Point of View: How your church can create a multicultural youth ministry
by TOM BOLLING
Special to the Witness

Article Date: May 27, 2014

“After this I looked and there before me a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9-10

As we read these verses we can’t help but be struck by the beautiful picture of what heaven will be like ... people of all tribes and nations 
worshipping the King.  
 
Doesn’t it seem to make sense that our youth groups and churches should be modeling their ministries after this biblical mandate?  
 
With the dramatic increase of immigration and the globalization of our society, ministering to a multicultural society is no longer an option.
 
Many of our churches are sounding an alarm and seeking answers as to how to minister to communities of ethnic and economic diversity. 
 
If we don’t want to be left behind and become totally irrelevant and outdated,  each of us as youth pastors needs to take a careful look at the demographic makeup of our youth group to see if it resembles the surrounding community of our church.  If you discover that your youth group doesn’t resemble the community, it may be time to reevaluate your vision.   
 
For more than 30 years I have served as a youth pastor in multicultural communities. There has been no greater joy than seeing young people come together from different racial and economic backgrounds worshipping the Lord. The thought of our youth group being a model to our community of what the Kingdom of God looks like has been extremely gratifying! On the other hand it has required every ounce of energy, creativity, and attentiveness to the Spirit’s guidance to lead the youth group and church in this direction.  
 
So where do you start in developing your multicultural ministry?  
 
Establish your vision & communicate it clearly
 
You need to begin by knowing that God is calling you into this adventure.  The place to start is to share this biblical mandate and heartfelt conviction with your Pastor and your youth leaders. A key scripture passage that has inspired my vision and calling has been Peter’s amazing rooftop vision in Acts 10. I can’t overemphasize the importance of sharing your vision with your key leaders and allowing time for it to marinate in their hearts and minds. If you don’t have the support of your leaders you’ll be fighting a losing battle. The next step is to develop a leadership team that reflects this diversity to have ownership and representation from the top down.  Your team will need to develop a mission statement which clearly states your convictions of reaching teens of different ethnic backgrounds for the Kingdom. Communicate this multicultural vision to your group and through your website and other social media.  Now it’s time for you to show your community that you’re serious about this vision.
 
Program intentionally for diversity
 
As you begin to plan for your minis­try you need to keep in mind the diversity of interests and range of spiritual needs that you encounter. Your calendar of activities and ministries needs to reflect a broad range of musical, educational, and program diversity. Doing mainstream contemporary praise and worship as part of our midweek gathering wasn’t enough.  We needed to add hip hop, reggae, gospel and Latin elements to the mix. In addition to events that had a strong appeal to one of the segments of our youth group we had to be sure to have plenty of low cost activities to appeal to other youth.  We discovered that talent shows, crea­tive arts ministries, recreation/sports activities, and service projects were great events for pulling the diverse groups together and developing bonds and unity within our ministry. In order to appeal to the varied educational and spiritual levels of teens we offered several topical tracks for youth to choose from.  The subjects were aimed at different maturity levels so that the youth would be comfortable and challenged in their faith development. 
 
Build mentoring into your ministry
 
One of the great challenges in ministering to a diverse youth group, especially with so many coming from highly dysfunctional families, has been seeing lasting spiritual growth in the lives of teens.  I’ll never forget the early days of my ministry in the Washington DC area when I went through a discouraging period.  I was seeing youth come to know Jesus but the struggles of their home environment seemed to win over what we as a youth group and church were able to offer. After praying desperately for wisdom, God led me to develop a mentoring ministry within the church. There was no doubt in my mind this vision was from God for I had no expertise or even much of an interest in this area. God led me to a couple of businessmen in our church and we began meeting and praying at a local McDonalds. Months later the vision became a reality as interested youth were paired up with individual church members.  The mentoring ministry combined the elements of spiritual growth, education, jobs, social and psychological development, leadership, and community service. Some great stories came out of this venture including a greater consistency of faith development among our youth, college scholarship aid to several of our teens from their mentors, and special relationships between adults and youth that will be cherished for a lifetime.  I had a feeling that this God-inspired ministry did as much for the adults as it did for the teens. Whatever shape and form it takes in your group will be for you and your leaders to decide. The important thing to remember is that your teens desperately need allies in their corner providing them with one-on-one support and encouragement.  
 
Quality over quantity/think smaller
 
Another important principle I had to learn was that “bigger is not always better.” Let me explain what I mean.  Creating a safe environment for your diverse group will undoubtedly be a challenge you will face. In my youth group in south Florida we experienced a lot of numerical growth over a relatively short period of time. The community youth were becoming Christians and they were bringing their unsaved friends to our youth group. This led to us encountering discipline issues as well. There were times when it felt like the unchurched youth were having a negative influence on our core youth.  We would frequently have to deal with skirmishes between students before and after our midweek youth group. This led our leadership team to tighten the structure of our program and require a more regimented approach. We even had to call on the local police to monitor our property as well as recruiting adults in the church to serve as security helpers. During these rocky times I had to take a step back and re-evaluate the direction of our ministry. I then made a decision to scale back our aggressive outreach efforts and focus more on discipling a smaller and more manageable number of youth. It turned out to be a good move as we were able to develop a stronger foundation and have a more positive overall impact on the youth to whom we were ministering. Also the church body had a more favorable impression regarding our ministry.  It was exciting to see teens develop into young leaders and even more satisfying to see the negative racial stereotypical attitudes of many of our adults replaced by an emerging sense of pride regarding our multicultural ministry.
 
Share the Journey
 
In order to avoid burnout and remain ministering to diverse teens in an urban setting for the long haul you will need to make sure your soul is being fed regularly by God’s Word. You will need the support of other youth pastors in this venture. For many years I felt frustration because it was difficult finding individuals that had the same vision and passion for this type of ministry. Whenever I would take my youth group to conferences, retreats and camps our group would look very different from the other groups. I had a difficult time finding curriculum and material that our group could identify and relate to. Many days I felt like I was all alone on this adventure. I am glad to report to you that slowly things have changed over the years. Pockets of urban ministries are popping up locally and all over the country. Urban Youth Workers Institute, a nationally based networking and training ministry out of California, has provided training and support to youth pastors. With the social networking tools we have today we can find others with a common vision and heart to minister cross culturally. Take time in your schedule to build relationships with like-minded individuals so that you can find encouragement, wisdom, and accountability in your journey.
The time has come for all of us as youth leaders to “face the music” of the 21st century and ask God to use us as His messengers. We need to lead our youth and church in developing a strong and vibrant ministry reaching cross ethnic and economic lines.  If we are going to reach this changing generation for Christ, it’s time for us to paint that biblical picture of the Kingdom of God for the world to see.
 
Tom Bolling is the youth/associate pastor at Belvedere Baptist Church in West Palm Beach. He can be reached via email at gtbolling@att.net
 

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