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The Hard Work of Transformation

The Hard Work of Transformation

hardworktransformationOur church celebrated its 100th birthday just a couple of years ago. For half of that century it has been located less than a mile from a local public housing neighborhood. Last year this housing community was named one of the most dangerous places to live in the U.S. Although the members of our church and the folks living in this community have been neighbors for about five decades, we have interacted surprisingly little. It’s kind of amazing to think that so many years passed and our youth group knew not one soul from the community next door. But all that changed four years ago.

Just before the big change we were a small group, averaging somewhere around 30 kids on any given Wednesday night. Diversity was not our strong suit. We were quite comfy with our sameness. That’s when our youth ministry staff transitioned youth pastors. It was the hiring of this new youth pastor that changed everything. Our church invited to staff for the first time ever an African-American. He was a big guy. He was dark-skinned and wore long dreadlocks. His personality was as overpowering as his physical presence. We were very white. And he was very not. At the time of his hiring, the only diversity in our group existed primarily through multi-cultural adoptions by whites. From a cultural and economic experience, we were all the same. But that was about to change.

Remedy the Problem

Although we hadn’t noticed that we were a uniform society, it stuck out like a sore thumb to the new guy. Furthermore, I think it aggravated him that our youth group’s name implied diversity. I remember one of the first conversations with the new youth staff about this irony. The immediate consensus was that it must be remedied. The conversation began with a focus on the housing projects next door. It was the glaring logic we all overlooked for decades. There are youth living in that community. And they are within walking distance. I suppose no one considered it because on some level we feared that community. It was no secret that there were drugs and guns and theft and violence inside the walls of that community. Maybe deep down we knew we were ill-equipped. Yet, that’s what the church is all about, right? Aren’t we supposed to bring light into darkness, love where there is hate, life where there is death? We knew it was time. It was long past time. So, we were going in. The only question was how.

We were in great luck because a few years prior our church’s inner city ministry developed a Saturday outreach for children in this neighborhood. We decided that this would be the best way for us to reach out to the youth living there. So, we partnered with this “Kid’s Club” ministry. We played games, taught about Jesus, and provided meals on Saturday mornings. Our youth department helped staff Kid’s Club with youth leaders and youth. Pretty soon teenage kids were coming out to play football or just hang out and get to know us. We invited these teens to our youth group. Many of the students we met already had a strong bond with the man leading Kid’s Club, the hippie, long-haired biker they called Pastor Jim. Jim had been there for them in times of crisis and helped provide for them in times of need. Jim agreed to run a bus through the neighborhood on Wednesdays for youth who wanted to come to our youth group. Before we knew it our group quadrupled. Between this outreach and our effort in schools, we grew to average 126 in less than a year. Suddenly, we were ethnically and economically diverse. We were enamored with our accomplishments. So much so that none of us looked straight into the challenges that had accompanied this wonderful new reality. Instead, we committed a lot of time to teaching about love and acceptance.

Almost a year was devoted to the topic of love. We taught 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. We talked about love defined in Scripture as something you do—be patient, be kind, don’t envy, don’t boast, keep no record of wrong, etc. Every gathering was an opportunity to massage the message of love into our students. Our summer camp focused on always choosing love. We spoofed popular commercials by substituting our theme of “Always Love.” We made edgy-cool bookmarks outlining the attributes of love. Our t-shirts proclaimed “Always Love.” We were getting our message out and it was effective. Students who grew up in the church had open arms and hearts of love. But there was something brewing under the surface. Something we were trying to ignore. Because it was easier to focus on positive things like students from the neighborhood appearing to get along with “homegrown” students and furthermore, becoming family to the point that we weren’t seeing such distinct lines between groups anymore. So like a polished circus act we kept juggling the so called important balls.

Simmering Tensions

Our group continued to grow. We had achieved legitimate ethnic and economic diversity in our youth group. However, as our group grew bigger and bigger our problems grew bigger, but talking about those out loud was like overshadowing greatness with some ugly cloud of negativity. No one wanted to do that because great things were happening. Kids who were doing drugs were coming to youth group now. Kids who survived by stealing were in our spiritual family now. Kids who had been exposed to sexual behavior were part of our church now. Kids who were neglected and beaten were in our youth group now. Kids who believed they had to fight to survive were in our family now. Only coming to youth group, becoming part of our family didn’t mean they suddenly did a 180° on all that bad behavior. Those things came with them.

