What’s the definition of “urban” youth ministry?

Brad M. Griffin | Apr 23, 2013

Photo by Anthony Delanoix

Have you ever asked—or been asked—this question? It’s a tough one.

The question sometimes sits under the surface of ministry discussions around urban youth ministry. Sometimes it’s an elephant in the room. What do we really mean when we say “urban” ministry?

I love that on opening day of this week's class about leadership in urban youth ministry, FYI professor Jeremy Del Rio opens with this very question. The students are all actively engaged in urban ministry of one sort another (as is Jeremy) in cities across the country and Canada. But Jeremy calls out an ambiguity that all of these students can identify with.

In American ministry culture, “Urban” has become a code word for ministry to people of color, or people impacted by poverty, or hip hop culture, or resource-deprived inner city neighborhoods, or all of the above. These distinctives aren’t necessarily bad, but they are very different, and none of them are tied by definition to the adjective “urban”.

For example, does urban ministry mean serving in the “inner city” with kids and families marked by poverty? What if the inner city is increasingly marked by gentrification (the relocation of middle/upper class populations to urban centers)? What if lower-income families are increasingly pushed to the margins or outer rings of a city? What if formerly all-white suburban communities become inhabited by nonwhite dwellers? What then?

Jeremy’s definition of urban ministry is a bit different, drawing from Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the welfare of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf…in its welfare you will find your welfare.” If we can connect what we’re doing to seeking the peace and welfare—or shalom (wholeness, flourishing)—of the city we’re serving within, it’s urban ministry. It’s good news in the neighborhood.

This Jeremiah passage is a word spoken by a prophet to a people in exile—a people who find themselves in a place they don’t want to be, among a people they must serve as captives. Urban youth ministry is often like this, marked by serving in a context of exile. Choosing to serve with a posture of longevity and seeking the shalom of the city can make all the difference.

In other words, urban ministry means being willing to get in there, get to know your neighbors, and fully invest in the city around you. Are you willing to raise your grandkids in this space? If so, that might be a different vision of urban ministry than you’ve heard, one that’s often founded on going into a desperate community and rescuing it. Or one grounded in getting poor kids of color out of the neighborhood and on to “better” things.

The benchmark for success under this vision becomes the flourishing of the community within which the church is embedded.

Under this definition, the operative question becomes: How do I serve and support what God is already doing in this place, in this neighborhood, in this city?

How do you define urban ministry, and how does it shape what you do?

(reposted and updated from April 2012)

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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