I have been in conversations over the past few months about the need for better urban and multi-ethnic representation at youth ministry conferences, training events, and within journals and magazines. These conversations have led me to reflect deeper on why the professional youth ministry training and resourcing world in the US remains a predominately Anglo and male world when it comes to executive leadership. The same is true when you look at the senior leaders of most large para church organization such as Youth for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Young Life. Out of those three, I believe Young Life is doing the best job at becoming more multi-ethnic in their staffing structure.
The professional youth ministry resourcing world remains predominately Anglo and male, while adolescent youth culture is becoming more multi-ethnic, multicultural, and metropolitan. There are a few exceptions such as The Urban Youth Workers Institute founded by Larry Acosta. But, for the sake of the focus of this post, he’s not African-American. Check this out-
* In 2010 the Anglo births in the US dropped under 50%.
* By 2023 Anglos under 18 in the US will be less than 50% of the adolescent population.
Even with these statistics, youth ministry training and resourcing on a national level mostly comes from a suburban, upper-middle class, and Anglo perspective. To a degree, this makes sense because professional youth ministry as we know it in the US was birthed in a European-American, mainline and evangelical context, during World War 2. I will leave it to Asian and Hispanic leaders to talk about where their churches are when it comes to caring about the further development of professional youth ministry. I will focus on the African-American Church.
Does the African-American Church care about a professional approach to youth ministry? At this point, with the experiences and the evidence I currently have, I would say, “no.” There are way too many reasons why, that this post won’t take time to deal with, but let me deal with a few. Let me also take a moment to define what I mean by professional youth ministry. A professional approach to youth ministry is when a church values youth ministry enough to hire at least one paid staff person focused on this area of ministry, preferably full-time with benefits. You could also include that youth ministry is also a priority when it comes to a generous budget for youth ministry programming and for the professional development of the youth pastor for long-term effectiveness.
One could argue that the African-American Church since its inception has been forced to deal with the sinful and oppressive social issues surrounding it from slavery and Jim Crow in the past, to mass incarceration, failing public school systems, and economic disparities just name a few today. This would make sense why a professional approach to youth ministry has not been at the top of the ministry development list. But even with this reality, I would argue that the issues the African-American Church is dealing with makes an even stronger case for the need for a professional approach to youth ministry.
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and not one African-American Church in my city had a full-time youth pastor on staff when I was a teenager and when I became an adult, not much had changed. Even the largest African-American Churches with the resources, seemed only interested in paying for a part-time youth pastor. Now when you see an African-American pastor wearing the best suits, driving a luxury car, but won’t push their congregation to hire a full-time youth pastor, what message does that send to urban youth disconnected from church and more connected to Hip Hop culture?
I know of African-American Churches over 3,000 in weekly attendance that are only willing to pay a youth pastor a part time salary. This creates a culture where African-American youth pastors are in youth ministry mainly to develop their preaching skills and bye time until they get the opportunity to become a Senior Pastor. Others end up working for para churches such as Young Life and Youth for Christ. And still others, create their own non-profit ministries, hustling to raise the dollars to keep it going and in too many cases, fail.
I think one of the reasons many African-Americans don’t value professional youth ministry at the level they should is because they never were professional youth pastors themselves. Anglo mega church pastors such as Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, and Ray Johnston are all former youth pastors, hence their churches have a high value on a professional approach to youth ministry.
Let me end by saying I know of a number of African-American Churches around the country with full-time youth pastors, but they are far too few. I believe the African-American Church cares very much about youth, but not so much about a professional approach to youth ministry that includes resourcing, theological training, denominational leadership, and the development of national African-American led para church movements. I love the African-American Church so much. I’m a product of it. It’s why I had such a difficult time writing this post.
Last night I had the awesome opportunity to speak at CHIC. CHIC stands for Covenant “Higher-s” in Christ. I know, as someone who has only been apart of the Evangelical Covenant Church for six years, I don’t really understand the name either. This national high school conference of the Covenant takes place every three years. The last few conferences, like the one this past week, has taken place on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This week over 5,000 students gathered under the theme, “Undone.” We are undone human beings in an undone world, but the good news is, God desires to transform our lives through Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we might advance the Kingdom of God.
Just so you know this wasn’t just a conference of speakers, bands, and workshops. That all took place, but the young people also packed 100′s of 1,000′s of meals to address hunger around the world. They also raised over $100,000 for Evangelical Covenant Missions efforts. That’s straight cash out of the pockets of a many times called, consumeristic generation. I was able to connect one on one with many of the young people and I sensed a heart for God and to make a revolutionary difference in the world. I have spoken at many youth conferences, but this one is very special. I know what you’re thinking, “of course he’s going to say that, it’s your denomination!” Yes, that’s true, but I’m not one to give props like that.
CHIC is incredible to me for a couple of reasons. One, the Evangelical Covenant Church of America is one of the smaller denominations, so to put on a conference that draws 5,000 youth makes a statement. I realize that numbers aren’t everything, but these youth show up because so many adults, whose lives have been impacted by CHIC years ago have been praying for this generation. Second, CHIC is not just about good music and speaking, many Christian youth conferences do that. It’s about equipping young people to realize the potential they have to lead a Kingdom building movement for God. The connection between evangelism and social justice is the key to me, which unfortunately is still not dealt with as much as it should be in evangelical youth ministry. I don’t mean connecting coming to Christ with missions trips. I’m talking about connecting an intimate, life transforming relationship with Jesus with His call to address the sick, hungry, and incarcerated. To address head-on issues of race and the empowerment of women. For more info about CHIC and the impact made this week go to www.covchurch.org