Race and Student Ministry

in Student Issues on July 23, 2013by

bad part of town, especially compared to where I am from (Tampa).  But maybe the natives find this part of town scary; I am not sure.  So, as I took about 14 teens in a 15 passenger van down the 10 minute drive “across the railroad tracks,” I heard these statements come from the back of the van:

“I hope we don’t get shot.” “What if they offer us drugs?” “ Should I keep my phone in the van? I don’t want it to get stolen?” “I wonder what gangs are here?”
Now, know this from my kids: They are not racist by any stretch. We have 3 kids who are biracial and have one student who is Pakistani. If anything, he unfortunately gets most of the racial jokes from our kids, but he takes it in stride and to some degree encourages them. I will talk more about him in a minute. After the George Zimmerman case, issues of race were brought up more than ever among my students. The students asked me what my take on the verdict was and what would I have done if I were in the situation. As this dialog was going on I was able to see the hearts of our students and what they really thought of issues of race, and to my encouragement they were really torn. One student said this and it really opened up a lot of questions into my own heart:
“Would anything have been different if Trayvon had been in our youth group?”
I always feel like race is a topic in youth ministry that is avoided. Certainly every youth pastor will say they don’t care about the racial demographic of their students, that they just want students to come to Christ. However, with the exception for the larger student ministries in our country, you see there are very few racially diverse youth ministries. To their credit, some youth groups don’t have this option. Some youth groups are situated in neighborhoods or suburbs that only have one particular race predominant in that context. However in other situations, often unknown to the youth pastor, the youth group is not welcoming to people of other races.

Sometimes the environment of our student ministries is so oriented to one specific race that the students marginalize other races without trying.

Here are a few things you as the youth pastor or volunteer leader can teach your students to help stop unnecessary racial division in your student ministry: Race is beautiful: God has created each and every person with an inherit dignity and beauty. A person’s race is a gift from God and it makes us unique. The cross shows us that all people, no matter what their race is worth saving. Jesus crushed the wall of race that divides us by not just coming to save the Jews but the Gentiles as well. Within that, racism and the Gospel are antithetical. Christ came for a diverse group of people. His church makes up of all races and one day we will all be in glory worshiping side-by-side brothers and sisters of every race. Diversity will build you up: People are afraid of change. I remember when I was in middle school there were moms telling the youth pastor to stop inviting me because they were afraid I was going to sell drugs or sleep around with the girls in the youth group. I did neither. Those were presupposed racial stereotypes of being a young Hispanic kid. However, I brought my culture and my diversity with me to an all-white youth group and this was mutually beneficial. They were building me up and they were being built up by me. My perspective was different. This challenged us and grew us. Racial slurs and stereotypes are never okay: We all have to do better at stopping this. If we truly believe that a person’s race is important, then ending racial slurs before they begin is huge. I love the Pakistani kid in my youth. He is funny, athletic, and has a big personality. However, sometimes kids make inappropriate jokes to him because he is Middle Eastern. The kid is smart and flips it around to show Western arrogance and explains that a lot of the stereotypes the kids shove at him are wrong and often times make them look silly for even thinking them. However, a sarcastic battle of intellect is not what I want either. Stopping the slurs and jokes before or while they happen is huge. We are saying that this type of humor is not acceptable in this youth group. Jokes and slurs like those don’t build or edify but rather they just destroy. Challenge them: I think a lot of youth pastors secretly love putting our students in situations that make them uncomfortable and challenge them. We word it as, “taking them out of their comfort zone.” I love linking up with churches that don’t look like ours and doing ministry with them. I took my youth group to a refugee camp in Atlanta once. There we met with another youth group that consisted of Burmese people who fled Burma because of religious persecution. My youth group was able to meet with them and see that though their culture, race, and upbringing was totally different, they can unite under the banner of Christ. We serve people not projects: Often times we will take mission trips and do service projects to undeserved places and minister to people who are poor or hurt. We have to teach our students that these are people and not projects. People who have dignity. People who, after you leave, will either be better off because of what you have done with them that week or the same as they were before. Let me close and reiterate with this:

Your race, culture, heritage, and flavor of church are beautiful things. If people are turned off by your student ministry because of the culture, that is their problem; however, if people are turned off by your student ministry because the people marginalize them, then that is your problem.

In Tampa there is a church called “Crossover Church.” It has been considered one of the most innovative churches in America. The senior pastor is Tommy Kyllonen aka Urban D. He is a Christian Hip Hop pioneer and respected voice in reaching the urban community. I have visited his church on several occasions. It is the “Hip Hop” church– graffiti on the walls, a DJ spinning along side the worship leaders, rap concerts every Sunday evening, and break dancers in the hallways. However there are individuals who don’t listen to hip hop who go to the church and it is beautiful. It is because when you visit, you experience a particular culture that doesn’t marginalize you. It is warm and welcoming. They just express themselves differently. I hope, in a culture where race is dividing us, our youth groups can be a safe place. The world may want to divide us over race issues but Christ died to bring us together in unity.]]>

kolby milton at 6:25 pm

Frank, Well done. This is the best post I have read all year. I couldn’t agree with you more. I love the last sentence, “The world may want to divide us over race issues but Christ died to bring us together in unity.” Thankful for you and your heart for youth ministry.

HeatherLeaCampbell at 8:55 pm

This post REALLY speaks to me and my world. I’ve told Frank this story, but I grew up in a mostly-white church in a mostly-black community. The pastor was convicted that we needed to do more to reach our immediate community, rather than just having church in it. This caused a great stir and half of my church split, INCLUDING the youth pastor. I was in 8th grade and my group went from 20 to just me. The next youth pastor utilized me and we grew the ministry very quickly as we put aside our preconceptions and LEARNED from each other. It was actually his utilization of me that caused the church to see that I was gifted for ministry! This experience learning cross-culturally (not just white-black but with others as well, i was involved in international organizations) helps me greatly as I work in a very diverse ministry now. Every day I educate young people on how to interact with each other appropriately, and struggle finding outside ministries for them to plug in to as a team because of the inclusiveness that is so common.
Thank you SO much for tackling this topic. As I was editing, tears came to my eyes. This is needed. Thanks bro.

Rob Dodd at 8:03 pm

Excellent insight Frank I definitely appreciate your views and thoughts on the topic.


Share Your Valuable Opinions