Unity does not equal uniformity

Lessons learned in multiethnic youth ministry

E. Trey Clark Image E. Trey Clark | Oct 6, 2017

As I sorted through the stack of youth ministry flyers and magazines and thought about my own multiethnic ministry context, I couldn’t help but sense an invitation—an invitation to become White.

I was confronted by what theologian Willie Jennings calls “the White aesthetic regime”—the tendency of the good, the true, and the beautiful to be wrapped around images of White bodies. [1] Intentionally or unintentionally, in most of my youth ministry mail, the images and insights of White people were elevated as the ideal everyone should embody. Advertisements for service projects and mission trips largely displayed pictures of White teens and leaders helping poor Black people in the inner city or overseas. Flyers for camps and conferences almost universally featured only White speakers. And my magazine subscription contained articles that all-too-often avoided issues of race, ethnicity, and minority cultures. The dominance of Whiteness in my regular mail was a painful reminder of the overall lack of sensitivity to and resources for multiethnic youth ministry. [2]

From my perspective, resources focused on these contexts are still scarce. Over the last few years, I have started to find some material that specifically addresses multiethnic youth ministry. I especially learned from Santes Beatty’s “We’re Not All Just Alike: Challenges and Opportunities in Multiethnic Youth Ministries” and other Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) articles beginning to explore Sticky Faith in multicultural and multiethnic contexts. With FYI and others, I see multiethnic youth ministry as a unique and challenging, but ultimately rewarding, ministry that can powerfully reflect God’s kingdom.

Lessons learned

I would like to share five key lessons I have learned on my journey in multiethnic youth ministry. Just to be clear, I am not an expert. Each multiethnic youth ministry context is unique. And there are many mistakes I’ve made and regrettably continue to make. Still, in the midst of my limitations and mistakes during my years as a youth pastor, I began to learn some things about ministry among and with culturally-diverse teenagers and their parents to add to the much-needed conversation on multiethnic youth ministry.

I grew up in a predominantly African American church in Dallas, Texas. My journey in ministry among young people began there when my mother and I started a mentoring program in 2003. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with teenagers in San Francisco and the Chicago area. Some contexts were entirely African American. Others were almost completely White. In 2009, I began serving as the youth pastor at a multiethnic church in the Los Angeles area. Upon my arrival, the youth ministry was approximately 60% Latino/a, 30% White, and 10% Asian American (primarily Japanese). [4] Reflective of the neighborhood, other than my wife and me, there were only a couple of other African Americans. Over a seven-year period, the ethnic composition of the ministry mostly stayed the same, with a slight decrease in White youth and an increase in Latino/a youth.

Keeping my background and context in view, I tentatively offer five of the most important lessons I’ve learned in multiethnic youth ministry so far:

1. Unity does not equal uniformity.

During my first year serving as a youth pastor, I noticed my tendency to unconsciously equate unity with uniformity. When this happened, I pursued unity across diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in a way that ignored the particularities of those backgrounds. Typically, this meant the dominant group (not necessarily the largest group but rather those with the most power and influence) dictated the norms, values, and practices that were core to our youth ministry’s identity. [5]

About six months into serving as a youth pastor, I recall a memorable conversation with Rachel, one of our Latina teens. [6] I had just finished preaching a sermon at a youth service that included references to a few pop culture icons and trends. After the service, Rachel told me with uncompromising (and unsolicited) honesty that the cultural references and examples in my preaching almost never addressed her cultural realities.

Without even realizing it, to use a phrase from social psychologist Christena Cleveland, my preaching references were reflective of “the gold standard effect,” that is, the tendency to believe a certain cultural way of doing things is superior to other ways. [7] In this case, I was elevating certain aspects of White mainstream American culture as the ideal and norm. In my pride, it was initially difficult for me to admit my internalized racism and ethnocentrism, but in time, Rachel’s words helped me take steps towards more intentionally pursuing “unity in diversity without enforced conformity” in various facets of the youth ministry. [8]

For example, along with being more attentive to what illustrations or examples I used in my preaching, [9] some of our youth leadership team soon realized that something as seemingly simple as our Wednesday night youth games perpetuated conformity to the majority culture. I’ll never forget when a couple of our Latino youth—tired of endless rounds of a game called Prince of Paris—challenged our youth ministry to learn and play Chancho Va, a game played in some Latin American countries. One Wednesday night after our youth Bible study, several of us got in a circle and these young people taught us how to play. Not surprisingly, many of the youth and leaders enjoyed it. This experience marked one of the small but helpful turns toward more intentionally recognizing and welcoming different cultures in our context.

2. Lead with listening.

Scott Cormode, a leadership expert and professor at Fuller Seminary, is fond of saying “leadership begins with listening.” [10] I’ve found this is especially true in the context of multiethnic youth ministry. Rather than leading with ideas, suggestions, and plans in my context—particularly as a minority in an unfamiliar mix of cultures—I’ve seen how critical it is to lead with listening.

