A Community Development Approach to Youth Ministry

BY MICHAEL A. MATA

All vital youth ministry is relational in nature. However, the most effective programs have “points of entry” that affect or touch upon the developmental needs of youth. That is, if you address the particular needs of youth you are going to have them, more often than not, respond positively to your outreach. One area that has been overlooked or found lacking is that young people need to feel that they are socially useful. A community development approach to youth ministry engages youth as active contributors in the welfare of their community.

Most approaches to youth ministry focus, appropriately so, on “points of entry” for building relationships. This is done by addressing some fundamental need of the teen: emotional, social, intellectual, physical or spiritual. Currently, computer learning centers are popular, especially among urban youth programs. The intent is to help youth engage the new technology as well as help the student improve her or his academic performance. Special interest groups, like bike or drama clubs, develop personal skills and bring together like-minded teens. Likewise, discipleship and prayer groups help deepen a teen’s sensitivity to Godly things as well as create stronger bonds among peers. Yet as good as these are as vehicles of God’s life-changing power, they tend to underestimate the need of youth to feel that they are valuable members of our society.

Admittedly, no single program can cover all the needs of all youth. Often the type of youth program we have is shaped by the kinds of resources at hand and the kinds of youth we are called to serve. Nonetheless, a community development approach to youth ministry can rectify a current gap in youth work.

Community development, as understood in the public square, is the development of the structures that allows people to work, live and take care of their basic needs; it is about increasing the standard of living. However, that translates differently for different folks. To some it means creating more jobs, to others the production of affordable housing, while still others want a good social service delivery system. To be sure, these efforts are essential to sustainable and viable communities. However, community development from a Christian perspective is just as interested in other priorities.

John M. Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development (CCD) movement, advocates that Christians with resources move into distressed neighborhoods (relocation), that they help poor people own the means for their own economic self-sufficiency (redistribution) and that Christians work to break down barriers between white people and people of color (reconciliation). In other words, CCD is on one level about solidarity with those who are on the margins of society as a result of their economic status, ethnic identity or lifestyle choices. On another level it emphasizes the stewardship of resources so that all benefit. Finally, CCD seeks actively to develop relationships across all boundaries. In essence, CCD is seeking shalom.

Shalom is the Hebrew word for “peace”- but it means more than the absence of conflict or unrest. In the letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, God tells the exiles to actively seek the shalom of the city for then they would find their shalom (Jeremiah 29:7ff). God didn’t tell them to pray, though that’s implicit in the letter, instead God instructed them to build houses and plant gardens for their children and the generations to come. Obviously, they could not comply without the Babylonians appreciating the benefits of such endeavors. In short, shalom is about the well-being of a community.

All this hints at elements that make for an effective community development model of youth ministry. First, we are to take seriously the broader socioeconomic realities in which youth live. For example, many capable youth in urban and ethnic communities are hard pressed to find jobs-they either don’t exist or few businesses will hire teenagers. The issue is not so much what is to be done (surely something must) but why does such a situation exist in the first place. More importantly, youth themselves should be considered as part of the solution.

Second, we must recognize the tremendously undervalued asset youth are to the community. Too often the public (and if we are honest, the church) is overwhelmed by the needs in our barrios and end up blaming youth for many of the problems. We end up wanting to protect our teens from such barbs as well as the perils of the streets. We, thus, limit unintentionally what teens can do to combat the problems. Youth have a lot of energy (if not pent-up hormones), active minds, and entrepreneurial instincts, to name a few strengths. So, no matter how gangly a young person is, no matter how smart she might be, no matter how fractured a teen’s family is, every teen must be viewed as a potential agent of change and hope in the community in which they live.

Third, matching the assets of youth with those of the church and community greatly enhances the potential for effective action. There are tremendous opportunities to improve the community-look around the neighborhood. Frankly, just ask the teens, they see it all. Street clean-ups, graffiti paint-overs (with caution, of course), celebrations for the neighborhood, errand escorts for the elderly, and planting community gardens, are just a few examples of youth engaged in community building. Indeed, these activities are more than the occasional community-service project, as necessary and good as they are. Youth can even benefit monetarily and certainly by the recognition garnered by their efforts (don’t forget to celebrate individual and group achievements)! The focus is about on-going activities by which youth work for the betterment of their own community-efforts that are making a tangible difference.

Fourth, we must help youth to reflect on what God says in Scripture about community development. There is plenty in the Bible to help youth integrate and support their experiences in community building. In addition to Jeremiah, the first three chapters of Nehemiah details a strategy for community building. It isn’t solely about spiritual formation or service but the participation of God’s children in developing something new in the “hood.”

In CCD language, we are to involve youth in cultivating and nurturing the assets that they have and that exist in the community, connecting with those outside the mainstream of their lives and intentionally finding ways to develop relationships with those different than themselves. In that experience they not only become part of the process of transformation but they come to realize that it is in their power to make a difference. In effect, they develop into real agents of hope. That is an empowering feeling. In the end, as they seek the well-being of their communities, they may find their own sense of God’s shalom. That’s what a community development approach to youth ministry is about.

Michael A. Mata is the Director of the Urban Leadership Institute and holds the Mildred M. Hutchinson Chair of Urban Ministry at the Claremont School of Theology. He served for seventeen years on the pastoral team of Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene, a multi-ethnic, multi-congregational church with highly regarded community programs and a prominent Hispanic ministry. He is currently engaged in the Ph.D. program of the School of Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.

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