God of the generations

Jude Tiersma Watson | Jan 4, 2008

Photo by Jonathen Adkins.

Is there hope for the city?

This question is often asked after some high-profile urban crisis. While that’s not a bad question, I know a better one.

What is the city’s greatest hope?

As someone who has spent twenty years in the city of Los Angeles, I can immediately answer that question. Born on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, raised on a dairy farm in rural California, not an urban gene in my heritage, I moved into the city. With the call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) in the city, it did not take long to realize that the best hope of transformation would come not through me or our team of relocated leaders, but through the amazing young people we were coming to know. While God works through all sorts of leaders, some of my greatest hope for the city comes from those who grew up in the city and choose to stay there as indigenous leaders. [[While there are some problems with the term “indigenous” since it is also the term for First Nations people who are native to America (often also referred to as Native Americans), it is the term popularized by John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and has roots in the history of mission. A similar term is “local leaders”, and the two will be used interchangeably here.]]

Layers of leaders

Other types of leaders are also active in the city. In their seminal text, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God, Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz cite three types of urban leaders. [Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 379 ff.] The first are the relocated leaders. These are often non-urbanites who have sensed a call to move into the urban context to live alongside the poor and to serve in the city. Relocated leaders can play a key role, if they walk with humility and recognize the central role of other types of leaders.

According to Conn and Ortiz, another form of leader is the multiethnic leadership team. These teams are often found as pastoral teams of large urban churches. These teams can be effective at crossing the cultural divides between various ethnic groups.

The third type is the focus of this article, the indigenous leaders. These are the folks who grew up in the urban context. For these leaders, the city is not a cross-cultural context, it is their life—the very air they breathe.

In addition to this typology from Conn and Ortiz, I believe a fourth type of leader is important to recognize as similar to, but nonetheless distinct from, indigenous leaders. This person is culturally similar to those in a particular urban context, perhaps speaking the same language, but this is not their home turf. An educated Argentine may speak Spanish, and be culturally near immigrants from Mexico, but they are not indigenous to the U.S. urban context. Another example is a ministry that is looking for a leader for an African American ministry, and ends up hiring a Nigerian. While these folks certainly have an important part to play, it is helpful to distinguish them from indigenous leaders.

Gleanings from FYI research

Through the research of the Urban Empowerment Project, FYI conducted interviews with a variety of exemplary urban youth ministries. This article will highlight the most pertinent themes that emerged from this research.

The priority of relationships over programs is a theme that was echoed by many ministries. Programs have their place and can accomplish many things, but programs by themselves don’t change people. Relationships change people—their relationship with God, with a mentor, and with others in their community. Relationships provide the unconditional love that is life-transforming. Youth workers who are effective at indigenous urban leadership development (IULD) recognize that programs then flow from the relationships rather than attempting to fit people into programs that may or may not suit them.

One way to do this is through mentoring relationships. Mentoring and coaching relationships can be a lifeline for a young person. Some youth will find the one-hour-a-week approach adequate, but for others, this will not be nearly enough. Effective groups take a more whole-life approach. After all, Jesus spent more than one hour per week with his disciples.

We must also remember that like the African proverb reminds us, it does in fact take a village or community to raise a child. If a kid’s only support is their mentor, what happens when that mentor leaves? Youth also need a broader community in which they belong. Finding a church community that can embrace these emerging leaders can be a challenge, but one that we must keep working on. Another aspect of community is the networks of relationships that embed a young person. As we know from James Garbarino’s groundbreaking work, when these are strengthened and interconnected, the chances of thriving are increased. [For more on Garbarino’s work on the ecological niches that make up a child’s world, see Garbarino et al, Children and Families in the Social Environment (2nd ed, Edison, NJ: Transaction, 1992).For a brief summary of Garbarino’s work, see Jude Tiersma Watson, "We Have Forgotten That We Belong To Each Other."]

Flowing from the theme on the importance of relationships is the time commitment needed to facilitate urban youth becoming leaders. Soon after I began hanging out with neighborhood kids, they began asking me how long I planned to stick around. The message was clear—if they were going to trust me, they needed to know that I wouldn’t be taking the next Greyhound out of town. This theme is also found in Lyle Schaller’s City Center Churches. [Lyle E. Schaller, ed, Center City Churches: The New Urban Frontier (Ministry for the Third Millennium Series, Nashville: Abingdon, 1993).] Schaller looks at what contributes to the success of urban churches, and finds that one of the key characteristics is pastors who stayed for many years, even decades, in the same location. Many of the ministries we spoke with also had leaders who had committed for many years and had grown along with the ministries. An example is Kit Danley of Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, who has been guiding this ministry more than two decades and is now seeing the next generation take the helm of leadership.

