Youth Ministry on Either Side of the Economic Divide | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
April 2016

Youth Ministry on Either Side of the Economic Divide

By Carl Gladstone (NCJ & NEJ)

The Lines Between Us

Growing up in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan was an exercise in crossing lines. As a suburban youth attending an inner-city church, I often crossed the infamous 8 Mile Road. This street marks the northern border of the City of Detroit. And, each crossing exposed the stark economic differences between the city and its suburbs.

In about a 100ft span the world went from manicured lawns to abandoned homes. The bigger reality wasn’t quite so black and white. There were “nice” neighborhoods nearby within the City. But, the economic challenges faced by Detroiters were clearly visible. And the economic imbalance of the area was on display.

So how have we modeled youth ministry on either side of these kinds of economic lines? How have we asked, “What do we actually have in common already?” And, moreover, how can we help young people ask, “What could we have in common as Christ’s body the Church?”

The Communities That Connect Us

Luckily, these lines of division did not define my experience as a young person. Rather, the community of Christ did.

Our local youth group crossed the world’s dividing lines by our very make-up. Youth participants were rich and poor. They came from city and suburb. They were African-American and Caucasian. They even held US and Columbian citizenship. We lived as a microcosm of God’s heavenly community. We paid no heed to the geographic lines the world told us to stay on opposites sides of.

We also connected to other United Methodist young people through our District youth events. There we felt like Jesus was helping us further undermine those lines of division. We gathered as an alternative community through mission projects, dances and worship services. We knew that our connections in Christ were stronger than the economic or cultural differences between us.

Three Detroit Wesley Foundation students have also seen this kind of connected community. They transitioned from suburban youth group life to urban campus ministry life. Julianna, Hannah and Clara reflect on the ways their affluent youth group operated:

“We would have a progressive meal at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell. We’d go bowling and do Laser Tag. It was all entertainment focused.” says Clara. Hannah notes that “The ‘religious discussion’ times always seemed tacked-on and not very deep.”

But, says Julianna, "Our mission trips, were extravagant experiences with deep spiritual discussions.” Many people participated and shared resources to go help others in need. “We went all in,” says Hannah, when an engaging mission focus emerged in front of us. And, these experiences introduced her to young people living in different economic circumstances.

Some more basic goals face these youth. Getting help completing school work, for instance. Working to fix their houses so these youth were safe at home. And sometimes even working gardens so a family had enough to eat. Hannah, Clara and Julianna saw a resiliency in these young people. It was a resiliency that testified to God’s grace in the face of life’s challenges.

Now, these young women seek to stay connected to people across economic divides. Through campus ministry projects they mobilize young people with monetary resources and resiliency together. They create "conspiracies of goodness" for Detroit and beyond. In those radical relationships they continue to build up God’s heavenly "kin-dom" on Earth.

A Theology that Transforms Us

Linda Koelman of North UMC in Minneapolis shares this understanding of young people’s ministry. She knows its capacity to break down barriers between us.

Her church in the Weber-Camden neighborhood serves residents, 29% of whom live in poverty. She also recognizes her church’s memory of itself as a rich congregation. Now, with few youth participating, the old entertainment model of youth ministry has failed. Fun events have turned into “the same few youth looking at each other every week.”

North UMC, though, is finding new ways to connect youth across economic lines. Young people now receive free community meals provided by church members. The North UMC congregation has also opened its doors to youth groups serving in this part of town. The new swimming pool installed at the recreation center across the street is an added bonus!

This local church has claimed a new identity connecting young people through missional relationships. They transitioned from an entertainment ministry model to a mobilization ministry. Now they help diverse young people share in God’s abundance together.

This transition illustrates God’s transforming power through Christ-oriented relationships. Like we read in Philippians 2:3-8:

“…in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own self-interests, but to the interests of others. Be [like] Christ Jesus, who emptied himself…and humbled himself…”

Youth ministries can create alternative communities where this regard for others becomes real. The Gospel materializes when these young people cross boundaries of privilege and poverty together. Or, as the leaders of the Church for All People describe, “When it works well, it’s a little hard to tell the difference between who is serving and who is being served.” (“Creating an Authentic Front Porch to the Kingdom of God: A Church for All People” by Christie House.

In this way, youth ministries live out a central teaching of our United Methodist Church:

As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” (UMC Social Principles, 163, E)

Both supporting and challenging each other requires relationships. Youth ministries create these relationships through alternative communities. These communities are made up of the diversity of God’s children. And they introduce young people to folks on the “other side” of economic dividing lines. Youth ministries connect the body of Christ. And they honor the gifts of all youth, from resourced to resourceful and more.

We celebrate young people and their example of how we should live as a church across dividing lines!