“Pastah Jay, you got a racist church. Why don’t you like black people here?”

The kid asking me the question was Cliff, a seventeen-year-old African American who showed up at our church one Sunday. He and his two brothers had been attending off and on for a month or two.

I listened as he explained the charge: the lack of people of color in our church, our “white people music,” the way some of our congregation eyed them when they were going through the cookie line after service and a few other things he noticed that I had never thought of. Looking at our church through his eyes, I realized he had a point. Not that we were intentionally racist, but that to people “not like us,” our congregational culture was more closed than open.

For a lot of youth, many Lutheran churches present a culture they find increasingly difficult to relate to, let alone embrace and become part of. The question Cliff was posing to me is the same one we often face from youth in our congregations: Is there a significant place here for me? Can I fit and belong here?

My encounter with Cliff sent our church on a journey to answer that question.

If you are challenged by that question from youth both within and outside of the church, I have a preposition for you. Actually, five prepositions that helped us re-focus how we do ministry. I heard these kicked around in my early days as a DCE and used them off and on in mission and purpose statements. But as a result of my discussion with Cliff, they took on fresh meaning and purpose.

 Youth ministry is ministry to and for youth.

One of my first visits to Cliff’s home revealed a household of nine kids being raised by his aunt and his grandma. When I asked the aunt how our church could help, her response was, “Help me raise these boys.” Through her, the Lord gave us a target: real, specific people who He wanted us to communicate the Gospel to and care for. We had to get into where they lived and hear their story to figure out how the Lord wanted to minister to Cliff and his family. Over the next weeks and months we started to understand the world from their point of view.

What we learned was that our traditional summer programs would not fit their needs. So we scrapped our VBS and a few other programs, directed funds toward getting a couple of summer interns and came up with a plan designed specifically for Cliff and his family.

Too many times ministry is not geared to and for youth. Our churches and leaders don’t take the time to see things from their point of view and so our “Gospel delivery systems” appear to youth to belong to a different culture and for other people.

Ministry to and for youth means that we have to learn their language and how Jesus needs to be received and heard in their culture.

Youth ministry is with youth.

As a DCE I spent a lot of time sweating how to keep kids interested and challenged. I saw them mostly as consumers and me as the provider. Our student intern Jordan was more insightful than I was. “Why don’t we just do stuff with them and see what God does with that?” So, that first summer program took shape with “Jordan and the Dudes” working with some men in our church to prepare a field and plant a pumpkin patch. It looked like them walking around handing out flyers to our “Fantastic Free Fridays,” where they would cook hot dogs, sponsor games, and show movies as part of our community outreach program. The ministry to and for them evolved to connecting these youth with a number of people in the church in a variety of ways.

Ministry with youth means connecting youth with Christian adults they can watch, learn from and get to know in significant ways.

Youth ministry is through and by youth.

“Pastah Jay, I want you to see my presentation.” It was Cliff again, a little over a year later. He sat me down to show me a PowerPoint presentation he had created for the upcoming summer. It was titled “Cliff’s Summer Program.” It was God’s plan, he said, to use him to help stop segregation, and he wanted to do it through our church. To be sure, it was a little rough around the edges (the bb gun fight might not fly, along with the bikini contest “even for fat people”) but Cliff’s plan was about reaching kids of all cultures through fun activities and then let the Spirit change their hearts as they learned and studied God’s Word together.

Ministry through and by youth means they see themselves in light of the Gifts God has given them and use those gifts in service to others.

This summer Jordan is back as our intern and Cliff, now a senior in high school, will be his intern. Together they are designing a summer youth ministry program, ministry to, for, with, through and by youth. Why? To intentionally connect more people to Jesus Christ and the life He gives.