about your ministry’s strengths and blind spots.

For both of us and the entire FYI team, the new racial reality fills us with both hope and optimism. Each of us love living in relationship with, and learning from, friends and neighbors who come from a different culture or ethnicity. We find it not only helps us better understand our world, but it helps us better appreciate our own cultural background. Revelation 7:9 gives us a picture of a diverse heaven. We long to enjoy a taste of that heaven here on earth.

Tweet: Young people of color need safe spaces to connect and feel seen and understood. Try these 5 tips to help you love and serve young people in your increasingly diverse community.


 

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[1] Compiled from S. L. Colby, & J. M. Ortman, “Projections of the size and composition of the US population: 2014 to 2060: Population estimates and projections” (2015); and U.S. Census Bureau, Quick facts (2018), Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045218.

[2] S. L. Colby, & J. M. Ortman, “Projections of the size and composition of the US population: 2014 to 2060: Population estimates and projections” (2015).

[3] Disclaimer: While we have learned volumes about cultural diversity from InterVarsity Press and other publishers, we haven’t yet had the chance to read all of the books listed on this website.