An Open Conversation About Race in Youth Ministry

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This past month, Rooted began a very significant conversation with the “red pill” articles that described a tough reality in American culture and especially in the American church. The history of racial tension and racism in general is a hard pill to swallow, and open conversations about this topic tend to be avoided because of their difficulty level or uncertainty of reception. However, after a year like this past one, the cultural conversation is almost unavoidable. So, the question then becomes: how do we even begin to address our students about race, or do we?

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down with Karli Evelyn, a friend and fellow youth leader in Oklahoma, to discuss this exact question. Karli is an African-American youth minister who currently serves in a predominately African-American congregation in Lawton, Okla. As a white youth leader serving in a predominately white congregation, I have been grateful for Karli’s friendship and partnership in the gospel ministry as a source of encouragement, especially as we have been able to address our contextual differences. I am grateful for her leadership and willingness to openly have this conversation with me for the purpose of bringing the topic to bear in light of the gospel truth. Here is just a glimpse of our conversation that I hope encourages you as it did me:

Kendal: I often get asked, in my context, if race and racial reconciliation is a conversation we should even be having with our students. I would love to hear your opinion on whether or not the church should talk about race, or is it something that should be left in the home?

Karli: We, as the church, don’t ever want to ignore the topic of grace, and it is grace that is the center of this conversation. So, if for no other reason, that is why we need to talk about it. Christ’s love to die on the cross for us is not a love based on any action of our own. It is this kind of love that we should offer to the world. Not a love based on action, but on grace – the same type of grace extended to us. The gospel speaks directly into racial reconciliation, as it is a part of God’s larger story where He literally reconciles a world to Himself. So we cannot ignore it, nor should we simply put a ‘gospel Band-Aid’ on it. The gospel tells us why our relationship with God is broken, but also why our relationship with man is broken. Yet, it also tells us the hope of restored relationships through a new family formed through the bloodline given in Christ. We need to be talking about racial tension and the gospel hand-in-hand.

It is not only Karli’s gospel-centered heart that makes her a great voice of wisdom on this topic, but it is her story that gives her a unique voice as well.

Karli grew up in what she describes as your traditional black church.

Kendal: What was it like growing up in a church predominately similar to you in culture and race?

Karli: As with any race, there are definitely positives and negatives to having any one predominant culture in a congregation. One of the benefits is that it was nice to be in a place that understood my culture. There are certain things that contribute to your family culture that people outside of it don’t understand.

However, Karli’s senior year of high school, her family transitioned to a new church. Although it was only three miles down the road from her old one, she suddenly found herself worshipping in a much more diverse congregation, one where she was now the minority. This experience shaped much of her understanding of the impact of diversity and culture within the church.

Karli: A more diverse church was good for me, and seeing [different cultures] worshipping together was sweet. But just because a church is diverse does not mean that everyone feels welcome. Obviously, this is not true always, but I found it difficult to be brought in. [I learned] that there needs to be a level of intentionality when it comes to caring for students from different cultural backgrounds. While we may have all been from the same city, I also dealt with things that were specific to my culture and race. For example, I found it hard to talk to my white youth pastor about my experience in dealing with racism at school.

Kendal: With a more diverse make-up in your youth group, did you see your group do anything specific to help cultivate relationships between different races of students? What helped, or maybe hurt?

Karli: I can’t remember much that the youth group did to try and cultivate relationships. I will say that the youth pastor was very accepting of all races, and he set a good example. He would always encourage students to make others kids feel welcome. However, as far as the actual topic of race being discussed, I don’t remember that being done. I don’t think this was on purpose, it might have simply been something he didn’t think about, or the church thought about. I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily hurtful, but it wasn’t helpful either. Again, I think the topic of race should be discussed in all types of youth group and ministry settings.

Even with the challenges, after high school Karli began serving as a leader in her church’s youth ministry and eventually came on staff. The Lord used her experience from high school to shape her current understanding of the important role culture plays in the evangelism and discipleship of students.

While working as a youth leader in a predominately white church, Karli knew there would be aspects of her students’ lives that she would not naturally relate to, but she knew she wanted to bridge the gap that she felt with her own youth leader.

Kendal: As the minority race in the church where you were now a leader, how did you balance ministry with trying to understand those cultural differences that you wish your youth leaders had understood about you?