Subsequently, we were dared to dance more gracefully than we’d ever been challenged to before. We needed to teach without hurting, accept without condoning, and train without harming. Of course these things had previously been important but like a hot plate whose temperature had just been adjusted to high, all these matters were more sensitive than ever, subject to a rapid boil at the slightest provocation. It became our greatest job to create a safe place for everyone. Our environment needed to be safe for our neighborhood kids, many escaping from horrors at home and a safe place for kids who had grown up in our church, whose parents had spent their entire lives giving the bulk of their energy to protecting them from exposure to wickedness. And yet, nearly every week we had property stolen. Nearly every week we faced challenges we felt unprepared to handle. Frequently, it felt like these challenges towered over us like some massive giant.

Once our students were integrated, we learned the alarming truth that some of our neighborhood boys were approaching girls who grew up in the church for sex. Additionally, we had students coming to youth high. Complicating these difficulties was the fact that we had combined high school with middle school in the Wednesday large group teaching. Behavior involving drugs and sex had to be addressed immediately.

I will never forget the summer night we were just about to start youth when one of our neighborhood boys came running through an alley next to the church being chased by a police officer. That night I spent over an hour in the church parking lot with the local police who had two of our neighborhood youth cuffed in the back of separate cruisers. They were accused of stealing just down the street on their way to youth. I defended their hearts with the officer and with his permission climbed into the backs of each of the police cars with the boys to hug them, to make sure they knew that I loved them, to tell them that this mistake did not define them, and to tell them that I expected to see them back at youth when we got through this. We visited them in jail. We went to their trials and walked with them through their punishment.

Face the Challenges, Cultivate Love and Peace

It took a little while but they came back to youth. And nothing was more gratifying than the moment a year later when one of those boys was on stage in front of the entire youth group singing B.o.B’s “Both of Us” with my daughter in the summer camp talent show. They won. He was the group’s superstar that week. He’d gone from the back of a police car to singing about redemption and strength and community on a stage in front of his peers. It was a moment of knowing we had made a difference. But differences like that can’t be made by ignoring the ugly truths—the seedy underbelly of greatness. Transformation comes when we face and deal with the things we’d rather ignore.

The funny thing is the guy who first steered us down the path to distinction didn’t last. He was only with us for a couple of years. When he left we wondered if we would lose our coveted potpourri of people. The test was before us. Was this diversity real or just a following? Were we going to lose the kids we’d come to love? There were a handful of kids of every color lost at first. But we did not lose our hodgepodge of mixture as a group. We remained intact. We learned that true love, the love of God is colorless, it crosses economic boundaries. Our students know they are loved.

Next, we needed to deal with the matter of transformation. Confronting bad behavior had been a weakness up to this point. Therefore, we weren’t seeing much transformation. It’s not enough to become ethnically and economically diverse. Something great must come out of that diversity. It’s not enough to overcome differences. We must also achieve a unity in spirit. It’s not even enough to teach Biblical principles. We have to hold students accountable to walk in purity. I didn’t say perfection. I said purity.

None of us were prepared for how cultural experience would impact attitudes or how that would affect things like group participation and our ability to understand one another. Or how a white middle class boy might want to wrestle for fun but an impoverished black boy sees any form of touching his person as a physical threat that he must answer with force to maintain his reputation in his community. These cultural differences hold the potential to create clashes within the group that can at a moment’s notice turn violent.

Cultivating love and peace in a potentially hostile environment demands your full attention, spirit, and soul. Things like love and peace and mutual respect become more than buzzwords or social commodities, they become your life’s bread. These virtues must flow out of the good news of Jesus and His huge and equalizing love for all of us. Otherwise, we are merely peddling social reform neglecting what is greater, the redeeming power of Jesus’ blood. Blood that covers all of the colors of our skin and every pocket, whether empty or full. There are no favorites. We all are favorites.


Article published by Center for Youth Ministry Training in YM TODAY – www.cymt.org

Breaking Down Barriers: Understanding the Needs of Single Parents

Breaking Down Barriers: Understanding the Needs of Single Parents

portrait of a mother hugging her son
portrait of a mother hugging her son

Spring is one of my favorite times of year. Winter is finally over. Flowers burst from the ground. The air fills with glorious perfume. It’s as if the whole earth celebrates redemption’s birthday. Easter Sunday is the pinnacle of spring delight with all of our traditions on full display. We romp around with a bounce in our step presenting our Easter best.

This is precisely the scene on a recent Easter Sunday as our delightful Children’s pastor cheerfully roams our church greeting everyone in her path, young and old with the familiar “He is Risen,” which sounds particularly sweet with her upward inflection at the end. She patiently awaits the expected response, “He is Risen indeed!” She peppers the campus with this declarative exchange until she encounters a single mom with her 4-year-old son from our local urban neighborhood. The sun is shining brightly as they meet one another in the crosswalk. This dear woman, not familiar with our religious traditions, is completely unsuspecting. Nevertheless, our sweet, bright-eyed, bouncy-stepped, Children’s pastor looks squarely at the woman’s son and joyfully proclaims, “He is Risen!”, upward inflection and all. She pauses for reply with a broad smile on her face then stares in anticipation at the confused mom who promptly whacks her son on the head and instructs him sternly, “Say thank you!”

