BY NOEL CASTELLANOS
One of the most recognizable images in our culture today are the golden arches at McDonald’s. This is no mistake, as this multi-billion dollar corporation spends millions to convince us that we need a Big Mac attack! Now, if they can’t keep us parents coming back for the food, they will target our kids and make sure that they drag us back time and time again for the toys and the fun.
Maybe it’s time that the Latino church learn something from Ronald McDonald. Reaching our children and youth is key to impacting the Latino family with the Gospel, and to transforming our barrios. Proverbs 29:18 instructs us that without a vision, the people perish. The question we pastors have to ask ourselves is, “Do I have a vision for our youth?” In other words, how many of our Latino kids are wasting their lives because we do not have the vision to offer them the kind of dynamic youth programs that will attract them to Christ, and prepare them for ministry.
Eight years ago, when I started La Villita Community Church in inner-city Chicago, I knew that if we were going to be effective at attracting our culturally religious Mexican neighbors, we had to start working with the kids in our barrio. The first thing I did in Chicago was to go to my neighborhood elementary school and ask if I could volunteer. I was given the opportunity to tutor third graders and to teach an art class for the eighth graders. It was also important that my family lived just blocks away from the school, and that we were visible to the neighborhood kids and their parents. As summer approached, we began a summer day camp for 20 children. From the very beginning of our church life, we focused on ministering to children and youth.
Since that first year, we have seen great benefits for our church as we have been committed to developing and maintaining a strong youth ministry. I would like to mention three of the most significant benefits:
Ministering to kids has given us the opportunity to minister to adults.
In the Mexican community it is difficult to attract first generation immigrants to an evangelical church. We have found that if we help the children and youth of Latino families, they are more open to the Gospel.
Many of the key men and women in our church came because we took their kids to camp, involved them in our after-school program, or got their teens involved in our youth program. It is not unusual to have children invite and convince their parents to come to church. The ultimate result we have seen at La Villita, is that the church has grown as we have aggressively reached out to children and teens.
Focusing on youth ministry develops future leaders for the church.
We often say that the youth are our future, but I wonder if we really believe this to be essential for our churches. I have found that some of the young people who have been with us for a few years are ready and eager to assume more leadership. They are willing to lead, but we must envision, train, direct and release them to do just that!
The Bible tells us that in the last days our young people will see visions. We desperately need to listen to our kids and let them teach us how to reach their generation. I love the account of the boy who was raised from the dead by Jesus in Luke 7. It says that the boy came back to life and began to talk to those around him. Can you imagine all that our youth can give and share with us and others if we would just give them the chance? Let’s channel all of that energy for God’s glory! This summer, we are involving high schoolers as leaders for our summer day camp program. We are providing mentors for these young leaders and instilling in them a vision for service and leadership. Not only does this type of leadership help the youth of the church, but it challenges adults to grow when they see young people full of zeal for the Lord.
Children and youth ministry can help the church access significant funding for ministry.
Last year, Colin Powell launched a volunteer movement called America’s Promise. He challenged all of us to give of our time, talents, and finances to support programs for kids. Our church and many other churches across our nation have been successful at getting foundation and corporation grants to do creative youth work. What most secular givers consider to be creative and effective programs are the very things churches and ministries have been doing for years: loving kids, spending time with them, providing safe places to hang out and teaching them values. I love the account of the paralyzed man who was lowered down in front of Jesus to be healed. The Bible says that Jesus was moved by the faith of the four men who were willing to do something so outrageous as to tear up a roof and lower their homeboy down in front of Jesus to be healed.
What we are trying to do in the lives of young people is challenging work, and it takes resources to do it. It will demand risk taking to explore partnerships with donors, para-church organizations, mission agencies, suburban churches, city and state governments, etc. to get our “friends in front of Jesus.” At La Villita, we have been able to hire a number of full time youth staff, and develop some exciting ministry programs for our kids that our church budget could never have afforded.
In conclusion, I would encourage every Latino pastor to make youth ministry a top priority in their church. If McDonald’s understands the wisdom of targeting our kids for success in the business world, may we do all that we can in and through our churches in order to win our young people in the barrio for Christ.
Noel Castellanos is the founding pastor of La Villita Community Church in Southwest Chicago. He is the President of La Villita Christian Development Corp. (Nueva Creacion), is the vice-chairman of the Christian Community Development Association, and has founded various community organizations.