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It's Not Easy Being Urban, Especially When There's No Green

  • Efrem Smith Youthworker Journal
  • 2005 16 Sep
It's Not Easy Being Urban, Especially When There's No Green

Being an urban youth worker can make you feel a lot like Kermit the frog—alone on your own pad with just a song to get you by. Remember in The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog sat with his banjo, dreaming about rainbows and bemoaning the difficulty inherent in a lime pigment? For the youth minister, it’s not easy being urban because there’s a need for green, along with a need for resources, attention, training, and empowerment.

The lack of resources in the urban youth ministry setting compared to my counterparts in the suburbs can make me feel like a Samaritan in a Jewish world—an outcast in youth ministry. It’s easy to feel that my ministry to youth isn’t as pure as those who have a significant budget, support staff, and a youth room that isn’t shared by other ministries. From an urban viewpoint, it seems that success in youth ministry is based on a suburban, white, large-church model. And this suburban superiority view seems to be supported by the models of T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar who both pastor churches that maintain urban outreach ministries but have set up camp in the suburbs.


I grew up in a black church in inner-city Minneapolis called Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. My mother took me to the church every Sunday while my dad usually stayed home to watch football or basketball (which is really what I wanted to do). By the time I was in middle school, I began to like this church for a couple of reasons. Every third Friday night they hosted a party for youth called “Youth Friday.” We paid three dollars to get in, and there was a deejay playing music, older women in the church selling chicken dinners with Kool-Aid, and deacons in the church serving as security.

I realize now that the cover made the event possible because there was no youth budget. There wasn’t even a youth pastor on staff—all the ministries for youth were run by volunteers from youth choir, the youth usher board, and the youth deacons’ board. The ministries to youth were just junior versions of the adult activities. When we visited other black churches in the city they seemed to have pretty much the same setup—a church of 300 people or less with families of middle-and lower-class incomes, only one paid staff member (the Senior Pastor, who in many cases was bi-vocational), and youth ministry run by volunteers.

By my freshman year in high school, an associate minister named Reverend McAfee came to the church and became our de factoyouth minister only because there wasn’t much else for an unpaid associate pastor with minimal resources to do in a church like Tabernacle. I believe it was that same year that Tabernacle was dissolved for financial reasons and a new church called Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church was formed. Today that church still resembles the old Tabernacle, with only a senior pastor on staff and a youth ministry run by volunteers.

"A Special Blessing"

By the time I was a sophomore in high school I met Joey Huber who went to Park Avenue United Methodist Church about a mile away from Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church. He invited me to what he called “huddles,” the midweek youth event at Park Avenue. When I went with him that first Wednesday night I couldn’t believe my eyes! For one, there were over 100 middle and high school students. In addition, there were adults leading that night that I found out were full-time staff members being paid just to work with young people. This church staff had a youth pastor, a senior high director, and a junior high director. I left there feeling that this white church had a special blessing that my black church did not.

This changed after I met a youth pastor named Art Erickson. He originally came to Park Avenue in 1967 during a challenging time for the church. The church had a history of being an all-white church in an affluent neighborhood. In the late sixties after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, many neighborhoods began to diversify, and the neighborhood surrounding Park Avenue began to change in a drastic way. As Native American and African American families moved in, many of the members of Park Avenue wanted to relocate to the suburbs. The senior pastor, Phil Hinnerman, was committed to staying in that neighborhood and lost some of his more affluent members because of it. He strengthened the church’s commitment to this changing neighborhood by hiring Art Erickson with a job description that called for 50% of his time being spent with kids in the church and 50% of his time being spent reaching out to the now mostly ethnic kids in the neighborhood.

Because of white flight in the church, Art faced limited financial resources for his youth ministry as well. From his previous experience on staff with Young Life, Art was used to having to raise money, so he began to hit up downtown Christian business leaders to donate money to take students on camping and ski trips and to hire support staff. This led to the creation of the Park Avenue Foundation, which today houses a health clinic, computer learning center, and a summer program for teens and their families. Through the development of this Christian community development foundation, the church is able to provide a professional and resourced ministry to young people.

Youth Minister = Fund-Raiser

For most ethnic-led churches today, though, not much has changed since my early days at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. I worked in urban youth ministry in Minneapolis for close to ten years, and I never heard of an African American or other ethnic-led local church that was in a position to hire a full-time youth pastor. I spent my time in urban youth ministry working for para-churches such as Hospitality House Youth Directions and the Minnesota Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in both cases I had to play a role in helping to raise funds.

I found out during these years that to be a successful urban youth minister you not only had to be able to be effective at reaching out to and nurturing youth in their faith, but also be a good fund-raiser. I had a harder job than my suburban counterparts, because I had to raise money, recruit more volunteers due to lack of paid staff members, provide transportation to youth whose families had no other mode of transportation besides the city bus, and still plan all the events and hang out with kids.

Meeting my peers from the suburbs was often a depressing experience. Watching the continual white flight and the new upper- and middle-class black flight was so depressing that I left the world of urban youth ministry to do the same thing. I took a youth pastor staff position at a large, suburban, and mostly-white church called Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio.

Culture Shock

This church had a weekly attendance over 3,000. I not only had a budget so that I didn’t have to raise any money, but I also had two full-time and two part-time staff working with me. It was at this church that I first found out about events like the National Youth Workers Convention. I also came to realize how hard it is for poor, urban youth workers to ever get to events like that.

All the time that I was at Ginghamsburg, I loved the resources that were available to me, but my heart never left the city. Though it wasn’t easy being urban, it was my ultimate calling and passion, so I moved back to Minneapolis to be youth pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. The city is definitely where I’m called to minister, but it didn’t take long for me to face once again the challenge of limited resources. I was also the only full-time, African American local church youth minister in the city of Minneapolis.

Developing Partnerships

This led me to reach out to parachurch urban youth workers, the part-time and volunteer youth ministers in local churches, and Christians working at the local YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. A small group of us formed an organization called Urban RECLAIM: a non-profit organization providing training, resources, and events through collaborative projects all designed to strengthen urban youth ministry in the Twin Cities. Urban RECLAIM hosts an annual leadership retreat for urban youth and provides monthly luncheons for urban youth workers to help build community and professional development.

Partnerships through RECLAIM and VisionYouth (a program of World Vision) have developed between local churches and parachurch organizations, money has been raised for full-time youth ministry positions, and more unchurched youth are being reached.

More recently, the Evangelical Covenant Church and two large suburban churches have partnered to plant a new church that I pastor: Sanctuary Covenant Church.

A New Vision

We’re an African American-led, multiethnic church in the city, and we hope to provide holistic ministries that reach out to the emerging hip-hop, multicultural, urban community of the Twin Cities.

In one year we’ve grown to a weekly attendance of over 350 adults and kids. We’re in the process of launching the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation, which will focus on youth development, healthcare, and economic development in the inner city of North Minneapolis.

We’re hoping that through networking, collaborative projects, and the planting of ethnic indigenous churches, we can, for lack of a better term, level the playing field and address the disparities between urban and suburban youth ministry.

Efrem Smith is the senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota as well as an Itinerant Speaker with Kingdom Building Ministries. He also is the author of the book Raising Up Young Heroes, and an advisory board member for Youthworker. The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published.