We’re not all just alike: Challenges and opportunities in multiethnic youth ministries
Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts
Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran
This article is part of a series on Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts, born out of a recent think tank with leaders from Asian American, African American, Latino, Urban, and Multiethnic ministry contexts. The goal of the gathering and subsequent research is to help ministry leaders better understand and respond to particular cultural realities of these groups, as well as to help leaders within culturally specific contexts adapt Sticky Faith principles and practices in authentically contextual ways. Stay tuned for more in this series!
We were on our way to camp. It was my second week serving as the high school pastor at a new church, and we were off for five days to New York with over 100 middle and high school students and leaders.
I had heard rave reviews of how students’ lives had been transformed in the past at this camp, as well as how balanced their approach was toward both depth and fun. So, naturally, I was excited to experience it for myself. As we traveled closer and the students’ excitement grew, my own excitement began to wane. What had been mostly four-lane highways surrounded by homes, gas stations, and stores soon turned into two-lane highways and wilderness. Cars, SUVs, and minivans were gradually replaced by pickup trucks with gun racks. I began to ask myself as an African American leader if any of the other students of color felt the same way.
The familiar questions soon entered my head: Will there be anyone I can give the “head nod” to in order to get at least a pseudo sense of community? If anything goes wrong, will there be someone who will get it, or who will have my back? Thankfully, the speaker that week was also from an urban community and was also an ethnic minority, but that was about it in terms of diversity. In my experience, Christian camps—while typically exciting and well programmed—are often culturally insensitive to lifestyles and experiences of students and leaders of color.
There’s sometimes an unspoken expectation that youth ministry is the same across every cultural, geographical, and ethnic context. In reality, this is very far from the truth. It’s one of the challenges that the leaders of the Fuller Youth Institute have been wrestling with concerning their Sticky Faith research—and one that I invite you as a ministry leader to wrestle with, as well. Let me give you a little more context for my own journey, some stories from others in the field, and then five things I think every youth leader or pastor needs to consider as they apply Sticky Faith to either a mono-ethnic or multiethnic context.
The journey from mono-ethnic to multiethnic
Six years ago, I left a predominately black congregation where I served for almost ten years called Genesis Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. My next congregation was a large, predominately white—yet becoming increasingly multiethnic—Wesleyan church, Kentwood Community Church (KCC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
By most definitions, our youth ministry at Genesis was successful. We were growing in spiritual depth, influence in the community, weekly attendance, and leadership. So, why was I feeling like something was missing? Nothing our youth group or larger church family was doing was overtly bad, but it somehow felt incomplete. Not only was there a struggle to get faith to stick with some students of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but also it was extremely difficult to get them to stay.
When we arrived at KCC in 2010, it was the first healthy multiethnic, missional, and multiplying church I had ever been part of. I soon learned that, in many ways, I had to start all over. Some things were clearly transferable, while others weren’t. My sense of calling, love for students, and desire to equip leaders and families hadn’t changed, but I would need to make a huge paradigm shift—and so would those around me—if we were going to be courageous enough to follow God through this transition. I learned a handful of important lessons through both failure and success, and I’ll share those alongside insights gleaned from effective youth pastors in multiethnic church contexts different than my own.
One of those leaders is Coby Cagle, serving at Quest Church in Seattle, Washington. Coby describes the difficult journey of becoming a leader who is more self-aware than most of race, ethnicity, and his own blind spots. Having grown up in Houston, Texas as a white male in mostly Asian, Hispanic, and African American urban ministry contexts, Coby generally feels more comfortable in diverse surroundings.
Coby shares his experience that multiethnic ministry can be much more effective when leaders take the posture of listeners willing to learn. The challenges of being vulnerable, honest, and courageous enough to ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who is God?” and, “How do our stories intersect?” is a vital part of their team’s work. Doing so earns them the credibility to be heard.
In a multiethnic ministry context, choosing not to talk about current issues concerning race, injustice, and culture isn’t really an option. Coby debunks one of the myths of effective multiethnic youth ministry that “the better you get, the less conflict you have.” Often, the deeper we get into multiethnic ministry, more conflict emerges. This can, however, become a means of grace for building deep relationships of trust. When we avoid these issues for fear of creating division, we instead promote superficial relationships. While these types of topics can be volatile and should be approached with sensitivity, we must see not only the potential danger, but also the enormous opportunity for transformation.
