Editor’s Note: Jeff Wallace is an anomaly. He’s a longtime African-American youth ministry innovator in the urban world who feels just as comfortable in the outer-space of the white suburban world. He’s a respected strategist in the urban ministry context, but has used ideas he co-opted from the suburban world to invigorate his approach. And he’s used the lessons he’s learned in his urban ministry to challenge the suburban church. For 17 years he’s been a youth pastor in an urban Atlanta church, but that career path wasn’t even on his radar in college. That’s just the start of what has become a profoundly “unexpected life.”
Rick:How did you end up ministering to teenagers in a church when everything about your trajectory was oriented toward personal and financial success in the corporate world?
Jeff:It really was a God thing. I had every intention of being a corporate lawyer. I wanted to have a condo downtown, drive a two-seater BMW, and make a lot of money! But God had other plans for me. My youth pastor growing up, Tyrone Barnette, started our church—Peace Baptist Church—during my freshman year in college. I was local, so on the weekends, I would come home and attend church. Pastor Barnette asked me if I would facilitate a Bible study with about five of my friends. We were all between the ages of 16 and 19.
I had no idea what I was doing, but something happened within me and I begin to experience a passion for youth ministry that I never knew existed. We started off talking about life, school, relationships, and culture. Then we moved to discussing what God was doing in our lives and our church. After that, we started to envision the possibilities of organizing an authentic and life-changing youth and young adult ministry. That was 1995, and the rest is history!
Rick:You’ve moved rather easily among urban environments and suburban environments and everything in between—what have you learned in urban ministry that should make a difference to youth workers who are not in an urban context? And what have you learned from suburban ministry that has changed your urban practices?
Jeff:Growing up, my mom and dad sent me and my siblings to all-white elementary, middle, and high schools. I hated it! All of my friends in my neighborhood rode their bikes to school or walked. When I pleaded with my mom to let me go to the school in our district, her response to me was: “No, because the world isn’t all black and it isn’t all white. And if you’re going to grow up with a healthy prospective and appreciation for people, you need to interact with them all!” As a fourth-grader, I didn’t understand that back then, but I do now. My upbringing allowed me the opportunity to interact and understand people with different beliefs, racial and cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic statuses.
You asked about youth ministry in urban environments and suburban environments—what I’ve learned over the years is that the things we think divide us, really don’t. Now don’t get me wrong, urban churches don’t always have the extensive budgets, full-time staff members, programs, events, and facilities as suburban youth ministries do. However, all of them deal with similar social ills—depression, identity issues, fatherlessness, substance abuse, and the influence of music and media. These are the things that tie the urban and suburban contexts together. Urban youth ministry is no longer a “black thing”—it’s a cultural thing that is bleeding over into suburban contexts. We live in a mash-up society that speaks to a diverse and multi-cultural people group.
As a youth pastor, because there wasn’t much training and curriculum for the urban context when I started, I learned how to take program ideas from suburban youth ministries and contextualize them for an urban audience, along with creating things on my own. I would take the overarching theme and scriptural reference and flip it to work within my context. I’ve also learned how to take creative elements from suburban youth ministry worship experiences and integrate them in my urban worship services. Picture David Crowder, Third Day, and Hillsong United mixed with Lecrae, Kirk Franklin, and Mary Mary. Or American Idol mixed with Sunday’s Best. And The Bachelor mixed with Love and Hip-Hop.
Rick:So cultural shifts have changed the landscape for ministry and have blurred the lines between suburban and urban ministry strategies and realities—what are the ramifications of that “blurring”?
Jeff:When I first started in youth ministry, the lines were very clear. Rural ministry meant small church, farmland, low-income, and low-populated areas. Inner-city ministry meant metropolitan or downtown, heavy drugs, gangs, hard-core students, hip-hop, and graffiti. Suburban ministry meant white, middle- or upper-class, two-parent households, and a context that was outside of a metropolitan area. Urban Ministry meant black church ministry, exclusively.
During that season of youth ministry, the lines were clear for both our churches and students. Now, with the rise and popularity of reality TV, social media, and the expansion of hip-hop culture, those old lines (for the most part) are no longer present in our current culture. Race no longer matters or divides this generation. It’s more about what I call “the common struggle”—it’s a cause-based culture, not a race-based culture. And the new urban ministry is a mash-up of them all!
Students are wired for a global community. Socio-economics don’t have a color, and students relate to that. I was talking to a youth pastor friend of mine who leads a very large suburban youth group here in Atlanta—most of his students have parents making six and seven figures. He observed that we both have to deal with the issue of fatherlessness. His students, who mostly live in two-parent households, have fathers who substitute money for love and a sense of presence. I have students who live in single-parent households where fathers are absent as well. We quickly discovered that these students would connect with one another because they share a common struggle—growing up in a fatherless household.
This generation is more accepting of change than any other generation before them. They’re dating one another, they’re hanging out in school, after school, and on the weekends in the malls more than ever. They’re highly relational and gravitate around a movement that is far bigger than color. No matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat or whether you like or hate President Obama, the reality is he won in 2008 because a generation of young people bought into a movement and a slogan: “Change we can believe in!” His message wasn’t about color, it was about connecting with culture. It was about buy-in and inclusion.
Rick:What do you see on the horizon for youth ministry that will change the way we think and practice effective ministry?
Jeff:In order to be relevant and have longevity, we as youth leaders have to become more comfortable with ministering to and engaging all types of faces and people-groups in our youth ministry—Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic. We’re no longer going to be able to stay in our little bubbles and be a spiritual country club. Youth ministry in the next five years will not look like anything we’ve ever seen before. The script is being shaped and written right now. This generation wants to be a part of a movement that is bigger than Black and White. We can no longer live in the Land of OZ and think our white daughters and black sons and black daughters and white sons don’t deserve to have community with one another. They’re very expressive and accepting. If we’re going to engage this culture, we have to begin to see it through their lens! If you don’t believe me, just get on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Rick:In what ways will the people who are working with students need to change to reorient themselves to what’s coming down the pike in youth ministry?
Jeff:I really believe student ministry leaders are going to have to reorient themselves on how they view culture and study culture and trends. It can no longer be one-sided. You’re not going to be able to watch just MTV and never watch BET, and vice-versa. You can’t just talk about and know about Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, Kathy Perry, Linkin Park, and Big Time Rush. You also need to talk about and know about Chris Brown, Frank Ocean, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Mindless Behavior, and Kanye West. Leaders are going to have to be more intentional about balancing their attention to the diversity of influencers in the culture.
Rick:What shifts in ministry practice and strategy should youth workers be thinking about and experimenting with?
Jeff:I would encourage youth leaders to start hanging out in their local malls and movie theaters on Friday and Saturday nights with a pen and notepad—to observe the culture up close and personal. Listen closely to the conversations—you’ll be surprised by what you hear. If you’re not connected to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, do it ASAP.
Stop passing out fliers advertising and promoting your youth group events, and start pushing them on social media sites. Be intentional about your approach to your youth worship service and leadership team—make sure your programs and people reflect the same type of diversity your students experience when they’re online.
Ask some of your students to invite a few of their friends—Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic—to your program and let them observe how you guys operate, then afterward feed them and have a Q & A session to get their feedback. Brace yourself because, of course, teenagers are brutally honest. But they’ll help you scratch where the culture is itching. ◊