Karli: I knew I had to do my best to try; I had to desperately try to understand the culture of my students, and that is what I would tell any student leader. You’ll never fully understand another’s culture, but try. Talk to them; talk to their family. Working with white students, I started to understand that by spending time with them and their families, I could better understand their home life. You will need to find a way that works for you in the specific context of your students. But for me, whenever I dropped a student off at home, I would be intentional to meet his or her family, allowing me to get to know that much more about them.

As leaders in the church, our desire should be to follow in the ministry example set by Jesus. Christ left His heavenly throne to be made low, taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). He did this not out of obligation, but purpose. He became man that He might be not only savior, but mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus is not only a great high priest, but one who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because He was tempted in every way we were (Heb. 4:14-16). This is what Karli is suggesting that we as youth leaders must seek to do. While we can never fully understand all that our students will experience or face, we must do our best to try.

John Piper has a similar sentiment in his book, Bloodlines. He says, “it is better to aim at understanding and fall short, than to surrender at the onset.” It is better for us to seek to enter into cultural conversations, even difficult ones, in hopes of understanding than to merely give in and not even try.

Karli’s story does not end there. In the midst of the cultural upturn in the racial conversation in America this past year, she found herself being called back to her childhood church to serve as the youth director there.

Kendal: What has been the most challenging part of your transition from a predominately white youth group back to a predominately African-American youth group?

Karli: Through both groups, God as shown me what it is to serve whoever is in front of me. God might put us in a diverse group, or in a single culture group, but we must always serve the best we can in either place. Even though our service as youth leaders might be different in different contexts, the gospel is the same. We may proclaim the message in a different way in one context than in another, but the message never changes.

Kendal: With all your personal experiences, and now as a leader, do you have these conversations with your students and what does that look like?

Karli: Yes, the topic of race needs to be discussed. I have only been there a few months now. But, especially in a predominately black student ministry, I want to inform our students to be watchful because they will be hearing voices on the race conversation from all over. We need to teach them to be ready to compare these voices with a true gospel standpoint. The culture is telling us to be mad about what is happening. But we need to teach our students to ask, “Who are we listening to? Are we listening to the voice of the world or the voice of the Lord?” And we have to be asking them this. I want to ask them this so much that it gets on their nerves – but they’ll remember. I think we must remember too that while cultural issues as a whole need to be talked about, you have to prepare how to have that conversation. For example, topics such as the news over Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin can center around so many options and those often don’t need to be discussed as a collective, but individually with students. But that does not change that these issues still need to be talked about.

Kendal: Is there anything you are doing with your students now to encourage them to cultivate relationships with white students or students of other races?

Karli: I try my best to remind them that, as Christians, we’re called to love all people. This is what Jesus does, and we need to follow His example. I think to do this, we need to not just teach it, but model it and constantly show them how they can do this in their own lives. … The Lord tells us to love and honor others, and this includes me. So currently, I am trying to do my best to be vulnerable to live out my own life in front of my students. To be honest about my own struggles of race, but to show them a life based on the pursuit of a greater truth found in the gospel of Christ.

By the end of our conversation, our explicit conclusion was this: the gospel is the power of God to save and this power is for all who would believe. Culture matters. How we engage students within culture matters. But what matters more is the gospel power to speak into all cultures. And we must speak.

However, what struck me the most about Karli’s encouragement to youth leaders was that as quick as she was to say we must seek understanding through open conversations about race, she was just as quick to give an important warning.

Karli: Before ever stepping into these conversations, you should always seek to be led by the Holy Spirit in how you talk about race and culture. Know who you’re talking too and be cautious about how to enter the conversation. Always prepare yourself for those conversations. If you just jump in, it could come across as if you do not care or that you have a bias.

Yet, even with this word of caution to youth leaders, when I asked Karli for any last pieces of advice or wisdom, this is what she left me with and what I would leave us all with.

Karli: Remember that empowerment is for everyone. You see a lot of white people who feel white guilt, and they begin to treat people better simply because they are black. But through the gospel message, we need to empower all people. We need to be sure we are empowering all in our student ministries. When we have this conversation with our students, we need to understand the history of culture, but also know we are not held by it. We are empowered by the gospel of grace.

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