This long-term approach is counter-cultural within our society. Ours is a culture that wants things done now, but God is never in the same hurry that we are. God works in and through the generations. The story of God forming his people in the Old Testament takes many twists and turns over many generations. Young people need time for the things of God to truly take root. We need to be people who extend grace to others, as God continually does with us. God is a God of generations, not two-year plans. This generational perspective allows us to walk with urban youth through the passages of life, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing, not only within them, but in their entire families and networks, for now and for the generations to come.

Raising up stay-ers?

Another theme that arose from the research, and one of the tensions of urban leadership development, is the question of whether youth need to stay in or leave the neighborhood. The ideal of IULD says to the indigenous leader, “Stay, you are needed here.” However, that is a choice that we cannot make for them. We must be careful not to pressure through guilt, when in fact the circumstances of the street do make it difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to remain in the neighborhood.

It is hard for those not from the city to understand how strong the pressures and allures of the streets can be. The distinction between those who are living a street life and the rest of the neighborhood are often blurred—the gang member is the kid I grew up with, or my cousin. Additionally, there often is no place else to go. If the entire family lives in a very small space, the corner may be the only place to hang out. The entertainment options available to those in the suburbs with more economic resources often aren’t available in a poorer neighborhood. I have known several moms who have bought their sons video games to keep them indoors.

Some do make it off the streets without leaving the neighborhood, but others need to leave, at least for a time. Young people must be able to make that decision without losing the support of those who love them. If we hold only to the ideal of IULD, without considering the needs of a particular young person, we may end up sacrificing them for the sake of ministry. We always must remember that the youth belong to God, not to us. Faced with overwhelming needs, it is easy to believe that this person is so needed as a leader in the ministry that we can’t let them go. But when we do, we may find them returning, or making a difference elsewhere as leaders within their spheres of influence as mechanics, nurses, or teachers.

Challenges for indigenous leaders

While local leaders have great advantages as they minister, there are also some added challenges. When a relocated leader sets boundaries, the boundaries may be accepted, as this person is seen as culturally different. But for a local, setting limits can be an offense. They are expected to be available at all hours. Also within their families, there are expectations and demands that can increase the challenges. The family may look to them for economic, social, or spiritual support, and these burdens can be significant at times. While many relocated leaders have families supporting them through college, indigenous leaders are often a key source of support and strength in their own families.

This leads to one of the more challenging areas of IULD: the lack of economic resources. Many urban young people need to contribute to the family income, so volunteering in a ministry is not an option for them. Those who work for groups that use the personal support-raising model have an added challenge. This model assumes a social network with significant resources. What does this look like if a local leader does not have the network to raise support? How do we bring them into the ministry without creating new dependencies? These questions are not easily resolved.

Empowering to Lead

One theme that underlies all the other themes in the IULD paradigm is empowerment. Exemplary churches and ministries give youth a sense of agency in the world, to help them see that they can be agents of transformation in their world. Facilitating the raising up of local leaders is the ultimate way that this empowering and the subsequent transformation take place.

Often youth workers who are not from the urban context want to help and to serve. So these well-intentioned non-locals start doing things FOR people instead of coming alongside people. This makes us feel good, but does not provide a permanent solution. If we look through the lens of indigenous urban leadership development, we are not asking “What can I do?” but “How can I come alongside those already in the community who know it from the inside, the ones God is raising up to be the leaders of transformation in their own communities?” If we remember to look through this lens, we can also be partners in this transformation, working together to create a city full of hope for the generations to come.

Action Points

  • Look in a Bible concordance or do an online search at www.biblegateway.com on the term “generations”. What does God say in the scriptures about generations? What do we do with that when it comes to thinking about our timing and schedules (either explicit or implicit) for leadership development?
  • How are you balancing the need for results in ministry with patiently acknowledging that God often works slowly over time in ministry? What’s most frustrating about serving a “God of generations”? What’s most hopeful and exciting?
  • What kinds of leaders are most represented in your ministry and/or in your neighborhood context? Gather some students and adults and ask how they feel about the level of diversity represented in your personal and team leadership, and consider developing a plan for more effective indigenous leadership development.

Additional Audio Resources for this Article:


Kara Powell interviews Rudy Carrasco (mp3) on IULD
Jude Tiersma Watson and Dan Hodge teach on IULD (mp3) for our Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program.


Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.

Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Mission in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and serves on the Executive Committee for the Fuller Youth Institute. Jude and her husband John are elders with InnerCHANGE/CRM, a Christian Order Among the Poor. Jude has lived in the Westlake immigrant neighborhood in central Los Angeles for 20 years. The InnerCHANGE team in L.A. seeks to see God transform and raise up leaders for a new urban generation. Jude has a special interest in the integration of spirituality in the urban context.


More from this author

More From Us

Hello, WELCOME TO FYI
Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.