In the book Leading a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li describe seven challenges common in multiethnic contexts, as well as how to overcome them. I want to highlight five of these challenges and develop them as a backdrop to engage insights from Sticky Faith multiethnic youth ministry leaders.
Five issues multiethnic youth ministries commonly face
1. Spiritual issues
The spiritual attacks that come when leaders, youth groups, and churches really take multiethnicity seriously is often overwhelming and must not be underestimated. If I were the enemy and knew the power of unity articulated in John 17, then creating division and segregation would be my first goal. Leaders must be prepared for what will come as they seek to do this good work well. Complete dependence on the Holy Spirit and fervent prayer is needed to pursue multiethnic community effectively with any level of longevity.
2. Theological issues
There are both internal and external theological issues that are more pronounced in multiethnic contexts. Internally, many in the church think multiethnic ministry has become important because of changing demographics or cultural trends addressing diversity. We want to make sure it’s clear to our leaders and congregations that cultivating a multiethnic paradigm is less about diversity and more about discipleship. Multiethnicity must no longer be something reserved for inner city ministries or global missions—or seen as optional as long as it doesn’t cost us too much relationally and financially. Instead, churches can embrace a multiethnic reality no matter the geographical or cultural context, grounded in the scriptural call to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28), work toward unity in Christ (John 17), welcome the stranger (a theme spanning both testaments), and look toward the day when all nations will worship around the same throne (Revelation 7).
Externally, preaching about hope, love, and grace from segregated pulpits to homogenous pews and an increasingly diverse and cynical society has become an issue of credibility for many non-Christians when they look at the church. This will continue to be a challenge as we seek to reach more youth who find their teams, schools, and communities more multiethnic than their churches.
3. Cross-cultural issues
Unfortunately, cultural intelligence and cross-cultural competency are often presumed rather than developed in ministry contexts with students. Although our students are often more open to crossing the lines of division due to having been exposed to more diversity at school and in their communities than their parents, the fact is that they often lack a strong foundation or clear understanding of what has created division in the past. Therefore, there can sometimes be a naiveté when it comes to dealing with issues beneath the surface, particularly those of historical importance. Movements like Black Lives Matter and socio-political issues like immigration reform are current examples. We must create opportunities for both students and leaders to grow cross-culturally. This takes a lot of work, as well as the willingness to operate outside of one’s comfort zone. Helping students and leaders understand their privilege or internalized superiority—while also helping them overcome the results of internalized oppression—is critical to move our youth groups to a place of equity and safety for all.
One of our greatest challenges is that students may come to a youth group, but not stay because they don’t feel like they belong. For example, when the only images of people of color being shown on stage, in videos, or publications are people in poverty or desperation in other parts of the world, it shouldn’t just be the people of color in the room who are offended. Also, comments like “I don’t see color” and “We’re all human beings” are wonderful in their intent, but being colorblind in this sense really doesn’t benefit anyone, as it often denies the reality of culture and differences that display the beauty of God’s creation.
Another example of a cross-cultural challenge is the assumption that people who speak English as a second, third, or even fourth language should be the only ones to learn and communicate effectively, not realizing that communication involves not only linguistics, but also culture and values. When decoding communication in a language with which someone has less experience, it can take an enormous level of energy (e.g., mental, physical, emotional, etc.) to sit through a worship experience, teaching time, or small group discussion. Most often, we take that hard work for granted when we are communicating in the dominant-culture language. Our language can unintentionally alienate students and leave them feeling like they don’t belong.
4. Relational issues
Relationally, there’s the danger of the “single story” that has the potential to shape how we see others whose culture or history we don’t yet understand. Parents, for example, are okay talking about unity and diversity until it means their kids’ closest relationships begin to change (e.g., best friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, etc.). Once folks realize how difficult this is, many decide to go back to what is more comfortable, more homogenous, and just easier.
