As a black youth pastor and 16-year youth ministry veteran, I’ve never seen this much hype in the broader culture around black history month. It seems as though everyone is jumping onto the bandwagon to specifically acknowledge African Americans like never before.
The question is, should the church follow suit?
Should the bride of Christ focus on a single people group during an entire month within our church communities? This question was sparked by a woman named Sarah on our DYM Community Facebook page. The responses she got were varied, which sparked my desire to write this up. To answer this important question, I’d like us to consider the following:
Where are we currently?
How can the Bible speak into this moment?
What should we do?
Where Are We Currently?
What is the current environment we and our students find ourselves in in 2021? I am about to list some things which may make some feel a variety of emotions or assume bias, but please allow me to elaborate further before you stop reading. Over the past year:
- Ahmaud Arbery was shot.
- Breonna Taylor was shot by police in her bed while she slept.
- George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck.
- In the summer of 2020, millions of people across the U.S. and around the world marched all summer long for racial justice in response.
- Communities burned as some rioters and looters took advantage of the situation.
- The phrase “Black Lives Matters” reemerged as both a rallying cry and a polarizing slogan.
Our teenagers saw and experienced all this. If church leaders aren’t intentional about helping this younger generation walk through these messy times with a biblical foundation seasoned with grace and understanding, someone else will direct their responses according to their own paradigms.
What Does The Scripture Teach?
Some may object, “But aren’t we called to be in the world but not of the world? Aren’t we supposed to be set apart? Aren’t we taught not to bow down to false idols of our culture like in the book of Daniel? Aren’t we supposed to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?” All this is true. However, culture alone is not a terrible thing. Every culture has both beautiful and broken parts. I serve a God who is able to redeem even the broken parts to point people back to him. Black History Month has been a staple in our culture for many years and serves as another opportunity for us to lean into events our students are already talking about and forming opinions on in 2021.
What does the Bible say about leveraging culture for the sake of connecting people to Him? In Acts 17 Paul was walking through the city of Athens and noticed an area with many idols. Now, Paul could have completely ignored this. He could have condemned the people for having idols made of stone or wood. He could have made fun of them because he knew the true God and their theology wasn’t even close to being accurate. He could have chosen to completely ignore this aspect of their culture and just get right to “preaching the gospel.” However, Paul graciously acknowledged the Athenian people’s desire for religion. He looked into their customs and used an altar dedicated “to the unknown god” as an opportunity to talk about the ONE true God. I love that Paul quoted back THEIR OWN CULTURAL POETS as additional reasoning to believe what he was saying: “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:28 NIV). Paul recognized the moment of the culture. He saw an opportunity to use their limited/false understanding of God as a bridge to a relationship with Jesus. I also love 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where Paul recognized the power of adapting to certain cultures and customs for the purpose of helping people hear the gospel! Paul was truly a cross-cultural missionary. So what does this have to do with Black History Month?
What Should We Do?
Our students have experienced more racial unrest in the past twelve months than they likely have witnessed their entire lives. Black History Month offers a natural excuse to reach into the culture and say something meaningful to a generation of young people desperate to know God’s response. The following are two very basic ideas as to how you can leverage this season to connect with your students better, positively shape their thinking around race, and lead your students during a messy time. Please understand that all of these ideas will need to be adjusted and modified based on the ethnic makeup of your group. Contextualization is very important!
- Intentionally use examples of African Americans positively in sermon illustrations.
Because we live in a predominately white society, we naturally have more current and historical examples of white people doing and saying stuff worthy to share. That’s not a bad thing. However, representation matters. It matters to the students of color in your youth group, and it matters to the white kids in your group who may have unspoken stereotypes in the backs of their minds. Being intentional about using positive examples of African Americans doing great stuff, saying cool stuff, and becoming amazing people does two things. First, it lets your students of color know you see them. They will feel loved and cared for. Second, it helps shape your white students to value the voices and accomplishments of people who don’t look like them if they don’t already. So, during your series on sex this month (because of February), consider what positive examples you could use where you highlight African Americans.
- Have a specific conversation on racial injustice in your youth group.
Regardless of the ethnic makeup of your group, invite a guest speaker to have a conversation with you (on stage or on Zoom with your students present) about race in their area. This can be an eye-opening experience not only for the students, but for youth pastors as well. Consider the following:
- For groups that are mostly or all minorities, this conversation helps those students not feel crazy. It helps them feel seen. And with the right voice, it can redirect their possible anger and frustration toward healthy ways of expressing themselves and toward considering how they can help change society.
- For groups that are very mixed (I used to lead a highly diverse group of 300 students at my main campus at my last church), it helps all these students from various backgrounds have some common language and understanding for how to have discussions around race. It teaches them how to understand and empathize with one another. It helps them understand some much-needed history. With all this learning and understanding, deeper relationships can form within the group. Your students will take this unity back to their schools.
- For groups that are mostly (or all) white, have this conversation too! Stereotypes, prejudice, and racism are often subtle in culture, and it starts at a young age. Even though you may not have students of color in your ministry, there are likely students of color at their schools. And if there aren’t, I can assure you they are interacting with them online. Be a pioneer in helping students value all people by intentionally exposing them to diversity of thinking.
If you’ve gotten this far but are still resisting the ideas presented in this article, I first want to say, thank you for reading! Encountering ideas contrary to one’s world view can be jarring. Thank you for making it to the end. This DYM article can’t do this conversation justice on why we need to have these discussions, so I would recommending picking up one of two books if you would really like to dig into American Church history of racism and how we can fight it today. The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism are two fantastic books by Jemar Tisby which are worth your time. Please leave a comment below if you would like to dialogue about this at all!
Theo Davis serves as the Multi-Site Youth Pastor at Restore Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He has worked in youth ministry for 16 years in a variety of settings which include church plants, rural churches, and mega-churches on the East Coast and now Midwest. He received his degree in Youth Ministry from Eastern University in 2008 and has continued to leverage his education with real-world experience. He and his wife Malia are huge gamers and named their kids after video game characters — Zelda & Shepherd (from The Legend of Zelda and the Mass Effect Series). Theo also loves action figures and spends his spare time developing his musical and visual art talents. Follow him on Instagram @theo_davis