What Role Does Race Play in Youth Ministry?

By Jacob Eckeberger on June 15 2014

1Q interviews are when we ask multiple youth pastors the same question and share their responses. In this 1Q interview we explore the role of race in youth ministry with 3 different youth pastors.

Original photo by writRHET

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legenday quote about Sunday morning being the most segregated time in America opened the eyes of the Church to an unfortunate racial legacy that still rings true and has a significant impact on our students today. I think that Youth Specialties and all other organizations like YS that seek to provide a guiding voice for youth workers can do a better job of talking about the significance of racial issues with our students. Of course, topics like this come with perspectives that are just as diverse as we are. So in an effort to get a snapshot of how different youth workers are approaching diversity within their ministry, I reached out to 3 veterans of youth ministry in this week's 1Q interview and asked the question: “What role does race play in youth ministry?” 

Coby Cagle Youth Pastor at Quest Church in Seattle, WA and co-founder of The College Consensus.

We need to step back from this question and talk about how one's race, ethnicity, and culture impacts how he or she reads and interprets scripture before we can address this question fully. But that discussion goes beyond the parameters of this assignment. To pastor well, we must listen well and stand in solidarity with the people God puts in our path. While there is certainly pain that my kids experience that transcends race (like the death of a loved one and breaking up with a girlfriend) much of the pain that my kids of color experience is a direct result of racially charged incidents that they experience personally and beyond. At least once a month one of my kids of color speaks about racist experiences that they personally encounter. Furthermore, when racially charged tragedies occur, like the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin, my students feel them deeply. Race is a part of our lives and thus it is a part of our conversations about how to follow Jesus.

Fred Oduyoye Director of Networks at YS and a long time veteran of urban youth ministry.

Race will continue to play a part no matter the strata, structure, or environment whereby there is an involvement of people. There will always be a tension between memory and identity. In youth ministry, it plays out in at least three areas: 1) the social context, 2) the ministry context, and 3) the leadership’s capacity to embrace the experiences relative to the cultures within their surrounding community. The ability to connect people and resources is based on the historical experiences of the youth leader. In order to transcend race matters for the liberal advancement of students, youth leaders will have to adopt similar cross-cultural spaces that their students frequent.

Irene Cho manager of the Urban Youth Ministry Certificate Program at the Fuller Youth Institute and youth ministry veteran.

I consider this an exciting time in history to be a person of color ​serving in youth ministry. As the US continues to see an increase in ethnic diversity, it is encouraging to be a voice that's invited to speak into important issues that students are discussing in their churches, schools, among their peers, and with their families. The more perspectives we invite to the discussion, the more holistic we are as the Body of Christ when sharing God's story with the world. God's story is fuller when together we study how almost every Bible hero had some kind of immigrant experience. It is fuller when we collectively wrestle with the Good Samaritan story about who our neighbor is, or Peter's vision from God showing that all people are invited to feast at the table. It is a marvelous time to celebrate with teenagers the full diversity of God's Kingdom.


Picture of Jackson Fong

From Jackson Fong on June 17, 2014

Intriguing. Having served in a number of churches and even grown up in a ‘ethnic’ environment. I’m torn. We speak of different ‘races’, yet there is only one human race. I suggest that the better ‘verbage’ would be ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnic’. In either case, there are some groups that would push and pull intensely in regard to this topic. Why? Partially because it will be felt/perceived/understood as a matter of identity. We see in Scripture the importance of unity, yet at the same time, the blessing of diversity. I am pleased that each of those who have contributed to this article point back to God in addressing this subject. Keeping in mind that on one hand, the culture of the students involved may play a huge role in this, (some may not really struggle with this while others may get floored by this) how we as leaders lead will play a great part in the student’s development. Yes. LISTEN. LEARN. ADAPT. ENCOURAGE. EMBRACE. The students will follow our lead. (And some may go to the other extreme)  Thanks for stretching the conversation and digging DEEPER.

