Urban Youth and the Church

By Jimmy M. Dorrel Posted on October 09 2009


How they laughed. A 30-second commercial promoting the largest church in town scrolled across the TV during a Saturday night sitcom. Panned shots of robed choir members, a slick preacher, and an invitation to attend the Sunday morning worship service was met with raucous jeering by this crowd of teens. "Oh yeah," one blue-haired teen quipped. "I think I'll get up out of my warm bed and go to church in the morning." Everyone laughed again.

"Boring." "Long." "Piano and organ music crap." "Old people" "Stupid dress-up clothes." The litany of criticisms continued. And just like that, some members of today's youth culture dissed what used to be the center of their parents' lives but is now meaningless and out of touch with their own worlds.

For the most part, today's urban/inner-city kids have abandoned the institutional church. There's a battlefield of Sunday morning arguments on which parents (or the single parent) badger their teens to get up and go to church. Most parents lose more and more ground each year until they finally give up the weekly war in exchange for promised attendance at "special services" like Easter and Christmas.

Most urban kids see local congregations as irrelevant, dress-up societies of hypocrites caught in a religious time warp. U.S. postmoderns have abandoned absolute values, leaving people to believe whatever they choose and seek truth from a wide variety of sources. Studies suggest this trend will continue and the church will lose more ground with these postmodern inner-city teens.

Youth directors who care for the urban, unchurched teens are often caught in a cultural morass. Because they're in touch with the youth culture, they may seek to contemporize Sunday school, weeknight Bible studies, and worship services in an attempt to make them more user-friendly. Yet, relevance to the current youth culture is a hard-to-accept concept for many churches that have entrenched traditions that are truly meaningful only to the regular worshipers.

Changes in worship style, remodeled training programs, and contextualized dress, language, and teaching styles, all of which help reach urban kids, often require more than church leaders can handle (or donors will support!). More often than not, the happenin' youth director gives up, gets removed, or decides to work for a para-church organization that's more supportive and understanding of his or her calling to the marginalized kids.

Any church that's serious about ministry among at-risk, urban teens must take their culture seriously. One's culture is personal and real. Just as foreign missionaries study their destination countries' histories, demographics, anthropology, values, languages, and worldviews, urban-reaching churches must examine the inner-city youth culture. It's often helpful to conduct informal surveys of local urban teens and discuss the results with church members.

By hanging out on their turf, church leaders can discover how these students perceive God and the church, and what could be done to reach them and their peers. What are their felt needs? What are the spiritual issues they see as relevant? What would it take for them to engage in a serious exploration of Christianity? It's important to engage in this relational action research, questioning with attentive ears and bringing as few presuppositions as possible.

Churches must also be able to recognize various sub-groups within the urban youth culture. For example, the ideologies of urban skaters will likely vary widely from inner-city minority teens that live in public housing complexes. Second-generation Hispanic kids may view church in a quite different manner from first-generation, Asian teens that come from an Eastern religious worldview.

As in all groups, there are those who gravitate toward groups and others who are loners. As distinct groups are identified, the church may choose to initially target a particular group that's in geographical proximity to its facility or a group that seems to have fewer barriers to overcome to reach them. Either way, enough information should be collected through these hands-on discussions to provide some lively discussions for the church.

Some church members may find these conversations painful as urban teens may criticize, mock, or misunderstand the church, but these very comments will begin the process of reexamining the role of the church in the context of the growing, urban youth culture. A church that cannot hear the cries and concerns of unchurched kids will never be able to reach them.

It'll be necessary to engage in self-study to acknowledge the various views within the church toward outsiders and recognize the inevitable challenges that will emerge as urban teens are reached. What are the profiles of those who presently attend the church, their ages, economics, and values? What obvious barriers exist among the recognized leaders, both paid and volunteer, that could exclude some inner-city teens? Who are the gatekeepers of the decisions in the church who must be convinced of the importance of this outreach?

Is the church willing to sponsor activities outside the church building to reach the urban teens that won't come to a religious facility?

Is the church willing to hire youth workers that can hang with the inner-city teens where they are?

What expectations of dress, language, and habits will the church have for the urban kids who might venture in?

Is the church willing to allow leadership among these teens, some of whom may not quite fit our traditional profiles for student leaders?

How willing is the church to employ more contemporary music and styles of biblical communication to reach and disciple the urban kids?

