Unlocking the keys to indigenous urban leadership

Youth for Christ research brief

Dave Rahn | Apr 23, 2012

Tanya’s Story

The story Tanya offered was captivating. With conversational ease she described life in the Hilltop neighborhood of urban Tacoma. Gang-banging was a given. Family drama was an everyday reality. Scrambling to pay bills was common.

But the rest of her story set Tanya apart from lots of other urban young people whose lives too often spiral downward in the face of daunting economic pressures, bleak job opportunities, rampant drugs, schools that don’t work, violence and unstable homes.

Tanya’s older sister had broken free of this hamster-wheel of hopelessness when she discovered the love of Christ. Supported by a rich community of mentors, she became rooted in her faith while doing jail time. She withstood the pain of seeing a best friend gunned down and became a force for positive change. How could Tanya not want to follow her up and out of the despair? Now both of them are involved in ministry, giving back to the neighborhood that they know all too well.

Research Insights for Leaders Like Tanya

In September and October of 2011 a team of research-trained youth workers gathered 81 such stories from young adults living in Tacoma, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Antonio, Columbus, Miami, New York and Philadelphia. The project was orchestrated by Youth for Christ’s City Life ministry. Those selected for interviews were at least 18 years old, had grown up in an urban environment and were perceived as vibrant Christian leaders currently working to bring about the Christian spiritual development of youth or adults through relational ministry in their urban communities. They were indigenous urban ministry leaders.

Slightly more than two thirds of those interviewed were male. There was substantial ethnic diversity represented in the sample, with 38% identifying themselves as Hispanic, 37% black and 17% white. A third were 22 years old or younger; a third were at least 30 years old and the other third fell between these two ages.

Over the course of 30-45 minutes they told their stories to a listening, trained, note-taking pair of researchers. During that time they shared about their initial faith experience in Christ, what it was like for them to grow as a Christian and how they saw their journey into ministry leadership. Seven members of the team huddled together for four days in early November to make sense of 2,750 coded responses derived from the open-ended interview questions.

Here are five findings that jumped out of the data:

1. Relationships matter most.
Nearly half of all the responses that were coded from interviews fell into the relational domain category. This included family (19% of relational mentions) and friends (10%). The Youth for Christ (YFC) City Life holistic model suggests that a relational context is the foundation for ministry in five sub-domains:

1) spiritual and moral literacy;
2) economic literacy;
3) education;
4) basic health and safety;
5) civic literacy.

This study affirms the foundational importance of relationship development in urban ministry.

2. Catalytic life experiences make the greatest difference early in the journey.
They often represent challenges that—if they can be overcome—help someone persevere in their growth and become available for leadership. And it was not unusual for these life hurdles to pop up in some of the sub-domains identified above. For example, one female in the study cited her experience of being sexually abused and how “being able to open up to others and get stuff off of my chest led me to become a follower of Jesus.” Another described how her husband’s incarceration “made [her] get into the Word.”

3. Exemplars and mentors reverse importance over the course of the journey.
Seeing others model authentic Christian lives was a common and significant explanation for why participants decided initially to put their faith in Christ. But as actively engaged mentors made relational investments they became more important than exemplars during their growing in Christ phase, helping them to navigate the tough life challenges described above. These same mentors naturally moved into ministry coaching and they were cited even more frequently for their roles in this latter phase. For example, one young man in Tacoma described how a volunteer leader and his wife drew him to Christ by “showing [him] God’s love.” As he was attracted to the ministry and began to grow he named lots of others who taught and influenced him, including three men who were later called out for how important they were to his becoming a ministry leader: “they showed us how to do it.”

4. Intrinsic motivation becomes more important as Christ followers grow into ministry leaders.
This is the story line of maturity. External circumstances surface most commonly as contributing factors during the initial faith phase (i.e., drug or alcohol abuse, family upheaval, gang-banging, school failure). They are cited less often as Christ followers grow and the Holy Spirit’s customized direction becomes familiar; leaders emerge as they pay increasing attention to their heart’s direction.

5. Providing opportunities can dramatically accelerate the transition from growth into ministry leadership.
During numerous interviews mentors were especially credited with opening ministry doors and encouraging their protégés to walk through them. First ministry experiences are usually the result of invitations by others; they’re seldom self-initiated. This was certainly true of the indigenous urban ministry leaders in our project. Tanya, for example, gushed about how active she was in the weekly urban church that was planted in the neighborhood. More than that, she recounted how she had been asked to help launch and lead ministry to younger kids that had been established by this church. She also described how she still has plenty of “street cred,” but the importance of her witness as a known Christian leader meant, for example, that she refused to be drawn into a fight over boyfriends at the local McDonald’s. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she is thinking like a responsible leader.

Action Points

Here are a few practical takeaways from this research:

  1. Re-purpose any program that doesn’t support the goal of moving adults into closer relationships with kids. Don’t waste valuable time or limited resources in creating activities that won’t deliver over the long haul.
  2. Recognize that the biggest relational strain on adult leaders may come after young people come to Christ but before they emerge as leaders. Kids can get derailed by life’s harsh obstacles as they seek to grow in their faith unless caring mentors help them power through the challenges. Ramp up your support and training of caring volunteers so that they’re ready for this ministry burden.
  3. Identify opportunities for influence that are appropriate for emerging leaders. Camp and/or retreat counseling can be a great fit for this, with appropriate training and support.

Many thanks go to Dr. Kara Powell (Fuller Youth Institute) and Eileen Kooreman (DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative) for their active support and contribution to this research project. Further research insights and City Life’s ongoing efforts to improve urban leadership development practices can be tracked through this link: https://www.yfc.net/citylife/resources/

Dave Rahn

Dave currently serves as the Sr. Vice-President & Chief Ministry Officer for Youth for Christ/USA as well as the Director of Huntington University’s MA in Youth Ministry Leadership. He’s a 40-year youth ministry veteran, a 35-year husband and a 1-year grandpa. His most recent book is Evangelism Remixed: Empowering Students for Courageous and Contagious Faith.

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