Multiethnic ministry often sounds good on the surface—and the brochure is very appealing—but the practical application proves far more difficult. Ebonie Davis, youth director at Trinity Baptist Church in Waldorf, Maryland, shares this story:
Early on in my ministry, a white student, who attended church without her family, came to me one Wednesday night with a "random" Bible question. "Doesn't the Bible say that black people and white people shouldn't date?" I was so excited about using this practical question to share some biblical insight that I didn't smell the ulterior motive. We had a great theological discussion about being “equally yoked” spiritually as more important than race or ethnicity, why God would make such a mandate, and the importance of dating Christians once she was allowed to start dating. We left agreeing that God's Word was so good and so relevant for today. (Can you feel my naiveté?) Well, my dear student used this as an excuse to start dating a black guy (yes, he was a Christian). Unfortunately, this was a big problem in her family. Though she was allowed to date, she had been expressly forbidden to date someone from another race … because of the Bible. Her uncle was a pastor who held very racist beliefs, and the family considered him their spiritual guide. Now that I had unknowingly countered a deeply held theological understanding, she felt she had license to do what she wanted. In addition to the massive conflict in the family, her father actually threatened to kill me over this teaching (seriously!), even showing up in our church and staring me down through part of one service. For several weeks I had to be escorted out of the building, and had to park my car out of sight when I was at work. Eventually, he agreed to come in and talk with our pastor, who was able to calm him down.
Although this story may seem extreme, it highlights the complexity students face with not only their thoughts and experiences, but also the major influences in their lives—not to mention the role that leaders in a multiethnic context often have in helping reshape reality through the lens of Scripture in an often-countercultural way.
Until our relationships from Monday through Saturday are consistently transformed, then our Sunday morning will remain homogenous. We must be willing to cultivate community among a diverse (racial/ethnic and socioeconomic) group of students both outside and inside the church. Building these relationships often helps to break down stereotypes, promote inclusion, and foster a healthy level of cross-cultural trust where mistakes can be made without offense. Instead of lightning rods of division, mistakes can become places of growth—and, sometimes, even humor.
5. Practical issues
As folks move from denial to delegation to throwing dollars at the problem to eventually discovering the why of multiethnic ministry, the next and more pressing challenge is often the how. Where to begin will depend on the philosophical view and openness of leadership. This can result in conflict regarding timing, pace, and agreeing on a starting point. A few possibilities include:
- self-work through reading, listening, and reflection
- community-based approaches
- inclusive worship styles
- types of camps and conferences
- empowering diverse leadership
- staff reflecting the community and congregation
- integrated small groups
- mission trips and service projects
Where you begin, your pace, and your timing all have the potential for both positive and negative repercussions. Because of this, counting the cost ahead of time is extremely important.
One example of this is found in Ebonie’s church. For their congregation, effective multiethnic ministry has to include a faith-based appreciation for justice. Others may see a social services-based or community-based approach that meets people’s needs as a first step. Still other ministries may want to partner with an existing parachurch organization that already has credibility and influence in a community. Often, one of our biggest flaws in strategic planning is trying to do it all ourselves, failing to realize there’s great benefit in community partnerships.
Questions to consider in your own ministry
As you think about youth ministry in a multiethnic context, I hope you’ll wrestle with a few of these questions and consider the five issues above. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but helps give us a start to the conversation. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll explore more specifically how to contextualize Sticky Faith principles in multiethnic ministries.
- How can we develop relevant systems and programming to foster cultural competence and cultural intelligence in our student and adult leaders?
- How do we influence camps and conferences to model a multiethnic vision in their leadership and planning, from the worship to the speakers and breakouts, so that sensitivity is given to the complex cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds within our youth groups?
- With a limited amount of structured time each week, how can we grow the relational capacity needed to build trust that crosses lines of race/ethnicity, as well as urban/suburban/rural barriers that so easily divide us?
- How do we partner with parents who are disconnected either because of where they are in their own faith journey or for some other reason?
- How can we prepare our leaders for words like “family,” “education,” and “resources” to have broader meanings in different cultural contexts?
- How could conflicts around our differences actually become gifts of grace from God that take us deeper beneath the surface for opportunities to grow relationally and theologically?