It was over 15 years ago when I was handed the keys to an old van, a list of 15 kids from one of Miami’s most crime-ridden communities, and given the assignment: “Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to rehabilitate those troubled kids on the list.” I had just accepted the position as an area director for Miami Youth for Christ, and at that moment I began to doubt my calling to inner-city youth ministry.
With Bible in hand, one volunteer, and few resources, I set out to reach these kids for Christ. I felt alone, unprepared, and isolated from the rest of the Christian world. Surely there was no one else on Earth doing this type of ministry-no one brain-damaged enough. What do I do? Where do I start? How do I get them to listen to me? Suppose these kids gang up on me? I was scared to death, but felt a deep calling to this ministry.
Many lonely years and numerous frustrating nights later, and with many fewer hairs on my head, I developed six small groups from that one core group, eventually reaching over 100 kids per week. This was only possible through a massive dose of God’s grace and the help of dedicated volunteers.
So how do you begin a youth group, with virtually nothing, for kids in the inner city?
It’s important to note that there’s no magical formula. There really isn’t a “how-to” manual for urban ministry. The needs of kids are as diverse as the cultures, ethnic groups, and personalities of those who make up the inner city.
Although there are no set formulas, there are a few essential ingredients which, if implemented, make it more likely for kids to want to keep coming back.
You might say, “I don’t have any resources.” But if you look around, you’ll begin to see that you do indeed have something. You have at least three basic resources you can begin with.
Spiritual resources: You’re able to equip yourself with Bible aids, books, Christian music, videos, etc. Start with a few resources, and as you grow, you can add more to your resource library.
Facility resources: You have access to a church building, homes, schools, gyms, parks, and recreational facilities where you could meet and host activities for kids. Check around to see what’s available and what would work best for you. You can even rotate your meeting places.
People resources: There are adults from your church who can help you, special speakers you can invite, and local music groups who might be willing to come for free.
The key is to look around and identify the resources that might already be around you and available to you for little or no cost.
You don’t have to have a large group of kids in order to have an effective ministry. It’s perfectly acceptable to start with a small core group of students (5-7 is ideal). As you meet and build relationships, let the kids know what you plan to do. They’ll need to see your level of commitment, and know that you’re not going to start something and leave in a few months. Once you’ve gained their trust and an effective program is in place, you’ve laid the foundation for your ministry to grow.
Staying Creative and Flexible
There’s often a basic, traditional format for a youth group meeting, which is, in effect, a reproduction of the Sunday morning service:
- Opening prayer/devotions
- Everybody goes home.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that format in a service, but there’s so much more you could do with kids that would make your group exciting and inspire students to keep coming back and invite their friends. Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life has said, “It is a sin to bore kids with the Bible.”
Early on in my ministry I adopted a philosophy: “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to reach kids…as long it never compromises the message of the Gospel.” I believe that was the overriding principle in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “… I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22)
Referring to the establishment of the New Testament church in Scripture, Dr. Robert Coleman says, “The Church’s policy of pragmatism encouraged creativity. The rule seemed to be: Within the guidelines of the apostles’ teaching, whatever facilitates the ministry, do it…what was important is that the most helpful means be found in every setting to accomplish the task at hand.”
I believe one key to effective youth ministry is variety. Do things differently each week. Maintain the element of surprise so the kids don’t know what to expect. Incorporate as many creative ideas as possible and rotate their use. Examples could be things like:
- Crowd breakers—opportunities for kids to burn energy and have fun
- Special music—we’re not afraid to use contemporary Christian music, hip-hop, rap, etc.
- Dance Videos
- Creative messages on relevant topics
- Lively discussions
It’s important to keep experimenting with new ministry ideas. You might find that there are things that might work with one group of kids during a particular time, and not work with another set of kids at another time. Maintain a “flexible methodology” approach to ministry. Be sensitive to the needs of your group in order to reach them where they are, and adjust your program to meet those needs.
