Going Global

When US Teens Tackle Tough International Issues

David Russell | Nov 7, 2007

It’s rumored that Bono once said, “I’m a rock star and I make a lot of noise, but I want the church in the United States to drown me out.”

As a youth pastor in Palm City, Florida, these words reverberated in my soul. They haunted me, caused me to study Scripture more thoroughly, and pushed me to evaluate our ministry in light of the commands of Christ as well as the needs of the world. Along with a handful of other youth pastors from around the country, I decided to cast aside the traditional youth ministry model that I had been following and instead begin a journey of merging the spiritual poverty of our teenagers with the total poverty experienced by many of the world’s kids.

A New Vision of Transformation

While I am now serving at a church in Tustin, CA, my church at the time (New Hope Fellowship) was a passionate little church in a town you’ve probably never been to unless you wanted onion rings from Burger King on your way from Orlando to Miami. There were about three first languages in the youth ministry, and a mix of kids who drove BMW’s and kids whose families couldn’t afford a ride. We had over-achieving honor students, others who hated school, and a group of students that I simply called EGR’s or “Extra Grace Required.” Our only claim to fame was that we were probably the most “normal” youth ministry in the U.S.

Given the extensive work devoted to community transformation in developing countries, our unique idea was that principles from that work could also transform our “normal” kids in a “normal” U.S. city. [[Earlier this year I wrote an article for FYI e-journal in which I championed youth ministries adopting community development models of ministry used by agencies such as World Vision and Compassion that work with people caught in cycles of poverty. I maintained that US teens, even those that live in wealthy suburban neighborhoods, often suffer from poverty that is relational and spiritual. That article can be found at /wp/2007/08/a-tale-of-two-poverties.]] After studying a handful of community development models, the youth pastors gathered in Palm City settled on World Vision’s Transformational Development (TD) model because it seemed the most appropriate for our U.S.-based youth work. The TD model presupposes that humanity is understood in holistic relational terms. In other words, God is a relational God and humans are innately relational and are designed to have relationships with God, other people and the planet. Standing against the modernist separation of the physical and spiritual realms, the purpose of TD is to portray poverty in terms of broken relationships that fail to promote life, righteousness, justice or harmony. The diagram below is adapted from World Visions’ TD model:[[Myers, Bryant. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis,1999.]]

Implementing the Transformational Development Model in Our Ministry

1. Relating to God

At first it seemed like our relationship to God would be the easiest to define, but that was not the case. As we became more purposeful about teaching and dialoguing with students, we discovered that despite being from the same community and church, our students and adults held diverse understandings of what it means to be in relationship with God. By far, most viewed their relationship with God in individualistic terms. God is someone you relate to individually in personal quiet times separate from “normal life”. Discovering this incomplete understanding among my students was perhaps one of the greatest benefits of this process. Once we discovered how limited and limiting our understanding of the divine-human relationship was, we were able to begin a process of expanding on the possibilities of God’s constant loving presence in our lives.

2. Relating to Communities

To explain the relationship of self to community it was helpful to divide community into two sub-categories in order to more authentically represent the life of our students. The first category was the web of students’ acquaintances and friends. Many students share their common life with a group of peers who most likely live in homes scattered around their city or county.

The second community sub-category was the church, which we believed could be students’ most grounded community even though many students only had makeshift social groups at church which they often discarded once they left the church parking lot. We repeatedly pushed the church group as important because we wanted to point to the call of Christians to live in community. To focus this area we kept asking the entire youth ministry community of leaders, volunteers and students if we were relating to our community in a way that promoted reconciliation and encouraged others to find their identity in Christ. [[This idea was formulated around the work of Volf, Miraslov. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.]]

3. Relating to the Planet

We worked to help kids understand their relationship to the environment in terms of justice and to a large extent consumerism. Are we living responsibly considering the amount of resources available? We wanted students to understand that being Christian meant doing more to care for creation than occasionally picking up litter from the church property. We tried to expand this understanding by connecting kids to issues of property ownership, industrialization, housing justice, and agricultural practices.

4. Relating to Others

Relating to others means relating well to people who you do not necessarily share community with or know intimately, but who impact (or perhaps should impact) your life. This could mean presidents, gang members, exploited workers, or U.N. officials. Our primary focus for the “other” was on global children at risk, meaning children and teenagers who suffer from hunger, disease, slavery, exploitation and war. By painting children at risk as the group that is the easiest to overlook and exploit, we identified this relationship as the one in most need of healing.

The Journey of New Hope Fellowship: From South Florida to Sri Lanka and Beyond

At New Hope Fellowship, the idea of students engaging in activities to raise money and consciousness about at-risk kids was familiar even before this process began. For two years students had participated in the 30 Hour Famine to combat world hunger, [[See /wp/resources/curriculum/30-hour-famine-curriculum for a complete free curriculum that can be used for this or other efforts to connect fasting and ending world hunger.]] along with carrying out other justice-focused work on behalf of kids at risk internationally. The problem was that these activities were isolated, or were simply “events” within the ministry, and not significantly tied to our ministry framework.