Practically, adapting the work of sociologist Nancy Ammerman, I benefited from formally and informally investigating my youth ministry context with sensitivity to three areas: [11]

  • activities (What habits and practices define our ministry?),
  • artifacts (What does the youth meeting space, Facebook page, newsletter, etc. communicate about our ministry?), and
  • accounts (How do people describe our youth ministry through their use of language, history, narratives, and worldviews?).

In light of these three questions, I asked, what voices or perspectives might we be ignoring or marginalizing in our context, and what actions do we need to take to change this? These questions, along with the invaluable gift of listening to personal stories, helped me to be more sensitive to the complexity of serving in a multiethnic context. For instance, I started to listen more carefully to the accounts the parents of our Latino/a youth offered of the youth ministry. As I did, I began to see how our seemingly culturally-diverse youth ministry was in many ways shaped by White Western values such as individualism and consumerism—values many of the parents challenged and resented. This leads to the next critical lesson.

3. Seek to honor a diversity of parent perspectives.

Following the work of Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean, Kara Powell, and other youth experts, I affirm that parents are the most significant influence in teenagers’ spiritual and religious development. [12] So one of my major goals as a youth pastor was to partner with parents to see their teens flourish as disciples of Jesus. However, I learned the hard way that my vision of what it means to see youth flourish isn’t always the same as parents’.

On one occasion, I recall eagerly encouraging an Asian American teen I’ll call Sam to get more involved with volunteering in our youth ministry, only to realize his parents forbade him from doing so. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong with Sam. He showed so much promise as a leader, so naturally I encouraged him to volunteer more with our ministry.

From Sam’s parents’ perspective, which was at least in part influenced by their ethnic background, ministry involvement should not interfere with the greater priority of bringing honor to the family by excelling academically. [13] Eventually, I began to honor the concerns of Sam’s parents, who are some of the most devoted followers of Christ I know. Through this and other experiences, I came to see parents’ unique cultural backgrounds (among a number of other factors) lead to different understandings about what it means for their kids to flourish. And even when we think we need to change or correct these understandings, ultimately they first must be honored.

4. Foster intergenerational connectivity that affirms the best of cultural identity.

As a teenager and now as an adult, I have regularly been exposed to, and at times have unconsciously encouraged, discipleship that seeks to replace minority racial and ethnic identities with a White evangelical Christian identity [14]—usually in the name of just helping people become “good Christians.” [15] Of course, the Gospel challenges all cultural backgrounds, but our cultural backgrounds inevitably contain both blessings and baggage. [16] Because of this, it’s vital to help youth see that their spiritual identity in Christ can be affirmed in ways that also honor the best of their racial and ethnic identity.

Drawing on Sticky Faith research that supports the priority and importance of intergenerational relationships, [17] our youth ministry sought to foster intergenerational relationships that affirm the best of teenagers’ cultural identities. We did this despite the unique challenges and tensions inherent in intergenerational ministry in a multiethnic context. While our youth ministry was not completely successful in this effort, we made some progress through several practical steps, such as:

  • creating a multiethnic and intergenerational team of youth volunteers,
  • connecting youth with older mentors who model healthy integration of cultural identity and spiritual identity, and
  • hosting diverse speakers and events (especially with food!) that represent the cultural diversity of our youth ministry.

5. Find leaders who are “rooted in, but not restricted by” their cultural background.

In my predominantly Latino/a and White ministry context, I noticed that I often felt significant pressure to suppress my unique cultural heritage as an African American and to assimilate into the dominant culture of our church. For this reason, I found it critical to nurture my own cultural identity even as I engaged in ministry in a cultural context that was not native to me. To adapt a phrase from sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, multiethnic youth ministry requires leaders who are “rooted in, but not restricted by” their particular racial and ethnic backgrounds. [18]

I learned that youth in multiethnic ministry contexts need leaders who unashamedly affirm the blessings of their cultural heritage even as they appreciate and serve people of different cultural backgrounds. As Pastor Bryan Loritts puts it in Right Color, Wrong Culture, multiethnic ministry requires “people who have the unique ability to go from one culture to another, without compromising who they are in the process.” [19] Such leadership helps youth to appreciate and affirm the best of their own backgrounds.

At times, I have encountered White brothers and sisters who seem to believe they do not have a specific cultural background. Unfortunately, such thinking often perpetuates White culture as the norm and ideal. It is important for White youth leaders in all contexts—but maybe especially in multiethnic ministry contexts—to explore the complexity of their European heritage in general and the complexities of Whiteness in North America in particular. Some of the resources for exploring the complexities of White identity that I have recommended to others include:

There are several critical dimensions of multiethnic youth ministry I have not even hinted at in this brief article. [23] I hope that my tentative reflections offer additional learning to the important conversation on multiethnic youth ministry.

