I read an academic article recently that examined the management strategies of two teachers who were successfully engaging students in a culturally diverse, urban school. The strategies they used are highly applicable to urban youth ministry, too.
1) Understand equality vs. equity. Equality is “the same.” The same rules, the same punishments. The same reward, the same amount of time. In other words, will you do the same, all the time, for everyone? Did Jesus treat everyone the same, all the time? Equity is more concerned with justice. Youth (and leaders alike) will likely struggle with the concept of equity until #3 and #5 below are happening.
2) Understand power structures. Know who controls your youth culture. Which kids are the leaders? Which ones are the followers? Are the leaders following your example and listening to your words–or are they against you? I recall having a camper in my group one year at Teen Camp that I might describe as a “counselor’s dream.” She was a leader, punctual, and a morning person. While I was away at our early morning staff meeting, she was making sure the lights were on and that the campers in our group were getting out of bed so that they could make it to breakfast on time. What a gift it was to me as a counselor to have a teen leader like that in my group!
3) Immerse yourself in their world. What music do they like? What do they do for fun? Get to know as much about them as you can. Go to their soccer or basketball games and their school performances. If you are invited to a family party, try to go.
4) Understand yourself in relation to others. This especially applies to someone who comes from a white, rural, non-diverse culture, which describes the majority of our interns. Your life experiences, upbringing, traditions, and values will be vastly different from inner-city, at-risk youth. There will be ways to connect despite those differences, but know that there are significant differences.
5) Grant entry into your world. Be authentic and real, and share stories about your life. The children and teens I have invited to come to my home do not soon forget those experiences.
6) Have a family mentality. Respect and care for youth as if they were your family. In fact, some of them will likely view you as family, whether that is as a mother or father figure, an older sister or brother, or an aunt or uncle. I think of Paul’s relationship with Timothy; he viewed Timothy as his son in the faith.