Communities are a lot like ponds or other bodies of water, in the sense that whatever you add or take away from them affects them. Whether it’s simply throwing in a rock to making ripples or altering the entire ecosystem by removing its algae, a change has been made.
While this is true of most communities being affected by outside influences, it can be somewhat magnified in minority cultures. Webster’s Dictionary defines community as “a group of people with common characteristics or interests living together within a larger society.” With that in mind, it is important that when working with students, we consider our ministry’s impact on their community.
Historically, minority cultures have found it necessary to group or bond more closely together either because of persecution or simply for comfort and a sense of unity. For that reason (and others), many of those communities have separated themselves, maintaining cultural distinctives within their groups.
Many of the consequences have been positive: community pride and self-help programs, neighborhood and community watch and protection programs, family community facilities, etc. Unfortunately, it’s made people separate from one another.
This creates a dilemma for those of us who seek to do ministry to different ethnic groups. How do we, with God’s leading and direction, enter these communities? What’s our best approach to helping expose these communities to the gospel without offending them?
The solution requires understanding how ethnic communities work. Understanding these communities means that when we minister to students, we will have to take into consideration their cultural and community backgrounds. We have to realize that a community more often functions as a whole than as a part. Thus, it becomes necessary to, “as much as it is possible, make every effort to live in peace with all men …” (Hebrews 12:14-15). In doing so, we “see to it that no one misses the grace of God and no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
An Example of an African-American Community
One example of this is the found in the African-American community who traditionally looks to the local church for its spiritual leadership. It makes it difficult to do ministry outside of the church. People may become suspicious and may even oppose us.
Some approaches to this community could include: attending the church worship service periodically and keeping in constant contact with the pastor and/or church leadership about events and activities.
You may want to take on partnerships with more of a servant role to the existing youth ministry, while maintaining your own ministry distinctives.
An Example of an Hispanic/Latino Community
Another example comes from the Hispanic/Latino community. Many Hispanics come from Catholic back-grounds. In many of their minds, the Catholic church is the sole spiritual authority. In this community, our emphasis should more be on a personal relationship with Christ than on cultural Christianity. Focusing on the things we share in our beliefs will get you much further than focusing on the differences. To encourage a student to think differently too quickly will alienate them from their family and community – something you don’t do in the Hispanic community!
Some helpful approaches to this community may include attending church and family events, meeting and maintaining high contact with the parents and getting to know pastors of other denominations in that community to build credibility.
An Example of an Asian Community
In some Asian communities (there are at least 23 different ones), promoting our relationship with God over academics may get you a head on collision with a brick wall. Many Asian cultures place a high importance on honor and duty. So doing well in school is a way of showing appreciation and respect to their parents, many of whom have sacrificed greatly to give their children a good education. Family is very important and to push outside activities could put undue pressure on the student. He/she may want to succeed in all areas of their lives but the family may be pressuring him/her to do more family-oriented or academic activities.
Ministry to this community could include showing respect to their parents and pastors. It may also mean helping the student to look at his/her entire schedule and only inviting them to the events they can attend. Helping these students (and maybe even their parents) see God as one who appreciates their excellence and parental honor and helping them to understand God’s grace may help things go a little more smoothly at home.
The Hard Work is Worth It
We agree. Understanding other cultures can require more work. But, since when did understanding other cultures mean anything different? But, it’s worth it because reaching all people with the gospel is important to God (Revelation 7:9-10).
We cannot possibly expect to minister to the individual student in our audience without keeping in mind that they are affected by a larger group (i.e., families, teachers, pastors, other youth ministries, etc.). This must be reflected in our ministry schedules and programs. If we really try to understand the cultures our students come from we’ll face fewer frustrations and increase the possibility that, because of our love, concern and servant attitude, their hearts will be flung open to the gospel of Jesus Christ.