Every once in a while you realize you are in the middle of something really, really special. I have over thirty-five years experience listening to presentations in varying contexts, first in broadcast television news and later in academic settings. November 12th was special, as I sat in a pew and was drawn into a panel discussion over the issues of youth ministry and race. The theme ran through two sessions in the morning, the first included an opening presentation by Brandon Winstead, followed by responses from the panelists. The second session was a general discussion of how race factors into contemporary youth ministry. Many of the concepts and ideas were reported through the NTS website so I will not repeat all of those comments. However, the very journey to this moment, the cast of presenters, and the ensuing discussion does deserve special mention. In some sense it was not only “what” was said that morning, but “who” was saying it that made a difference for me. For this reason I begin with the “who,” the people that gave voice to the need, before adding addition content on the theme of the day.
Brandon Winstead birthed this idea last spring, during a coffee conversation at a nearby Panera. Brandon was my former student at Trevecca Nazarene University though I can claim little credit for his brilliance and ability. Brandon holds a Ph.D. in Historical, Theological, and Ethical Studies but now integrates academics within his passion for youth ministry. Brandon has worked with several congregations working across cultural lines (Laotian, African American, etc.) in inner city ministry and among affluent white congregations. We both share a concern for the racial divide among youth, particularly (but not exclusively) among evangelical youth ministries. That concern grew in recent months around the Trayvon Martin case, which both Brandon and I have written blogs.
Brandon wondered if NTS might be a venue for a discussion that would include Youthfront staff as well as other leaders in the Kansas City area around the theme of race.
My first thought was that Mike King, President of Youthfront, would jump at the opportunity. Mike is a leader in youth spiritual formation but he has a passion for the “outer” spiritual disciplines (what John Wesley called Works of Mercy) that demonstrate compassion and engender a prophetic voice within youth. Youthfront lives that aspect of youth ministry through their efforts with Something to Eat and other missional efforts mentioned below.
The obvious point person was Kurt Rietema, now president of the Franklin Center renewal project in Argentine. As long as I have known Kurt he has worked across cultural lines, first in leading the Croc, Mexico initiative and now working in the Argentine district in Kansas City Kansas leading youth missional efforts. I obtained permission to host the event this fall.
In the meantime Brandon accepted a ministry position in Florida at Killearn United Methodist Church. Though Brandon relocated during the summer, we continued to plan the event, as hemodeled the format at his local congregation. around the theme Youth, Race, and Violence: An Honest Conversation 8-25-13
Brandon arranged the panel and included not only Kurt but also two leaders in the field in Kansas City. For the past eight years Dr. Claire Smith has steered an initiative through Saint Paul Seminary known as Youtheology. Dr. Smith has used this forum to build a network of youth leadership among diverse racial-ethnic networks. I also know Claire from her work with neuroscience and youth. Claire modeled and academic who maintained both research interests and a passion for youth ministry education.
Reverend David Gilmore serves as a pastor for Centennial UMC (the oldest black UMC church in Kansas City located in the Jazz District of 18th and Vine) as well as St. Andrews UMC. Centennial church has grown in recent years with an influx of youth and young adults responding to a more contemporary expression of ministry through hip hop music. Reverend Gilmore and Brandon have a shared history and shared love for hip-hop, which spurred growth across racial lines.
Matter of fact, Brandon and former St. Paul professor, Doug Powe, have given several presentations on Hip Hop culture, including one at the Religious Education Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta, where the theme “Let Freedom Ring” mirrored the passion of this day. In addition Brandon has written articles on the subject published in Didache: Faithful Teaching.
The other panelist was another NTS graduate, Montague Williams, who I count a privilege to teach during his journey at NTS. Montague, like Brandon, worked at the Kansas City Urban Youth Ministry Center (KCUYC), an inner city, multi-racial ministry founded by Chuck Sailors who now Executive Director of ROC Ministries in Oklahoma City. I remember Brandon coming to TNU from Kansas City when KCUYC first start, a place he and his wife Marlo served alongside a Chuck and Marsha Sailors and a number of other NTS students.
Montague is one of the most innovative students I ever knew. He shepherded a community gardens program at KCUYC. Since then, Montague has accepted a faculty position at Eastern Nazarene College while he completes his PhD at Boston University. BU has hosted a number of NTS grads recently, like Josh and Nell Becker-Sweeden. Montague brings a sharp, analytic, mind; experience in day-to-day intercultural ministry, and the privilege of working at one of the most ethnically diverse colleges within the Christian College Coalition. Montague rounded out a strong panel of academics, pastors, culture workers, and youth ministry leaders.
With such a rich panel (and social media to push the conversation), I was surprised by the light turnout for the opening session. To be sure I did not expect a large showing, knowing most of our churches serve suburban congregations with modest ethnic diversity. There are exceptions (like my home church’s interaction with African American youth around sports), but not a lot when it comes to the presence of youth in congregational life.