I love this story because it demonstrates the gap between our experiences. When we gather in church, too many of us assume that everyone knows the unspoken realities of church culture. These assumptions create barriers and prevent us from becoming an effective support for the urban single mom (or dad) in our midst.

Understand Your Differences

If assumptions create barriers to effective support, then it only makes sense that the first step toward healthy support is to understand that our experiences are different, perhaps vastly different. Recognizing that is key but what comes next is vital. Don’t judge. Look for common denominators.

In other words, you can want to help her all day long. But if you offer help in your language and you expect her to reply in your language, then you both are probably going to be disappointed. You will likely be of little help. And someone may get hurt. It’s important to see the difference in experiences because it is effective for locating need base. If you think her experience is like yours, you will think her need is like yours and that is probably not the case. Once you designate the difference you must do your best to communicate in her language.

Another common barrier builder is to view her through the lens of her need. Also, you must know that her needs are not merely monetary. The lack in the life of an urban single mom stretches beyond money. Furthermore, she is not the sum of the lack in her life nor should it define her to you. She has anxieties about providing for her children and protecting her children that may be completely foreign to you.

Jesus with Skin On

As a youth leader, you likely work within walking distance of her home. Her children feel safe when they hang out with your group and that brings her comfort. Whether she is committed to Jesus or not, she appreciates that connection. It is an act of love to her. She lives in the city and that translates into higher risk factors for her children, especially when they are home alone. She works, and the more time her kids spend with you the better she feels about that. Pretty soon she notices how your influence shapes their behavior. Instead of hanging with gangs, maybe her kids are serving meals to the homeless with your church or finding other more productive ways to spend their time or serve their community. They get into less trouble than before. They don’t fight as much. Steal as much. You are helping her teach them. This is a significant support but it scratches the surface of her need.

She has practical needs which can seem overwhelming, like trying to support multiple families. I remember when my husband, who is very involved as a volunteer in our youth ministry, began spending time with the teenage boys from our church neighborhood. It wasn’t long before they looked to him for things like getting their driver’s licenses and applying for jobs. You might think there is no way you would sit in the DMV for anyone else’s kid but that act of kindness is life-changing for a teenager and a single mom who can’t do it for themselves. It’s a “Jesus with skin on” moment and you know it when you’re in it.

If you are privileged to help a family in a similar way, make sure you do the upfront work before you drive them to the DMV. Don’t assume they know what they should do before they get there. You don’t want to make multiple trips or waste time. The reality of their lives is they often operate on limited information and limited access to information. One of the greatest services you can provide is to help educate as you assist. When you do that you are teaching them how to do these things. They in turn teach their friends. That is empowering for them. Empowerment is a gift. They will love you for it. You will love you for it.

Unique Needs

One boy in our group had a baby with his girlfriend and occasionally needed help caring for his child. It’s not uncommon to find a single mom with teenage children who have become single parents. These are some of the reasons you want to be involved. You can’t be intimidated by the need. You are not the personal provider. God is, and God can handle it. Don’t fear. Too often good leaders shy away from helping because they fear being responsible. But an effective leader will let it go and trust God to provide. And you have to communicate that fact to the moms and students you support.

Trusting God is obvious and essential. What might not be so easy to spot is that you need to engage responsibly. Always! Be accountable. Whether it is to your supervisor or a staff peer, stay in open communication about your activities with students and moms. Offering support is one of the greatest and most godly services we can give one another. But it must always be done responsibly. Most interactions and relationships begin with a good start; however, conflict is inevitable. If you operate within proper boundaries, when conflict arises it can be more easily managed and far less likely to harm the parties involved. Those you support may ask you to breach boundaries. When you refuse you will probably earn respect; even if you don’t, stick to the boundaries. They exist to protect both parties. Be very careful about allowing your compassion to hijack boundaries. This almost always leads to trouble. You might feel noble in the beginning but soon enough you will feel abused and trapped. Then instead of being full of energy and love you find yourself bitter and burned out.

Remember that you are in ministry because you want to serve. You want to serve God. You want to serve God’s people. Whatever form that takes for you in youth ministry, your students with urban single moms (and dads, too) have unique needs. It is a demographic with its own set of challenges. The amazing news is that you are positioned for maximum impact in their lives. Even better news is that you don’t have to do it alone: “He is risen! Say thank you!”


