Learning from multicultural youth ministries

Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana Image Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana | Oct 17, 2019

Photo by Sithamshu Manoj

In the beginning, God created. And it was diverse and good.

Diversity has always been at the core of God’s creative action in the world. Although we can fundamentally agree that diversity is a gift, navigating the complexities that multicultural congregations experience can be a unique challenge. At the Fuller Youth Institute, we are committed to diversity and want to ensure that the uniqueness of God’s creation is seen in our research and resources. So after we wrapped up our initial research on Growing Young, we embarked on an additional year of research which led to what we now call the “Multicultural Youth Ministry Project.”

The goal of the Multicultural Youth Ministry Project was to understand how and why multicultural and ethnocultural-specific churches were effectively engaging young people to equip them with the lifelong faith they need. This project consisted of a comprehensive literature review and a year of research involving twelve diverse congregations.

Our Growing Young research provided a strong foundation to understand the commitments a local church needed to engage with young people, but when we took a deeper dive into multicultural contexts, unique challenges and opportunities came into view. From the uniquenesses we discovered in these twelve churches, we were able to identify three lenses through which to view the Growing Young core commitments: Unique leadership dynamics, multidiversity, and immigrant realities.

Handing over the keys of leadership

Keychain leadership refers to the ways in which responsibility and decision-making power is distributed. In most of the churches our team visited for this project, the senior leadership held a high degree of authority, but collaboration and the distribution of power were also high congregational priorities. Senior leaders regularly handed responsibility to emerging leaders from within the church as they built trust. Along with a highly relational leadership, we observed these notable distinctives:

Longevity of leadership

Across the board, the senior leaders in the majority of the churches we visited had been there for a while. The long-term commitment of the senior leadership provided a sense of security and steadiness. We also heard that leaders did not see youth ministry as something you “move up” from, but a role that needs the same long-term commitment modeled by senior leadership.

Bivocational leadership

A number of pastors in the study held a second part- or full-time job, especially youth pastors. This presented unique opportunities for the ministry. Due to limited time and capacity, others were involved and empowered to share leadership at all levels of the ministry. Those who volunteered in their ministry role were entrusted with core responsibilities. They were trained and provided with resources and authority.

Female and male leaders

Young people responded positively to ministries that had both male and female leadership. This contributed to the familial context present in several congregations, and seemed to be linked with deep trust. In one African American church, a husband and wife leadership team were described as an “uncle and aunt,” and were noted for the love and empathy they provided young people.

Adaptive leadership

Churches with an immigrant identity showed a variety of innovative skills and often took leadership risks in order to adapt. In the Latina churches we studied, we saw different expressions of a bilingual worshipping community which ensured that families could worship together.


Young people are navigating a complex world. Congregations in this study presented layers of diversity, including ethnicity, culture, language, theology, socioeconomic status, generation, immigration status, and political view. This complex and multifaceted diversity cut across so many individual and community levels that our research team chose to label it as “multidiversity.”

Young people challenge leaders to see diversity as a tapestry. While in some cases senior church leaders envision diversity as a tight binary that can be compartmentalized, young people often see diversity as layered and interwoven. This pattern was true in our research. Because of this, we noted that many leaders found themselves having to do the hard work of integrating their own cultural identity, which led to more integration overall within the congregation.

Tweet: Young people challenge leaders to see diversity as a tapestry. Doing the hard work of integrating our own cultural identity leads to more integration overall within the church.

Fueling a Warm Community

A warm community is fostered in an environment in which all people can be authentic and accepted. We heard this echoed in our Growing Young research, but what we noticed in these multicultural churches went a step further. A family-oriented approach to church seemed to be a given. Rather than hearing “this church is like family,” we often heard the words, “this church is my family.” In many of these communities, congregants used familial language to describe their relationship to one another (brother, sisters, auntie, uncle). Young people shared stories of belonging and expressed that they would not know where they would be without their local church. The bond was tight.

Being the Best Neighbors

Churches that were deeply committed to seeing all the layers of diversity were often the best neighbors. Neighboring well was a frequently-expressed value. We saw that young people had a particular insight about the needs of their local community, and some congregations had started their own community development organizations. Leaders practiced eating locally and regularly walking the streets in their neighborhood.

Immigrant Realities

A few of the churches we studied began as outreach efforts to immigrant communities, especially to children, youth, and/or college students (sometimes international students specifically). Some served as safe places for immigrant communities and individuals or families who arrived in the US without local connections. Often ethnic churches held in tension two realities: a more traditional first generation and a more Americanized second generation (or subsequent generations). These generational realities presented language, cultural, and theological distinctions.

Center of cultural identity

Many churches functioned as a larger family within which a shared identity is preserved by maintaining cultures and traditions. Young people in these churches valued the vulnerability and honesty of adults willing to hold these conversations and normalize immigration stories. At one church, baile folklórico (Latin American folk dancing) was utilized as a way to embody the stories of the community and engage young people with valued cultural heritage. Some churches provided bilingual services for first-generation immigrants and second-generation children or young people as needed. Others provided separate services and sometimes separate language-based youth ministries. Often adults worked hard to learn English, especially in order to relate to young people. Stories of pastoral leaders’ immigrant journeys seemed to have established credibility with congregations.

Young people as bridge-builders

As a research team the Fuller Youth Institute aims to learn about how churches engage with young people. Often in the process we find the ways in which young people are change agents in their local churches.

A key aspect of the twelve churches who participated in this study was the role of young people as bridge-builders. Every community we encountered was unique and complex, but overall, we found that it was the young people who lived their lives in the community who knew exactly what was going on and could often chart a way forward. Young people in diverse churches find themselves translating not just language, but also generational assumptions and community life. Our hope is to equip churches that can accompany these young bridge builders, and that local churches would see their translating as a gift.

Portions of this post adapted from Mary R. Glenn, Tyler S. Greenway, Kara E. Powell, Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana, and Brad M. Griffin, “We Are Family: What Multicultural Youth Ministry Research Reveals about Leadership Dynamics, Multi-Diversity, and Immigrant Narratives,” Journal of Youth Ministry, volume 17(2), 58-77.

Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana Image
Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana

Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana, originally from Guatemala, grew up in Southern California as the daughter of church planters. Jennifer received her B.A in Social Work at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) and worked with various populations in San Diego County. She has pastored in bilingual, intergenerational, and intercultural ministries and earned her Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. She has led research projects and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Fuller Youth Institute. She is the author of several pastoral toolkits, blogs, and academic publications. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University and is a professor in the School of Theology at PLNU. Her passions include borderland conversations, intercultural youth spiritual formation, bilingual ministries, and theological education for the Latina community.

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