by Dwight Johnson
I enjoy playing basketball and have enjoyed playing since I was about seven years old. I have always enjoyed all the moving pieces of the game both from the physical standpoint and also from the strategic one. Basketball challenges every aspect of an individual and some of the best athletes of the game have learned the art of seeing these challenges as an opportunity to grow in their game. Further, the best of the best catapulted their games on the back of these challenges daily. Just look up some famous basketball athletes if you don’t believe me. What I didn’t always like about the game, however, were the disruptions that came with it. From getting up early for two-a-day practices to conditioning to missing family functions because of tournaments, disruptions also came with the very game I loved. Learning how to accept both challenge and disruption, however, allowed my love and skill in basketball (by skill I mean learning how to make three free-throws in a row) to be strengthened. If you’re still reading you are probably wondering what basketball has to do with urban ministry? Disruption and challenges are trademarks of urban ministry.
You have planned your day out down to the milliseconds and then BOOM: a parent gives you a call to let you know that everything that they own was just lost in a fire and they have NO resources to combat the issue at hand. There wasn’t any insurance on the home and because it was a home they were renting, they must, on top of ten million other things, also find another home they can rent in a neighborhood that has been deeply affected by gentrification. During the entire phone conversation you are thinking two things: why are they calling me AND I have group later today. All of this happening just hours before group stresses you out and you simply shut down.
Urban ministry will be difficult if you are unable to embrace disruptions and instead they knock you off your game and keep you from trusting Jesus with your whole heart. If you see disruptions as roadblocks that stifle growth causing you to feel uncomfortable and limit your ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel, you will miss the beauty that comes with this specific avenue of youth ministry. Inconvenience is perhaps one of the hardest things to ever get used to and, if I’m honest, I don’t think it is something you do get used to. It just becomes something you must accept as a part of life’s dealings. Urban ministry is a beautiful, yet hard, pursuit of those who not only live on the margins, but who also tend to live there because life has displaced them. For many families who we serve in our urban communities, inconvenience and disruption are just a way of life. Phrases like inheritance, allowance, and back-up plan aren’t in the lingo. There is, instead, a continual concentration on surviving the day at hand and worrying about the rest later.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a plan is essential and is needed within any youth ministry context. It is a sign that you can adequately communicate vision, create the pragmatic steps to bring the vision alive, and lead students, families, and volunteers in the realization of that vision. However, as you prepare and plan, you must also be prepared to pivot. Be aware of the stories and situations of your congregation. Be aware that you aren’t just teaching kids about who Jesus is. You are also teaching them about how Jesus is combating every single arena in their life that is bringing them stress, pain, and feelings of despair and hopelessness. Disruptions are but moments and opportunities for you, the youth pastor, to lead your flock in learning what it truly means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)
As if the fire wasn’t enough, you somehow make it youth group. (Praise the Lord!) You have a student in your youth group who cringes every single time you call on him to read. Every week you hope that the outcome from asking him to read will be different than the week before. Instead, the outcome is the same. To minimize the risk of embarrassment you stop asking your student to read. Later in a separate conversation with a volunteer who has been around for a bit you learn that the student reads below his grade level and reading out loud in front of people places a fear in him because he doesn’t want to stumble over his words in front of his friends. As you stand there listening to the volunteer share insight, you ponder this thought: “I would have never expected education and youth group to collide with one another.” Your next thought immediately becomes: “How am I supposed to teach scripture to students who struggle with reading?”
Challenges like illiteracy, lack of access to resources, and parents who are working two or three jobs only to barely make ends meet will trample over a youth pastor who sees challenges as a dead end rather than a detour. Unique challenges in urban ministry will arise on a regular basis, but if you put the time in to learn the needs of your community and really understand your context, you’ll be much more equipped to face these challenges. Things to keep in mind as you serve in urban ministry:
- Flexibility. Your day will never go as planned. When that happens, don’t fret. Inhale, exhale, and be willing to go off script. Your ability to do this will ensure that when things don’t go your way, you will still be focused on what’s in front of you.
- Personal devotional time. It will be hard to show your families and students a God you haven’t spent time with. This devotional time is critical to you having what you need to face the ups and downs of daily ministry in the urban context.
- Delegate, delegate, delegate. You will learn pretty quick that your daily task list will grow. Any and everyone will desire your time and your gifts. Situations with families will come, grant data will need to be turned in. Learn how to create a system of delegation so that you aren’t drowning under all of the demanding tasks that await you each day. Equip your volunteers to lead your Bible studies and discussion groups. Use the staff at your church as much as you can.
- See your students for who they will be, not for who you see now. The reality of urban ministry is that the students you will serve will come from so many different backgrounds and situations. Because of this, you will very often feel frustrated, successful, lost, hopeful, hopeless, and everything in between. It is helpful, for me, in the moments where students aren’t meeting expectations, to remember that you are working with them towards who they are becoming and that who you see now won’t always be so.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant, and to face the challenge of change.” What makes urban ministry special isn’t these challenges themselves, but the opportunity to introduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ who sees these challenges as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God within the life of the believer.
Cultural Toolkit Assessment
Use this week’s download to investigate your church’s culture and the community you serve. The assessment has questions that will guide in this process no matter where you live and serve and no matter how long you’ve been there. Use it with your student ministry team or if you are new to your church do it on your own. The guide is especially helpful to churches who have lost connection with the community around the church. It can also be helpful to churches who think their community makeup is one thing but the needs of their people are actually different. Let us know what you learn! Download Here.
About the Author
Dwight Johnson With a B.A. from Millsaps College and a M.A. from Center for Youth Ministry Training and Memphis Theological Seminary, Dwight has dedicated the last decade to ministry to youth and their families in both Mississippi and now Nashville, Tennessee where he serves as the Director of Youth at Preston Taylor Ministries in West Nashville. Having served both in the local church and in parachurch organizations, Dwight loves working with teenagers, specifically middle schoolers and enjoys seeing youth see their potential and reach their God-inspired dreams. As a published author and speaker, Dwight also travels throughout the South speaking at youth-retreats and leading workshops and conferences that helps other youth workers grow.