They were on the edge of their seats. Students at the youth camp I spoke at this past weekend came ready to have fun, but more so to grow in Christ. From my first moment as their central speaker they were engaged, active and wanting to learn. They soaked up all I said, and while I would love to say it was because of my mad skills, I really think it was more that they came looking for more.

 As I got to know them I was struck with how easy it is to judge a book by its cover. Most of these students came from small towns, suburban college towns and some would even say their home was “rural.” When I asked the question, “How many of you have grown up going to church?” most hands went into the air. All except a very small handful regularly attend a churched function now, after all this was a denominational event. There wasn’t a lot of multi-ethnicity in the group at all, and by “not a lot” I mean there was one bi-racial student. My point is that it would be easy to look at the sea of eagerness and make lots of assumptions.

Interacting with students at meals and free time I got to hear their stories. There was the girl who has all of the material items anyone could ask for, while she feels cast aside by her parents. Mom and Dad are divorced, and she never sees Dad at all. Mom just broke up with a boyfriend of 6 years and now is trying to “find herself.” There was the boy being raised by his grandparents because both of his parents are in jail. The young woman who was adopted by a family member at four because her birth Mom was a prostitute and dad was gone. The young man who lived across the street from drug dealers with his Mom’s third husband who was, “better than the other two guys.” They were so matter of fact about sharing details about their lives. Yet, below the surface I witnessed an ache that circumstances could be different.

One of the youth leaders shared that many of her students have parents in jail. While they live in a small town, it also happens to be a major stopping point on the drug route to Detroit. We live in an ever changing world where the other side of the tracks is now on our side of town. Churches are struggling as the community they once knew is a mix of churched, and unchurched with all of us on the messy side. I live in an inner city neighborhood so it often comes under scrutiny for it’s issues that make the news. Too many youth workers say to me, “Well you understand why your students are this way, but you don’t understand MY situation.” I wish this was true, but I also spend time working with students at a local Christian school. More of them come from what you call, “Good homes,” and yet they have the same issues as anyone in my hood. I think to navigate the current sea of students we have to do two things:

Stop Thinking No One Else Understands

When you say to me, “ No one else gets it,” I understand your heart. You are really saying, “I am overwhelmed and isolated and I am not really sure what to do to help these kids.” In the youth min world we promote a picture that the “successful” are multi-site churches with families that are sort of with it. These are the ones that appear to only cater to kids from the with it families. This is simply not true. In my back yard I have one of those churches that makes the top 10 biggest lists annually. I have sat and chatted with various staff members. Their community has moved to include more depressed areas and they are trying out the church. I was recently asked, “How do we address parents that are cohabiting but not married?” The same problems are creeping in everywhere. We get caught up in the picture of the circumstances. Sin is sin no matter how you package it, and it is insideous. When we get stuck in “no one understands” the trouble is just that we get stuck. Let’s start asking others to go beyond the surface to the deeper heart. Perhaps the book has a different cover, but the words are the same.

Stop Pretending “This Isn’t Happening Here”

The issue isn’t that communities aren’t dealing with the same junk. The issue is that we want to think it’s an anomaly. Your students may come from homes full of all the stuff they could ever want. It doesn’t make it a healthy home. They may come from homes where they are being raised by their grandparents, it doesn’t mean they aren’t pursuing Christ. We need to constantly assess the community that is part of our church. It will change. Ten years ago one neighborhood I served in was primarily African American, today everything has changed. The names on the shops and the restaurants make it obvious it is a community of Mexican immigrants. Maybe it isn’t that drastic. It could just be that a developer put “affordable housing” across the street. It could be that it became that stop on the drug route. It could be it’s not in your church but in the houses in your backyard.

There are so many reasons why, but to do effective ministry we need to start being honest about our areas, churches, and people in our community. I think the question we really must ask is, “Do we want to see a generation transformed in Christ?” If we do, then we will do whatever it takes to help them see His face. This starts with understanding more of us are alike than we realize. Let’s stop saying, “That doesn’t happen here,” and start seeing the ways we connect. The more we can pull together, the more we can act like a body, the more we will be in awe of the way God shows up. Let’s remember that no matter how bleak or strange our student’s lives look, Jesus is no respecter of circumstances. He only wants to restore the ultimate broken relationship and He’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

What are you doing to embrace your own community?