Yesterday we remembered one of the greatest heroes America has known. Martin Luther King Jr. shook a nation and changed the course of history alongside other brave people all with a dream. A dream he so eloquently spoke of on that late August day back in 1963. Now nearly 50 years later I wonder, how are we doing? Since I’m a youth pastor, I’m particularly interested in asking this question: Do our youth ministries reflect an accomplishment of MLKJr’s dream?
It’s good for us to evaluate all kinds of aspects of our youth ministry. Are we friendly? Are our messages and teaching connecting? Are they actually teaching the students? Are our leaders leading or chaperoning? Are we growing? Are we building community? Are we discipling?
And I could go on and on with the various questions that we can and should be asking of our youth ministries. But I want to pose one more:
Are we reflecting a racially and ethnically diverse community in our youth ministry?
In my last youth ministry I was in a town that – I kid you not! – according to city-data.com had a 96.6% white population. It was difficult being racially diverse there! But we did it. Our youth ministry had pretty decent representation of that 3.4%. Now I’m serving in a very different area with much more diversity and again this youth ministry is reflecting that. To be clear, there is still much room for improvement! But I never wanted to be a church like so many where it seems to have only one race represented.
It takes work to see that wonderful dream of MLKJr’s accomplished in a church’s youth ministry. To see young men and women – black and white – worshipping and fellowshipping together.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way that have helped:
1. Music matters*
Recognizing this fact may be one of the simplest and yet most profound things you could do to help encourage diversity in your group. Mix up the style of music that’s played before and after your service. And even mix up how you do your worship.
Music is central to most teenagers’ lives. You can’t expect to play hardcore music and get the hip-hop crowd, or vice versa. I like both of those styles, but I have to be willing to play music that I don’t like to connect with students that I do love. Of course, you can’t play everyone’s favorite song or style, but realize this: In our day of Pandora stations, students may be used to hearing a song every once in a while that they don’t like. But they do not expect to have to listen to 5 songs in a row that they don’t like. Mix it up!
2. Leaders pave the way
Students want to follow leaders that are caring, compassionate, and fun. Race doesn’t matter. But we all tend to naturally be more comfortable with following someone that looks like us. So it pays to be intentional in finding quality leaders that will represent the variety of students you want to reach. This actually goes for hobbies and social groups as well. The more a student can look at a leader in your ministry and go, “I bet that person would get me” the absolute better off you are!
3. Find the common ground
Games break down walls because everyone is playing together. Eating meals together is such a powerful wall-breaker because everyone gets hungry and likes food. Serving works wonders at getting different people on a single common mission. These and more are so important because they allow students to find what they share in common as well as to have common and shared experiences together. After all, I think that’s what the church is about: doing life together.
4. Focus on the humanity not the diversity
Simply put, I think we can sometimes focus too much on trying to be diverse that we hurt ourselves. If we’re not careful, when we point out how diverse and different we all are, we can magnify the differences rather than the similarities. We may all wear different shoes, listen to different music, find different things fun, talk different ways, and watch different shows, but we are ALL sinful, broken, and hurting people with a need for a Savior and a longing to belong somewhere. Focus on that.
5. Be willing to tweak or change just about anything.
Like I said earlier, I’m by no means an expert here. I’ve not “arrived” yet, and I’m still working on getting the youth ministry I work with to reflect the diversity of the area we’re in. It’s a constant effort and it needs to be. To do this we need to be willing to adjust things constantly as we go along. We need to find out how we can best reach out to everyone and allow everyone to belong. What worked before may not work as well now. And we should never be so stuck in our ways to not recognize it when that happens and change accordingly.
So let me ask you, is the dream alive in your youth ministry?
*If you’re looking for some music to use to mix up what you’re playing, check out this list I created just for this.