What if I told you that gangs are using youth ministry approaches to recruit and retain young people? After all, gangs are all about monetary gain and violence, right? During my time in youth ministry, I have noticed a striking resemblance in gang systems and the youth ministry models we implement. Gangs have published biblical language and aspects of communal living in their by laws to enhance their reach and use a seasonal approach to ensure their operation is effective. Similar to youth ministry, gangs implement seasonal outreach, recruitment, and discipleship efforts to grow and attract aspiring members. As an advocate for young people, I have learned/practiced three dangerous acts that have reclaimed and interrupted the cycle of gang activity our young people experience.
1) The Dangerous Act of Being Consistent
As youth workers who want to see young people thrive, we must be consistent in our communication, proximity and influence. One of the tactics gangs use in their recruitment strategy is frequent contact with their desired member. They are likely to attend functions, school events and even church activities the student participates in. Yes, you read that correctly, church activities. The recruiting process is slow because they want the student to feel that their sense of belonging and allegiance doesn’t have to be made on a whim. The gang is communicating that we are here for you and we are going to intentionally pursue you because you add value to our group.
Isn’t this the same message we are trying to communicate in youth ministries? You belong and have value. You are made in the image of God and you are a vital part of our community. As youth workers, we have the incredible opportunity to let our young people know that there is a better way. When we are consistent and transparent with students, we gain credibility and respect without having to demonstrate power over people. Being consistent in student ministry is vital because it communicates that we are going to show up when difficult situations arise. One of the worst things we can lose as youth workers is our ability to influence youth culture.
2) The Dangerous Act of Granting Permission
We often times give young people responsibility but not dominion. Gangs offer our young people the autonomy to operate out of their gifts and abilities. They set them up for success and push them toward their purpose. Gangs give young people access to achieve a given task. Furthermore, they give them a new name, a mission and a vision. They give them purpose! In return, young people pledge their loyalty to the group. You never have to ask a gang member who they represent because they will always tell you.
Isn’t this the same message we are trying to communicate in our youth ministries? You are an important part of the body of Christ and have a new name, mission and vision in the Kingdom of God.
My mentor is constantly telling me,
“you don’t have to preach passion to students, they already have that, give them permission.”
When we grant our students permission to be themselves and pursue their passions, our ministries become less about performance and more about the Kingdom of God.
3) The Dangerous Act of Speaking Love
In the scriptures, we are reminded that perfect love casts out fear. Words mean something to young people who have experienced abandonment. It takes a lifetime to build trust, but only seconds to lose it. As youth workers, we communicate regularly with students and the culture they live in. However, we must be intentional about speaking love directly into their circumstances. For a culture who is always ready to fight, it has no idea how to receive love.
Youth workers have the incredible opportunity to share words of life with young people who do not receive affirmation or affection on a daily basis.
Young people are joining gangs because they want to belong. When we commit to the dangerous acts of being consistent, granting permission, and speaking love, we interrupt the cycle of abandonment our young people are experiencing. These three acts push us to be involved in youth culture outside of the church walls. Friends, young people are finding their purpose in gangs. This can not be their narrative, will you help stop the cycle?
William Parker serves as the Youth Director of Capleville United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. As a Graduate Resident in The Center for Youth Ministry Training program, he is earning his Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary. He has a passion for urban youth outreach and reaching those who have been marginalized from popular culture. William and his wife Challice have been ministering in Memphis for the last two years.