Contextual Youth Ministry in a Diverse World

Youth Specialties
July 9th, 2010

The International Youth Ministry Nomad

You know the type, right? The free-spirited guy you went to college with who, upon graduating, immediately began traveling the world and never came back. While you settled down to start a family and work at your local church, the International Youth Ministry Nomad took his passion for youth ministry and his love for adventure overseas, vowing never to “settle down” anywhere. You’re changing diapers; he’s changing foreign currencies. And, while you hate to admit it, you do feel a twinge of jealousy when you get his postcards from South America…now Asia…now Africa. Eventually, you give up trying to keep track of your friend.

Sure, the IYMN might be an over-the-top caricature, a figment of my imagination, but I’d be willing to bet that most of us in youth ministry know at least one person who fits the description. And, when discussing contextual youth ministry, it’s important that we allow the IYMN to join the conversation. After all, if we are to truly understand contextual youth ministry, we will have to view youth ministry through a global lens.

9 words you’ll never hear me say

“You wouldn’t understand. You just had to be there.”

Words such as these are often rooted in ignorance or insecurities that destroy conversations before they’ve started. In truth, we’re all guilty of such rhetoric at some time or another. Our youth return from short-term mission trips and aren’t quite sure how to put their experiences into words, or maybe they (and we?) are tempted to exercise some sort of experiential superiority over their peers who were not on the trip. Whatever their reasons for not properly communicating the life-changing experiences of their mission trip, they have alienated their audience in nine words.

The same is true in youth ministry circles. The inner-city youth worker and the youth pastor in suburban America find very little common ground in their respective youth ministry contexts. “You wouldn’t understand,” says one to the other, and then they both retreat back into their safe ministry bubbles. The men and women in youth ministry overseas, our friends known as the IYMNs, come from an even more diverse context, but unfortunately, like the others they’re tempted to say, “You just had to be there.” Why? More often than not, I think these youth workers fear that they have nothing to add to the conversation about youth ministry in the West. It is out of insecurity that they distance themselves from a conversation in which they could add much value.

I’ve struggled at times with this same temptation—to exclude others from my ministry context. It’s much easier to be exclusive than inclusive. But this is counter-productive, as we can learn a lot about youth ministry from others who are doing ministry in significantly different contexts than our own.

Context is everything

While still relatively new on the youth ministry scene (some have been doing youth ministry longer than I’ve been alive), I’ve been blessed to experience youth ministry in a number of global settings. From my beginnings as a full-time “traditional” youth pastor in the middle of America, to youth ministry experiences in Latin and South America, China, India, and most recently a year working for a prominent youth ministry organization in southern Africa, I’ve witnessed first-hand youth ministry in a variety of contexts. One thing I’ve learned along the way is that context significantly affects strategies for effective youth ministry.

During a three-month stay in Beijing, I attended an evangelical church—an international church. The only catch was that everyone who attended the church had to show their passport at the door; no Chinese citizens were allowed into the church service. I don’t have an easy answer as to how youth ministry should be done in Beijing, but I do know that given the Chinese context, youth ministry will look significantly different than in any American context.

So the real question is: how does your context affect the way you do youth ministry?

Context is nothing

As much as context dictates our strategies and methods in youth ministry, the message never changes. So while context is everything, it is also nothing.

I worked for an organization in sub-Saharan Africa called J-Life Africa.[1] From the West, it’s easy to view Africa—the entire continent—as one entity, one group of people. My experiences, however, showed me otherwise. Africa is incredibly diverse, with thousands of different tongues and tribes, cultures and people-groups. Yet, despite such diversity, for nearly a decade now since its inception, J-Life Africa has been having overwhelmingly fruitful results in reaching the youth of Africa for Christ.

What started as a grassroots movement when a South African youth pastor and his wife began discipling three young people out of their home, J-Life is now a movement of disciple-makers in more than twenty different countries across Africa. Crossing language, cultural, and contextual barriers—from the high-class neighborhoods of Johannesburg, to the slums of Nairobi—J-Life is producing godly young leaders.

How is all this possible? To be sure, it is the Holy Spirit that actually produces the fruit in any cross-cultural ministry. At the same time, at J-Life I stumbled upon a strategy for youth ministry unlike any that I had experienced before. As cliché as it might sound, the answer for effective youth ministry in any context is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

A clear message

J-Life Africa focuses its training on the life of Jesus. Drawing heavily from the Sonlife Model, J-Life trains young people in Jesus’ methods for making disciples.[2] [JHAsk any of the J-Life staff about their mission, and they will clearly articulate that J-Life exists to mobilize disciple-making movements based on the life of Jesus.

It might seem obvious that Jesus should be the central message of every youth ministry, but this takes intentional effort. In any context, if we are not clearly and consistently presenting the life-changing power of Jesus, other messages will naturally creep in. Unintentionally, if we let our cultures and our contexts dictate our ministries too much, the message of the living Christ may lose its place as the central message of our ministries. If we’re not careful, young people might easily begin to hear messages like “just be good” or “make sure you go to church.” While there may be some value in these other messages, they are uninspiring, and, rightfully so, young people will choose not to give their lives to these causes.

This is the first and most important principle of contextual youth ministry: your message should be clear, and your message shouldn’t change!

An organic movement

Unlike your message, your methods for reaching the young people in your ministry and community may change regularly. Again, I think this has been key to J-Life’s fruitful ministry across distinctly different cultural contexts.

J-Life Africa can best be described as an “organic movement.” By that, I mean that J-Life is like a living organism—always growing, always changing. This also involves the painful process of pruning. One of J-Life’s trademark methods has been a one-year discipleship program, in which young people receive four months of intensive training in disciple-making, followed by a seven-month internship in a local church, planting a disciple-making youth ministry alongside that church. After recently concluding that this form is no longer meeting it’s desired function, J-Life is adopting a new model for training its youth leaders and partnering with local churches. These decisions are never easy, but they are necessary. And for J-Life, the result is an exciting movement of young leaders across a continent that is desperately in need of godly leadership.

In the same way, regularly evaluating your ministry will prove invaluable as you seek to maintain cultural relevance. Youth culture is ever changing, and if we want to effectively reach young people today, we have to allow our methods for ministry to change as well.

This is the second principle for contextual youth ministry: your ministry should be organic—growing, changing, and adapting to meet the needs of an ever-changing youth culture.

Bringing it home

I’m not here to propose that there’s one model or one way to do effective contextual youth ministry—quite the opposite really. More than anything, my desire is for you to evaluate the effectiveness of your youth ministry based on your context. You can start by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I know my youth ministry context?
  2. Is the message of my ministry clear?
  3. Is my ministry organic, growing, and changing with my cultural context?

Call me an International Youth Ministry Nomad if you want, but in whatever context I find myself in this incredibly diverse world, I’m just someone who’s trying to effectively reach this next generation with the life-changing message of the living Christ. And I hope you are, too!

J-Life stands for “Jesus’ Life.” J-Life Africa is closely affiliated with Sonlife Classic and Global Youth Initiative.

[2] The Sonlife Model includes four steps: Winning the Lost, Building the Believer, Equipping the Worker, and Multiplying Shepherds. For more information about Sonlife materials, go to


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