The most tangible piece of our TD experiment came from a surprising source. A prayer facilitator who visited our town told us about a 50 year-old green building product for which his brother had bought the manufacturing rights. [[The product is called Agriboard. See www.agriboard.com.]] The technology (which includes compressing wheat and rice straw at high temperatures) was proven, but had not been effectively mass produced. After $35 million in investment and testing around the world, this product was now able to be quickly and affordably utilized. The first big buyer was Starbucks, since building stores with the product aligned well with their environmentally-friendly ethos.

Spurred by the ideas of students, our youth ministry asked if the company would give us a $100,000 grant to design a house that could be built with this product by students in under a week at a cost of under $5,000 (including shipping). The grant was given, and the Izumi project was born. [[See www.izumiproject.com.]] Izumi is a Japanese word that translates roughly as the power of one drop of water to make ripples that travel across the entire surface of the water. Our students saw the need for quick affordable housing, especially for disaster response and for stabilizing impoverished communities. We saw our role as finding sites and training teams who would go and build the house with teens from the host community. The house took two months to design and the main engineer was so impressed by the idea that he contacted some of his executive friends at Wal-Mart, who agreed to ship houses at cost to Tsunami-devastated areas. The first ten houses were built and shipped to Sri Lanka four months after we asked for the grant, and today houses are being built in locations on three continents.

Understandably, most people feel that youth pastors, teenagers and corporations are strange bedfellows. However, this is an example of the creative approaches to development that are possible when we seek solutions from students who do not necessarily have the same limitations that adults bring to the table.

To get a small glimpse of the impact the TD model has had on these kids, I’ll share a few other indicators of change in their lives: The students have sponsored 40 children through various agencies, fasted all essentials for 40 days and used the saved money to rescue children from trafficking, have served over 2,000 hours a year in the community, and have sponsored a camp for at-risk girls in Uganda.

These results have begun to reverberate throughout the congregation; to our pleasant surprise, one quarter of the adults of the church showed up for training at the first student-led missions training course. Further, the adult giving to missions rose from a consistent $25,000 a year to over $200,000 during the year following this process. As a result of our TD model, students became the heartbeat for a whole congregation.

New Perspectives on Mission and Spiritual Growth

I am still amazed at what happened and is continuing to take place in the Palm City community. Despite the frequently-changing landscape of youth ministry fads, I genuinely feel that we have struck something with great potential for ministering to this generation. Perhaps in an age where students are apathetic or think they know all there is to know about God, it is time to introduce compassion and service as a key to quickening their spirits. The Transformational Development model could also be an effective tool for understanding what it means to minister within modern churches to postmodern students.

The most important result for me as a youth pastor was the new sense of unity and discipleship that started to work itself through our group. How many times has a church without a purpose focused inwardly and developed cancerous attitudes? By focusing our students on both the relationships within the group and kids at risk, much of the negativity started to dissipate and was replaced with a camaraderie needed for the task. Our students began to work together and develop relationships that would help them work to heal the brokenness in others. The overflow of this new unity was noticed widely within the church. Adults were moved by the new devotion of our students.

This resulted in a completely new way of thinking about discipleship for me. I had thought of mission as being the last stage of a journey that started by bowing down to Christ and continued until we were equipped to minister to others. But I began to see that I was absolutely backwards in my assumption that this is the only route of discipleship. We focused our group on the magnitude of the problem of children at risk and they saw that they needed to work together to affect any change. This brought on a new urgency of community-building which led them to see, albeit with a fair amount of coaching, their need for Christ to be able to sustain authentic community. Thus, they sought Christ to equip them to be the type of people who could engage in community. In this way they did not begin with Christ and end up doing missions but started with missions and discovered their need for Christ in the process.

Action Points

  • Take a moment and look at the Transformational Development model of ministry presented in the article. Consider how it complements or contrasts your current model. Do you think this is an adequate model for youth ministry? How could it be further refined?
  • Many youth workers believe that involvement in justice and mission work is the result of students’ spiritual maturity, whereas this article suggests that perhaps that order is reversed. What is your opinion? How does this article confirm, or stretch, your view of where service fits within students’ spiritual growth?
  • Consider forming a reading and/or prayer group with a few other local youth workers to discuss pressing global AND local issues. Try formulating a plan for your youth ministry that includes education and action.


  • If you are interested in housing justice or the specific project started by the New Hope Youth, check out www.izumiproject.com.
  • www.consumerconsequences.org This website lets you know how many planets it would take to sustain your lifestyle if everyone on the planet lived like you.
  • For more FYI resources and curriculum designed to help you go deeper into involving kids in justice, service, and missions, see /wp/deep-justice.
David Russell

David is a Southern kid who migrated West and recently became the Director of Student Ministry for the Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, TX. He has been a youth pastor for eight years. He has a Certificate in Youth and Family Ministry and an MA in Cross-Cultural Ministry, both from Fuller Seminary. David and his wife Janet are raising two boys.

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