Article published by Center for Youth Ministry Training in YM TODAY – www.cymt.org

The Importance of Building a Relational Foundation

The Importance of Building a Relational Foundation

womenministry_long-630x420I grew up in a traditionally conservative denomination, one that does not allow women to be leaders or pastors or even teach men who are not younger than they are. Sometime after my parents’ divorce when I was in grade school, my faith, studying the Word, and my relationship with God became the most important part of my life. It was around middle school that I stumbled upon Psalm 68:5 that talks about God being a father to the fatherless: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Having been abandoned by own father I recognized that God was offering me a killer deal. So, I took him up on it. I asked him to fill the void my earthly father left, to do exactly what that verse said—to be my father. That was a significant turning point in my life. I wanted to know my new father. Really know him. So, I set out to do just that. This relationship became the driving motivation of my life. The more I learned the more I wanted to know.

This Woman’s Place

I distinctly recall the cork board outside my philosophy courses in college. I used to stare at it, mesmerized by seminary advertisements. Always rolling through my thoughts was a singular massive wish that I could go, but my experience declared that impossible. I am a woman. I was taught early in my religious experience that women have a proper place—that place is second to men. Seminary and pastoral training are reserved for men. Yet, day after day I was drawn to that cork board like iron to a magnet. Dreaming. If only the impossible were possible.

I struggled to choose a major in college, finally landing on psychology. By three years in I felt I’d come to a spiritual crisis, a crossroads. Stay and die or leave and live. Melodramatic, I’ll admit. Nevertheless, this felt like a spiritual revelation. And I responded. I transferred to Bible college with no real knowledge of what I, a woman, could do with a Bible college education. I didn’t care. Whether or not I ever did anything productive in the eyes of society with this Bible education did not matter to me. I desperately wanted it, at my core I needed it.

When I was ordained alongside my husband, a worship pastor, I still wasn’t sure where I fit. Being ordained, allowed to study at a seminary and even earn graduate degrees is a glorious feeling for a girl who grows up believing such things are impossible. Yet that triumphant feeling that springs from opportunity does not simply erase the second class feeling so deeply engrained into a woman’s identity.

The Privilege of Mentoring

It would be easy to wish I’d known then so much of what I know now as a woman in ministry. No doubt I would make more strategic choices that would more efficiently move me farther. I would have eyes to see beyond my experience. I would have more wisdom and sharper discernment. I would not be so readily intimidated. That would likely make me feel better about my middle aged self, the insufficient progress that frustrates me, and how far I am from where the dreams of my youth envisioned me at this age. But I believe it’s better to lean into the tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will and the mystery of the intricacies that line the path God directs for me.

Even if on the majority of days I feel like a colossal failure, I have come to understand that my definition of success isn’t always the same as God’s. I don’t know if I will ever feel like I have learned enough or like my achievements are acceptable. Still, I get to influence the lives of young people every day. I have been given a position of authority. More importantly, I earned a position of authority. That is to say, I build the relational foundation that earns invitation to speak truth into the hard places of young lives. I get to mentor young girls (who I pray benefit from the experience and perspective I’ve gained through the years).

Our large Wednesday youth group meeting is somewhat of a production with various segments. One of the segments is called Devos—the cool way to refer to devotions. For four years I have been mentoring senior girls to lead this segment. Each year a girl with strong leadership skills and a gift to speak is chosen. When she first comes to me she doesn’t always know she has these skills or doesn’t even feel very gifted.

Typically, she is somewhat shy and timid about the prospect of speaking before her peers each week for a year. It is my job to train her. Each year I watch as her talents unfold before our eyes. She grows in confidence. She owns and becomes comfortable with her own voice. Along the way we meet weekly. We are sharing life. Without fail a relationship is built between us. I become invested in her life, in the whole of her. She asks me questions. With God’s help I answer from whatever I have learned along my own path and with the Scripture hidden within me. My only rule is to be honest. I have found that we do not say goodbye when college comes along. She is no longer a youth, yet she comes to me. And I love it. It is absolutely one of my favorite parts of youth ministry.

I am keenly aware that I am privileged to shape the minds, hearts, and spiritual lives of future wives, mothers, and world changers. It is sacred ground. Investing into these girls and then witnessing the fruit as they walk into the fullness of their gifts is a profound satisfaction. I stand before God fully aware that what he has given me is in no way second class. I am confident that he shares this deep satisfaction. Together we watch as his glory shines through her accomplishments. We are proud of her. That is the moment that erases the second class feeling. Then I know not only by faith but by experience that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)


Article published by Center for Youth Ministry Training in YM TODAY – www.cymt.org