This article is from Sept/Oct 2004 YouthWorker Journal ~
"There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America… there's the United States of America." - Barack Obama, July 27, 2004 Democratic National Convention

His words electrified many Americans. People all over the country were excited. Some even hailed this young (43), charismatic, African-American (father is Kenyan), probable-Senator (less than three weeks before the campaign deadline he was running unopposed) as a future President of our country. His "we are one people" message touched the hearts of many and was described as one of the greatest keynote addresses in Democratic Party Convention history.

Politics aside, I appreciated the sentiment of his statement. However, sometimes the message can get lost in the moment, and reality can be muddled in the excitement at hand. Sure, we stand under the allegiance to the stars and stripes. Sure, in a sense, we're all "one people" as Barack Obama stated, and as Christians we're called to work to make that sentiment a reality. Even so, we must never lose sight of the great diversity that comprises this great nation.

Youth workers are no exception. The reality of multi-ethnic and global youth ministry is at hand, and it will likely become even more so in the future. As Christians and youth workers called to go to the ends of the earth, we must understand the magnitude and breadth of this new landscape and the ways to minister to our multi-ethnic and global youth culture. This will serve to help us fulfill the Great Commission in our local church context and for God's universal kingdom.

Youth Ministry Across Culture

Youth ministry, by definition, is a ministry across culture. Sociologists talk about adolescent culture, in youth ministry settings we sometimes call it youth culture, and in the last issue of YouthWorker Journal, it was called the "emerging global culture." With the ever-growing and far-reaching global influence of media and marketing, youth culture is becoming somewhat more uniform throughout the country and the world.

My recent mission trip to Kenya was enlightening—even in the poorest of slums and direst conditions, we saw students wearing Tommy Hilfiger and GAP clothing. Then, when our youth group was playing this game called "Big Booty" (don't ask me how this game got started) to kill some time, even the Kenyans from the most remote parts of the country knew what we were talking about and joined us in the laughter and fun.

Although there may be a likeness within the global youth culture, many have failed to realize that there are great differences among teens from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. In other words, the term "youth culture" doesn't adequately describe or classify the whole population.

This was never more evident than in some USA Today articles from the past year. In a March 2004 article, it was pointed out that by 2050, "white" America will comprise only 50 percent of the total population, down from 69 percent in 2000, and 90 percent in 1950. It goes on to note that "the profound demographic shifts promise to redefine American society at every level, from ethnic make-up of suburban neighborhoods to public education." Similarly, in a May 2003 article, it discusses the transformation of many American cities into ethnically diverse cities, comparing a page from a high school yearbook in 1954 to 2002. Moreover, it notes that this diversity is no longer limited to the large cities of the Northeast; it has reached the "suburbs of the Sun Belt" as well. In other words, ethnic and cultural diversity will be coming, or has come, to a town near you.

Kara Powell and Chap Clark shared some research in the Jul/Aug 2004 Youthworker Journal (p. 50-55) that indicates a strong need for youth leaders to understand a variety of multicultural issues, not just those in urban or international contexts. So, I'd like to offer three suggestions as we navigate a few issues around multi-cultural and global youth ministry. Frankly speaking, it's only a start. But as one Korean proverb states, "…the start is half the journey."

Knowing What We Don't Know

In the classes I teach related to youth ministry and culture, I always ask students to do two things. First, I ask them to read a book called Ministering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers. While there are many significant books on this subject, this text helps readers examine their personal views and values regarding issues related to time, judgment, handling crises, goals, self-worth, and vulnerability.

Next, I ask them to befriend a person of a different ethnic background, and discuss and interact with that person's views on the same subjects, in order to become more aware of the differences.

At our Eastern University Youth Life Institute, one of the most enlightening and educational moments is when we have times of intentional discussion about these issues. Students ask me a range of questions from "Why do Asians study so hard?" to "Why is ‘chink' so offensive to Asians?" to "Do you think there will be a backlash against Asians after the movie Pearl Harbor?" These students are white, Hispanic, and African American, and I think these are legitimate questions, and the answers will hopefully bring about a greater understanding so they could be more effective with the Asians in their ministries.

Knowing That We'll Never Know It All

Perhaps Captain Nathan Algren said it best (Tom Cruise's character in the movie The Last Samurai). The catalyst to his growth to understand more of Japanese culture was initiated when he noted that "there is so much here that I'll never understand…and though it may be forever obscure to me, I can not but be aware of its power."

Some people come to ministry across culture thinking they know all the answers. Yet, there are so many complexities to each person and situation. For example, in the Asian-American ministry context, some outside believe that all Asians are smart and buy into the "model minority" myth. Others get their stereotypes of Asians from Jackie Chan or Jet Li movies. However, even within our Asian context, we have terms to describe the varying degrees of the "American-ness" of Asians. Someone who has just immigrated to America and speaks little English is classified as an F.O.B. or "fresh off the boat." On the other hand, those who've assimilated into the white culture can be termed a "banana" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Just looking at an Asian American (or any ethnic person, for that matter) from the outside doesn't do justice to the rich complexities of who that person is. For example, we'd never, if one of our female students got pregnant, stereotype and assume that all female students will get pregnant, would we?

Rather than labeling or making assumptions about a person based on race, culture, or ethnicity, it's important to approach each situation with humility; acknowledging that I can't fully understand, but that I can be aware and learn.


Knowing What God Knows

In the last YouthWorker Journal(Jul/Aug 2004), Efrem Smith wrote, "It was a multicultural, multiethnic, supernatural phenomenon that led to the start of the first Christian church…" and we're to look forward to "…spending our eternal, spiritual lives in a Christ-centered multiethnic community." Between the multicultural, multiethnic start of the church to the eternal future spent within a multiethnic community, Acts 1:8 clearly calls the church to be witnesses and expand the church and kingdom across multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial bounds in the here and now, as well. God calls the people (youth workers included) to go to the Samarias and to the "ends of the earth."

As we practice multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial youth ministry, we're not only fulfilling God's commission; we're also modeling, teaching, and setting an example for the young people to whom we minister. Perhaps the fruit born from promoting and modeling a ministry that reaches across culture, race, and ethnicity will be seeing these young people go to the Africas, South Americas, the "1040 window," and "to the ends of the earth."

Are we truly seeking to expand the Kingdom for God? Youth ministry across culture is about that, not only for the youth workers who practice it, but also for the fruit in the lives of successive generations. By recognizing our great diversity, we can be a church that truly creates a Kingdom in which "we are one people."


Danny Kwon is the youth director at Yuong Sang Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, on the advisory board of the Youth Ministry Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and an international lecturer on youth ministry.