Action Steps:
  • Consider reading and discussing Korie L. Edwards’ The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, or Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church in light of your youth ministry context, ideally with other youth workers and pastoral leadership.
  • Gather a group of parents and youth leaders and process the following questions: What habits or practices define our youth ministry? What does our meeting space, Facebook page, newsletter, etc. communicate about our ministry’s culture? How do people describe our youth ministry through their use of language, history, stories, and worldviews? In light of the previous questions, what voices or perspectives might we be ignoring or marginalizing in our context, and what actions do we need to take to change this?
  • Brainstorm with youth, parents, and leaders how to celebrate the blessings of the cultural traditions represented in your youth ministry.
  • Identify older adults who model healthy integration of their spiritual identity and cultural identity and invite them to share their faith story in the youth ministry.

Lead a diverse generation in faithful and caring discussions about race.

This easy-to-use guide is the perfect handbook for any leader who needs a starting point to talk about race, culture, immigration, and power with today’s young people.

Race & Culture Youth Ministry Posts

[1] See Willie Jennings’ lecture at the 2015 Wheaton College Theology Conference entitled “Disrupting Image.” It can be found here: Last accessed on 30 August 2017. See also his article “Caucasia’s Capital: The Ordinary Presence of Whiteness.” It can be accessed here: Last accessed on 30 August 2017.

[2] By multiethnic youth ministry, I mean youth ministry contexts where no ethnic group is more than 80% of the whole. I am adapting the definition of a multiracial church employed in Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim’s United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2.

[4] I recognize that each of these labels in their own way are problematic and potentially offensive. Other descriptive terms could have been used. Ultimately, all descriptions are limited.

[5] This phenomenon is examined with tremendous insight in a multiethnic church context in Korie L. Edwards, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). If space permitted, I would explore the crucial role of senior pastors and other key ministry leaders in congregations that have a multiethnic youth ministry. It is impossible to adequately understand the culture of a multiethnic youth ministry apart from the larger congregational culture or system of which the youth ministry is a part.

[6] For the sake of confidentiality, I have changed the name and a few details in this story.

[7] Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013), 70.

[8] This is a phrase I have come to appreciate from the National Black Evangelical Association. See their website.

[9] Jared Alcántara talks about the importance of being sensitive to the illustrative material in our sermons in his excellent work on intercultural and improvisational homiletics based on the preaching legend Gardner Taylor. See Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2015), 272.

[10] Scott Cormode, Vocation and Formation Group Leader Training Event. Fuller Theological Seminary, 2014.

[11] I have adapted these questions from Nancy Ammerman’s chapter entitled “Culture and Identity” in Nancy Ammerman et. al., eds., Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998).

[12] See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[13] Other parents from various backgrounds in my youth ministry context have had some similar concerns at times; this is not meant to be an Asian stereotype alone. For more thoughts on ministry with Asian and Asian American families, see Mike Park’s Rediscovering Grace: Challenges and Opportunities in Asian Youth Ministry.

[14] I realize that a monolithic “White evangelical Christian identity” does not exist. Here I refer mainly to certain general features that seem to be perpetuated via contemporary Christian music, books, and popular speakers within the White “evangelical” Christian community in North America.

[15] One of my assumptions undergirding this assertion is that there is no non-cultural Christianity. In other words, all Christian identity is reflective of some cultural context(s).

[16] For facilitating space that affirms the cultural background of people from various racial identities, see Austin Channing Brown’s “Racial Identity and the Church: How to Foster a Sense of Home”.

[17] See Kara E. Powell, Brad A. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), especially chapter five.

[18] Michael Eric Dyson, foreword to Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now, by Touré (New York: Free Press, 2011), xiii.

[19] Bryan Loritts, Right Color, Wrong Culture: A Leadership Fable (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 167. Loritts describes three different types of multiethnic leadership and argues each is valid, but he goes on to make the case that what he calls C2 leaders are crucial in multiethnic churches, that is, leaders who navigate a variety of cultural contexts while remaining rooted in their unique cultural identity. Of course, this could be complicated by bringing into the discussion third culture kids (TCK) who don’t have a clear “cultural home,” so to speak.

[20] Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp, Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2004).

[21] Peggy McIntosh’s article can be freely accessed here.

[22] Daniel Hill, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2017).

[23] One of the many major areas I have not mentioned is facilitating a safe place to understand, explore, and respond to historical and contemporary social injustice that affects the livelihood of minorities within the context of a multiethnic youth ministry.

E. Trey Clark Image
E. Trey Clark

Trey Clark is an assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Seminary. His pastoral experience includes serving as a youth pastor, associate pastor, interim pastor, and preaching pastor. Trey holds a BA and MA from Wheaton College and an MDiv and PhD in Theology from Fuller. Additionally, as a recipient of the Parish Pulpit Fellowship, he has studied in Costa Rica, South Africa, and England. His research and teaching interests include the holistic formation of preachers, Black contemplative spirituality, the history of women preachers, and the intersection of theology, race, and ministry. Trey lives with his wife Dominique, an economic development consultant, and daughter in Southern California, where he enjoys running, meeting new people, and spending time in nature.

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