MIAMI (BP)–Every year, tens of thousands of people leave their native land to come to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Some are fleeing oppressive governments, others come for the purpose of providing their family with the best possible environment and still others are seeking the dream of financial gain in the “land of opportunity.”
Teenagers are among many of these new faces. Spend an hour at the food court of your local mall, and you will see that the face of the American teenager is becoming more and more international.
The racial breakdown of the country’s 13 to 18 age group is difficult to determine at best. Researcher George Barna wrote in 1990, “The teen population is becoming less dominated by Caucasians. Following the trend in the population at large, a decreasing portion of the teen market will be white. Approximately 20 percent of the teen population is currently nonwhite.” Today that figure is closer to 30 percent.
Though the population as a whole is about 30 percent nonwhite, most youth groups come nowhere near this mix. However, most youth ministries are moving toward a more diverse group, as attitudes are changing on the issue of diversity and multiculturalism. Once avoided because of the programming headaches and potential hazards, many youth pastors, especially in urban areas, are beginning to pursue multicultural youth.
In his book, “Generation Next: What You Need to Know About Today’s Youth,” Barna gives 15 “new rules” for youth ministry. These “rules” essentially paint a portrait of what teens think and feel. Several of these new rules have significant implications for multicultural youth ministry. For example, consider rules 3 and 4:
3) Aggressively pursue diversity among people.
4) Enjoying people and life opportunities is more important than productivity, achievement or profitability.
First Baptist Church of Perrine in Miami is a very multicultural church, with members from more than 50 countries. The congregation is about 30 percent nonwhite, but is closer to 45 percent in the youth ministry. From the church’s experience, not only are teens in general aggressively pursuing diversity, but also international youth especially want to be part of a very diverse youth ministry. Diversity begets diversity, and teenagers love this.
To begin growing a multicultural youth ministry:
— Do some research and determine the various nonwhite communities in your area. Find out where the youth in these communities live, shop and hang out. Talk with local ethnic pastors to get their take on the needs of youth and problems they face. Invite these kids to your church, or to a special event such as a sports tournament or concert.
— Prepare your youth for multicultural ministry. Teach them to be colorblind. Do not single out people of other races needlessly. For example, you would not say, “Let me introduce you to my friend James; he’s white” so you don’t need to say, “Let me introduce you to my friend James; he’s Jamaican.” The wisest stance is to neither ignore racial differences nor draw attention to them. This should be a non-issue. Celebrate your diversity in general, but be careful about putting specific people on the spot.
— Don’t alter your programming in an attempt to be more inclusive of other cultures. This is a common pitfall that should be avoided, period. When I first started out in youth ministry, I could get away with behaving like a big kid myself and the youth thought this was cool. But now, in my mid 30s, attempting to dress, look and act like a teenager gets me nowhere. The reason is quite obvious; teens will not respect a 36-year-old who acts like a 16-year-old. Most teens do not need another adult behaving like a child in their lives; instead, they need an adult they can trust, respect and relate to.
Multicultural youth do not need you to reproduce their culture in your midweek program. This will likely offend some and cause a loss of respect for others. What they need most from you is someone who has learned about their culture so that you can better understand and relate to them.
— Anticipate some common problems, and have a plan for dealing with them. For example, how will you handle romance between different races? What do you believe about this? Be prepared for youth who see nothing wrong with interracial dating, but also be prepared for parents and volunteers who do.
Certain cultures are shy and reserved, showing little or no emotion, while others are very demonstrative, greeting one another with hugs and kisses on the cheek. What will be your response to this? Appropriate dress is another issue to consider. Some cultures are accepting of various body areas being exposed while for others this same body part exposed is taboo.
Always keep in mind that your job is to fulfill the Great Commission. Your purpose is not to be multicultural but to reach all the youth God has given you in your Jerusalem. Be a shepherd and a teacher.
The real experts on multicultural youth ministry are the teenagers themselves. Recently, I had the chance to ask several multicultural kids this question: “What advice do you have for youth pastors about beginning or furthering a multicultural youth ministry?”
Here are some of their responses:
“Treat everyone the same; just because they are different you still have to reach out to them. Treat everyone with the same respect and not with any different respect just because they are from a different country,” Christina Harris of Scotland.
“Be openhearted and not exclude people or treat them differently just because they are from another country. We are all the same in God’s eyes anyway regardless of our culture. Just be openhearted and teach the Word of God,” Nyna Gonzales from Cuba.
“Open yourself and be fair to everyone because if you don’t, people don’t have the chance to talk and be accepted,” Dominique Gadpille, Jamaica.
“Try to relate to them, and do things that they would get to do in their home country so that they don’t feel left out or anything,” Jennifer Colon, Jamaica.
“Take into consideration that different cultures raise their kids differently. Some are more touchy; some are more reserved. Research the different cultures, and find out the different traditions they have, and help the youth to adapt. Be sensitive to the cultural differences,” Diana Izaguirre, Cuba.
“Treat them the same, but keep in mind their differences. Don’t draw attention to their differences, but let the youth do so if they wish to. For example, don’t make a fuss over someone’s native country; but if they want to tell everyone, that is OK,” Antonia Dimitrova, Bulgaria.
“Consider that people are from different places; but also consider that God sees us as equal, so treat them equally. Don’t make a big deal out of it, because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” April Flores, Puerto Rico.
“Treat us all the same. Some kids from some countries are ashamed of that and people will treat them as outcasts. Treat everybody the same,“ Raana Shahbazian, Iran.
“The youth group should be united. We are in actuality all one race; we are all human beings made in the image of God. The Bible says that as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Two people from the same ethnic group usually can relate to each other better, and you should build on that,” Jonathon Delfosse, Jamaica.
“Be sincere and sensitive. Care about the youth and their problems. The Bible says no one is righteous, not even one, so encourage them when they make mistakes. Tell them the gospel, because when you have God you have the Holy Spirit to help you, and eventually you’ll have heaven. Treat everybody the same; be consistent with everybody,” William Trigoso, Peru.
Final thoughts: It seems that what multicultural kids really need in a youth group is a safe and accepting place where everyone is treated fairly and loved equally, and where they can be understood. Ironically enough, that’s what most teens need in a youth group.
Parks is minister of students, First Baptist Church of Perrine, Miami. Adapted from Youth Ministry Update, August 1999, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.