The panel opened with Brandon providing about a forty-minute presentation on the history of youth ministry and race within a primarily evangelical culture. Brandon intended this opening to set some themes but also allow panelists to respond first before offering their own frameworks. As Brandon states, his presentation was
“To outline the broad historical and social dynamics that have shaped the relationship between predominantly white youth ministries and the reality of race in the lives of young and to suggest that an interracial incarnational theology and ministerial approach can improve our youth ministries in a multiracial society.”
Of course, the very term “race” is freighted with social construction. So Brandon offered a specific, but working, definition when he offered
“My definition is an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape that are considered genetically innate and indelible. It is a historical construction that has been created to also classify and young people from the privileges enjoyed by ethnicities of power.”
Overall Brandon set up two different histories, the first being that of youth ministry and the second the rise of Hip Hop. Overall he noted that youth pastors emerged as a profession to address specific concerns:
- The declining influence of Christian youth societies and rallies among middle class youth
- Loss of effectiveness of youth fellowships in mainline denominations
- The breakdown of the American teenager
- The changing landscape of the American family during the second half of the 20th century
Against this popular backdrop the ministry is changing and youth pastors have to help their youth reach beyond ethnic enclaves. But many evangelical youth pastors face problems in this endeavor, as Dr. Winstead noted:
- They assume a white middle class context
- They have limited knowledge of youth ministry traditions in other racial contexts
- They inherit a tradition that has little to no continuous contact with different racial communities
- They find it difficult to develop an interracial incarnational theology that addresses the spiritual and temporal needs of youth of color
Brandon’s turn to the rise of the Hip Hop Generation deserves equal consideration but, for the sake of space, I will only note that Brandon is working on a textbook around this movement. Brandon did provide one outline of Hip-Hop’s Cultural/Intellectual Worldview
- Questioning of everything
- AA valuing and embracement of multiculturalism
- Truth is Relative and Contextual
- Relationships mean more than institutions
- The power of storytelling
- A Culture of emotion and experience
- A Culture that wishes to detail the concrete engagement with class and race and to have a religion that addresses those concerns in real and positive ways.
Brandon closed with a call to an incarnation view of youth ministry (mentioned in the first report). What struck me was more the panelists’ engagement with his presentation once they took the stage. Each panelist offered responses to the discussion that included remarks to specific points made by Winstead.
However this closing conversation really opened up the second session where all participants made many constructive comments and interacted with each other. The flow was so rich. Many of the comments reflected a deep well of research and reflection that undergirded these seemingly simple points. At the risk of redundancy I will mention some of those I captured earlier for NTS
Claire Smith: globally aware youth tend to engage issues of race more quickly that those focused on personal context.
Brandon Winstead: we must be careful how we claim the early days of any Christian movement in the United States, particularly in how the movement actually reinforces racism of the past.
Montague Williams: recent uses of incarnational language in youth ministry have been helpful. However, this language should include more than a focus on the youth pastor reflecting Christ by including an ecclesiological focus on congregations and the church as a whole as the Body of Christ.
Montague Williams: one of the major challenges includes the assumption that young people will fix (or have already fixed) issues around race and racism. In fact, young people need mentors to help them navigate these issues.
Kurt Reitema: ministers have to recognize often racial boundaries are perpetuated through neighborhood associations and other sophisticated human networks that appear to deflect the question of race unless seriously investigated.
Kurt Reitema: contact with other people of color must include teaching our youth prior to that contact or else our efforts may reinforce racist assumptions in youth.
David Gilmore: race relations is not only about keeping it “real,” it must also be about keeping it “reel.” Keeping it reel calls ministers to recognize the commodification of race through media forms like movies, video, and commercialized music.
These conversations and others evoked questions and responses by those in the audience. One of my colleagues, Dr. David Wesley, raised a question of particular concern for him, the efficacy of short term missions in cross cultural settings. There were several responses but the one that struck me asserted youth need to be prepared in advance that youth are not going to “change” people of other cultures into their assumed cultural world. Instead youth have to go to minister “with” those in the host culture, to learn from the host culture, and to allow for racial and ethnic partnerships to flourish.
As I listened to the comments, the writings of friends like Yolanda Smith, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and Anne Wimberly flashed through the back of my mind; as well as the critical pedagogy or Henri Giroux and bell hooks. There was a command of the issues, but more importantly, there was the down to earth willingness to speak from within ministry, to invoke the work with youth and young adults around these issues, and the desire to bring both understanding and redemption to this conversation that struck me the most. The conversations reminded me of other times with friends like Rick Quinn in Nashville, or Naomi Laney in my own classes here at NTS, and with Ron Benefiel around themes of Justice. Yet this conversation was one reserved for new scholars, inventive pastors, and passionate youth educators that will shape the next generation. I was privileged to be in the room.
More should be said concerning each presenter. I know that we hope to have a publication at some point that curates the best of the conversation for a larger audience. I suspect the audio files will also be available through NTS in the future. For now I am just thankful for the “eventfulness” of this engagement. There are leaders within youth ministry to guide future discussions, to help stimulate change, and to hopefully close the racial divide across churches in our land.