Balancing Fun and Relationships
I wish I could truly say (in my best King James voice), “Young people cometh to my Bible studies because they wanteth to heareth the word of God.” Or I wish I could say that kids come to hear the eloquent messages I stayed up all night to put together. I wish I could even say that they come because of their love for God and their deep commitment to Christ. Some do, but the vast majority of the unchurched, urban kids I’ve worked with initially came to youth group for two reasons: fun and relationships. In all honesty, that’s why I began to attend youth group as a kid. Growing up in Jamaica there wasn’t a lot to do. So I attended the local youth group for those two reasons.
Fun—the youth leaders at the church I grew up in dared allow us to have fun. We played games, went on trips, camps, and all-nighters, and did many other activities. This might not be a revolutionary principle for you, but many churches are reluctant to incorporate fun into their youth services. I’ve heard it said: “You’re just entertaining those kids.” Key word: just. If all you’re doing is having fun and playing games with kids, then you’re missing it. If, however, you’re incorporating fun as an integral part of what you do in youth ministry, mixed in with solid biblical teaching, I see that as a healthy and balanced approach to youth ministry.
Relationships—I developed close friendships with the other kids who were there. During that process, I also developed relationships with caring adults who didn’t just see me as a name on a roster, but who took the time to ask me how I was doing in school, and who talked to me openly and honestly about issues I really cared about. Eventually, as I built these relationships, I was ultimately led into a closer relationship with God.
Paul told the church in Thessalonica, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well…” (1 Thess. 2:8). Dr. Howard Hendricks reminds us that “you can impress people from a distance…you can only impact them up close.”
Getting Kids Involved
According to Dr. Robert Laurent, the number one reason why kids leave the church is “lack of opportunity for church involvement.” Kids need to feel that they’re significant and valuable. If they don’t feel that from the church, they’ll go somewhere else where they can feel a sense of belonging. One of the most significant lures of cults and gangs is that they immediately give young people responsibilities and opportunities for involvement.
Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu quotes a notorious gang leader who said, “We will always get the youth because we know how to make them feel important.” Sometimes we make young people feel like they’re not important or don’t have anything to offer the church. We push them aside; tell them to be quiet; get off the platform; don’t play with the microphone. Then when they’re older, we wonder where our young leaders are. We must make our kids feel important very early on.
A children’s pastor colleague of mine involves the children in his group in the actual production of children’s church. He tells the story of a 10-year-old whose mother told him he wouldn’t be able to go to their church that day because they were visiting somewhere else. The very adamant child looked at his mom and said, “But Mom, you don’t understand. We have to go to our church—Pastor Dan needs me!”
Give the kids real responsibilities. Let them know you believe in them and that they’re valuable to you and to the growth and development of the group
As you put the program in place and meet for a few weeks with your core group, the momentum will build, and the kids will catch the vision. Then plan some form of a kick-off event that’ll inspire the kids to go out and invite their friends. The kids could pass out flyers asking their friends to attend this special event, which could be a pizza party, athletic tournament, game night, or other high energy and exciting activity. Make sure it includes an evangelistic presentation and an opportunity to follow-up with new kids. I usually do two kick-off events each year.
Almost nothing is stable in a young person’s life in the inner city. Dr. John Perkins points out that 70 percent of inner-city children are growing up without a father. In order to make ends meet, their single mothers might have to move frequently, changing neighborhoods, friends, and schools. If there’s one thing that should remain consistent, it should be their youth worker, who’s very often the only positive, adult, role model (especially if you’re male) a child may have. Youth ministry in the urban setting is just one of those fields that you cannot do for a short period of time and expect significant results. You must have a long-term commitment to the kids, their families, and their neighborhoods.
It’s now been 17 wonderful years since I first got my feet wet in urban ministry in Miami. Sure, I’ve had my share of disappointments, failures, and frustrations, but it’s been the joy of my life to know kids who’ve grown up in the ‘hood, had started down the path to gangs, drugs, and prison, but who’ve now become positive members of society—some of whom have even entered the ministry. It’s made all those sleepless nights and hair loss worth it.
Tommy Carrington was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He served as a youth evangelist with Miami Youth for Christ for 12 years, and is currently the urban training director for Reach Out Youth Solutions. He’s also an adjunct professor at Trinity International University and Palm Beach Atlantic College.
Fonte: YOUTH SPECIALTIES