Following these important conversations is the "how." When embarking into unknown ministry, one of the best places to begin is with other churches who have successfully reached urban kids. Through trial and error, many congregations have created replicable, working models that can be customized to your local context. Common mistakes can be avoided. Resistant church members, slow to embrace urban youth outreach, will likely be more easily mobilized when they hear of other churches who have gone before.

Programmatic Change
Some "sacred cows" may be challenged in the process of creating meaningful programs for inner-city kids. Many churches have discovered that evening youth programs at locations away from the church building are more attractive for kids from the urban youth culture. These meetings still include honest discussions about relevant topics with which these teens struggle, such as alcohol, drugs, sex, racial prejudice, and cultural trends. Experiential programs generally build relationships and natural conversations better than cognitive approaches to Bible study. Work projects, mission trips, and other volunteer or service efforts create meaning and purpose among disconnected teens that are often looking for more than "church talk."

As with any significant outreach program, Christian staff and volunteers are the in-the-foxhole front-liners. A church that's willing to consider ministry among urban kids must find and empower non-traditional leaders who are genuinely compassionate toward this subculture—who will put in the relational time; who will have awareness of this culture's music, language, and dress. Genuineness is the key. Urban kids (as do most teens) tend to have a built-in "crap detector" and quickly reject an adult trying to gain approval simply by mimicking current styles.

This staff must be multicultural enough to relate to both the urban and the suburban. Unfortunately, many leaders tend to be strong in one area and weak in the other. Pastors and other church staff must be very supportive of the urban youth worker, allowing him or her non-traditional work hours, creative programs, and, perhaps, informal dress.

On our staff today, I have several young adults who have piercings, brightly dyed hair (one with dreadlocks), and fairly odd clothing. These non-traditional ministers are reaching unchurched teens and young adults with the same Gospel that changed my life in the more "traditional" church of my youth. Although packaged differently, the power of the Gospel is still transforming.

Because so many inner-city kids have experienced poverty, single parent homes, abuse or neglect, and other hardships, they're in need of significant hope and healing. Many are hurt, angry, self-destructive, and cynical. The road to faith and discipleship may be full of bumps and potholes for urban youth workers and the churches that embrace this ministry. Hanging in and hanging out is the key. Churches must commit to persevering with these teens who desperately want more from life and need to know that the church won't abandon them when the ugly stuff of their lives is exposed and confronted.

Any successful outreach among them must either provide or partner with other ministries that address core issues of social development. Violence prevention, pre-employment opportunities, personal development, and conflict resolution are critical for at-risk kids on the fringes of society. "Every day, I am one step away from hell," said a 14-year-old young man. "I can still make it, but I may end up running drugs in the gang if something doesn't change soon." Urban youth ministry must deal with real-life issues for these teens who see little future and aren't interested in the "fun and games" approach to youth ministry.

Low-income teens who live in subsidized housing complexes pack our ministry center every day. Activities from "stomping" to basketball to an almost-traditional Valentine's Day dance occur alongside regular conversations about life and future and God. Like any youth group, a good balance of fun, honesty, and challenges, under-girded by a loving environment, is basic. "People down here really care," said Emory, an African-American youth who first came two years ago. "And they don't be making fun of me like they do in my neighborhood." Today, Emory is a leader among the younger guys and is hoping to continue his education.

Finally, as in all relationships, expectations are critical. A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak to an evangelical church that had inherited one million dollars to be used only for local missions. As I explained some of the realities of ministry among "hard-living people," they retreated emotionally. They expected that unchurched, urban folks would "get saved, clean up, and become active church members in our church." Unfortunately, these expectations are generally unrealistic and unfair.

Just as a church that supports a missionary in another land doesn't expect those converts to attend the home church, the most legitimate ministries won't heap that expectation on an urban youth program. In time, there will be some who'll come to the sponsoring church. But the local congregation must be willing to invest in the youth culture regardless of local church benefits. Not unlike all selfless mission work, seeds are sown, and irrigation follows; but others may reap the harvest.

Can the sponsoring church be invested enough in its own city that it'll financially and emotionally sacrifice for the unchurched, urban teens without need of recognition or personal accolades? Can it live with its role of planting and watering, and then let another church, even from another denomination, reap the benefits of the transformed teen? Can it allow a long process of cultivation without quick, recognizable, numerical results?

The hip-hop generation provides one of the greatest challenges for the church. Yet it's this very challenge that may save the church from extinction in the city. Congregations must be willing to see the needs of this generation and respond with compassion, appropriate programs, and the unconditional love of Christ.


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