As non-whites become majority, youth ministries adjust

by Tess Schoonhoven, posted Friday, July 10, 2020 (one month ago)

ORANGE, Calif. (BP) -- For Ricardo Vides, young adults pastor at Ministerios Betesda Church in Orange, Calif., approaching ministry from an ethnically diverse perspective is just reality. A more pressing reality all the time.

Members of Ministerios Betesda lead the congregation in worship for their live-streamed service.
Submitted photo
According to recent U.S. census data, for the first time ever, the majority of people age 16 and under are non-white, as reported by the Associated Press.

The statistic does not surprise Vides, whose southern California ministry has always included people who have migrated from Latin America. But he said it is critical for ministry leaders across America to recognize the shift in demographics and to make adjustments.

"We have to understand the reality that we live in a country that is so diverse and unique with all the people that come to live in this country from all over the world," Vides said.

Ministerios Betesda is a Hispanic Church, but Vides said he chose to conduct his ministry in English, because most of the people he's trying to reach are bilingual.

The decision was not easy for the church to accept initially, he said. But the church has seen that the children of first-generation immigrants in Vides' ministry are growing up speaking both English and Spanish.

"[Ministry] will have to continue to evolve," Vides said. "[We have] to understand the cultural impact each of these teens are going to be going through with having to live in two distinct cultures -- one from their home country and how their parents have been raised, to the second one where they came to live in and be raised in now."

Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says the shift is just beginning.

Ministerios Betesda gathers for a worship service in Orange, Calif.
Submitted photo
"The shift in racial balance was expected," Ross said. "What is newsworthy right now is the fact that nonwhites and Hispanics became the majority for the first time. That shift will continue for decades."

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry for LifeWay Christian Resources, said pastors are going to have to do a better job of understanding the differing perspectives of people in their communities.

"Each person has a story, and in a broader sense, each race has a story," Trueblood said. "Those stories, or histories if you will, impact how people see and interact with the world. We have a tendency to see and understand things through the perspective of our own narrow story, and youth pastors will need to break out of that pattern."

Trueblood said this statistic is already showing up in schools and communities around the U.S., and ministry leaders need to evaluate how they are shifting to represent the areas they are seeking to serve.

"As a white leader in the SBC, my love for people needs to move beyond just saying, 'I love people of color,' but actually into deed and showing that love through personal friendships, ministry partnerships and through personal initiative to research, learn and understand other perspectives," Trueblood said. "For us to see revival among this generation of teenagers, I think the church, broadly, has to adopt a posture of loving in word and deed when it comes to issues of race."

Shane Pruitt, National Next Gen Evangelism Director with the North American Mission Board, agreed. He said the question to be asked in the current environment is no longer, "Why are you a diverse church?" but instead, "Why are you not a diverse church?"

"If we're going to be serious about reaching our diverse communities, diverse schools and a diverse generation, we will naturally become diverse ministry," Pruitt said. "We'll have to be intentional by putting our ministries through hard evaluations. Do our stages represent who we are trying to reach? Do our leadership and volunteer teams look like who we are trying to reach?"

Pruitt said the generation of those 16 and under in U.S. are exposed to brokenness at an earlier age and are looking for a solution. He believes this searching is an opening for an awakening.

"This is an extreme generation," Pruitt said. "Everything they do is extreme, so when they surrender to Jesus, they are doing it with extreme, all-in surrender. I believe we could see a great spiritual awakening in this generation."

Ross noted that hot topic issues for the 16-and-under generation include science and the Bible, gender issues and racial attitudes.

"If teenagers have friends at school who would not be welcome at their church, that can be a deal-breaker," Ross said. "We need strong, biblical preaching and teaching to precipitate a change in adult attitudes. If attitudes in the adult church change, then student ministry can be effective in reaching all students in the community."

Ross said as student pastors adapt their ministries to relate to a more ethnically diverse population, they need to make the right moves for the right reasons – and that will entail listening.

"When the student pastor has the right motives, has the support of the adult church, and community teenagers still won't come -- it may be time for him to listen," Ross explained. "With a humble attitude, [pastors] might need to ask minority teenagers, or their parents, what keeps them away. He also may need to ask a minority youth leader to teach him about dynamics he knows little about."

Even as student ministry evolves to become and remain effective in a new context, Vides said the backbone must remain the Holy Spirit, as revealed through God's Word.

"If this age range is willing to be moved by the Holy Spirit and open their hearts to God like no other age has done in recent times, then I believe there can be a revival," Vides said. "But we need men and women with a true desire and passion to do what is needed to be used by God to initiate this revival."

Biblical unity calls for action, Ross emphasized.

"If our teenagers see their churches creating biblical unity among all God's people," Ross said, "then they can turn their attention to King Jesus and all He may in store for a young generation."

Pruitt said understanding must come before action.

"We have to figure out bridges we can build and what barriers we can remove," Pruitt said. "If we're going to have a future as evangelical churches, it must be a diverse future."

Tess Schoonhoven is a Baptist Press staff writer.
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