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From Jeff Whye on June 18, 2014

My thoughts on questions like these tend to usually lean towards 2 responses!  Spiritually and physically.  Spiritually in the sense of what God says through His word that ultimately should effect our daily lives.  As well as physically, the practical reality of what actual day to day experiences we have. 

In 2 Cor. It says that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  This to me should be done period.  In all kinds of ways.  Of course to reconcile others to Jesus but as well as to each other.  A true God relationship involves our relationship with each other. 
Most people of color live in a world in which they feel the gravity of life more then others. Unless you are of the darker hue yourself, you will never understand.  I’m not saying that we have to understand each other, just be willing to know that it’s different and desire to get to know who your neighbor is.
As a person of color I can tell you that every day (if I looked) I have some experience that reminds me that I am of color and that most in my community and environment will never experience or have a the same daily “notice” that they are different.
It’s just the way it is.  In order for me to come towards reconciliation and racial integration I need to be gracious and forgiving and be willing to lovingly educate my lighter friends. It’s what Jesus would do.  And those that are on the side of the majority, need to know that their goal should be to not fear the unknown but desire to know.  Knowledge is powerful and hearing each other’s story and inviting each other into their neighbors lives, community and world is the key. To use their position to help positive change.

Spiritually; I am all about and fueled by 2 Cor. 5:20.
I am a new creation in Christ. The old is gone and I have a new nature, a new DNA.  My family, RACE and make up has been completely altered.  My identity is in Christ.  So this is the bridge, bond and tie that helps me truly love and live with other believers who may not share this external earthly shell called skin. 
It’s amazing that more than biologically and anatomically 99% of what makes us human is the same but we get caught up on the 1%.

Race plays a factor in my ministry because I am a black youth pastor to a predominately white group of students and church.  The fact that I am a black guy already is a message and effort towards reconciliation and racial bridging.
You may not even have diversity in your context, but you should attempt to seek it in some way! Maybe read a book.

Reconciliation and race in church is messy, it could be really messy…but is it what God requires of us?! And Jesus lives in the messes! He lives in us right?


Picture of Jacob Eckeberger

From Jacob Eckeberger on June 18, 2014

It’s so great to have both of your perspectives Jackson & Jeff. I really appreciate your focus on unity within Christ while also celebrating diversity. I know that my friends of color have life significant life experiences that continue to shape their faith and that ultimately, I will never be able to fully understand. But a huge part of celebrating that diversity is trying to understand and continual education, choosing to always be open to a new perspective.

I love Jackson’s point that our words and actions will lead students, especially in conversations like this. It’s such a great reminder.

Picture of Cedric Lundy

From Cedric Lundy on June 18, 2014

I am a black youth pastor at an almost all-white church, in the south. In eight years at one place I can still count on two hands the number of black students I’ve had involved in the youth ministry. Race plays a fairly significant role.

For my white students it plays a role in that they are an all white youth group with a black youth pastor. Especially when we have gone to rural areas for mission trips or through them on our way to a retreat. I don’t make a practice of pointing it out to them but they’ve noticed being looked at differently. We’ve gotten responses ranging in gobsmacked to disapproval when seeing a large group of white teens and adults being lead and directed by a black man.

For my white adult volunteers they’ve had to deal with the frustration that when we go to conferences and mission trips, that even after clarifying that the lone “black guy” is actually the one in charge, volunteers at registration tables or security still look at them when giving us further instructions when we check in.

For my black students it plays a role in that they must realize that many of the white students don’t approach them or initiate conversation and friendship with them because of their color but not because they are racist. More often than not the white students have observed at school (particularly High School) that the black kids only associate with other black students so subconsciously they’ve assumed that you don’t want anything to do with them just like the black kids at their school.

In short just as with anything else, if it plays a role in the lives of youth outside the church then it plays a role in youth ministry.

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From rtoroyz ken on July 08, 2014

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