Efrem Smith on Embracing a Missional Passion
Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Group Magazine
by Rick Lawrence
Efrem Smith began his long journey in youth ministry as a teenager attending two strong, urban churches in Minneapolis that called teenagers into significant roles in ministry. After college, he lived a triple life, working simultaneously for a parachurch organization and a local urban church while he coached high school basketball. He moved into a staff role with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, serving as their urban director in Minneapolis for four years. Then, out of the blue, a suburban megachurch (Ginghamsburg Methodist Church in Ohio) tabbed him to lead their predominantly white, 350-student ministry. “Fish out of water” was an understatement. But his short time at Ginghamsburg left an indelible impression on him, and through that experience he met Mike Yaconelli and Tic Long and began serving on the National Resource Team for Youth Specialties. This was his first exposure to “professional” youth ministry, and challenged him to broaden his perspective on “best practices.” He’s currently president and CEO of World Impact, a urban missions organization that empowers the urban poor through church-planting movements and leadership development.
Rick Lawrence: Did you have a constant feeling of disorientation during the “suburban white mega-church” season of your life?
Efrem Smith: Oh yeah—when you’re in inner-city youth ministry, you’re happy when kids just show up. But there’s also a constant potential of traumatic experiences. It was commonplace for a young person in our community to be a victim of urban violence. I often visited young people in juvenile detention. Even though you’re trying to have a strategy and design ministry initiatives, you find yourself responding a lot to trauma. In suburban ministry kids have some of the same issues, but because of the privilege and the affluence and the networking, you end up being more program-driven.
Rick: How did you morph to become more of a program person, or did you?
Efrem: Well, I was fortunate that I had a staff around me that taught me more than I taught them. And, to be honest, GROUP Magazine and Youthworker Journal were already on the mailing list at the church—and they helped me a lot. But after a year-and-a-half I ended up back in the community where I was raised, at Park Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis, as a youth pastor. My time at Ginghamsburg was definitely a culture shock, but the lessons I learned there would come in handy in my long-term calling.
Rick: Talk about that a little bit.
Efrem: Not only was I the youth pastor at Park Avenue, I was also the executive director of its Community Development Foundation. In addition to overseeing the youth group we offered a free health clinic, a free legal clinic, a tutoring program, and a thrift store. That was my plunge into wholistic youth ministry—you can’t just disciple young people, you have to understand their needs and the needs of their family in an urban context.
Out of that experience I was recruited by the Evangelical Covenant Church to plant a church in Minneapolis. To my surprise, the church that I would plant would become very multiracial: 50 percent white, 35 percent black, and the rest Hispanic and Asian. My experience at Ginghamsburg prepared me to lead an urban, multi-ethnic, reconciling ministry that would still have a high priority on youth.
Rick: Wow, isn’t it incredible to see how Jesus uses these disparate, chaotic, messy, seemingly pointless experiences of your life to funnel you into your purpose in life? It’s like a crazy boot camp experience.
Efrem: No doubt about that.
Rick: Over the course of the decades, there have been lots of cultural changes. As you look back over this journey, have there been any real significant changes in youth ministry?
Efrem: There was a book that came out back in the ’90s, by Patricia Hersch, called A Tribe Apart. I think A Tribe Apart is a tipping-point book in understanding how the mission field of American adolescence changed from the 20th century to the 21st century. The main thing Hersch was trying to highlight was that parents and youth were a tribe apart. But there’s a chapter in that book that I still quote from, where she talks about the urban, hip-hop, and African-American influence on white suburban kids.
When I was growing up, suburban adolescence had an influence on urban adolescence. I was watching The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch—all these shows on TV where white teens speaking to me. The language, the culture, the values of white suburban, upper-middle-class culture influenced urban kids.
In the 1990s and the 2000s you see a shift—urban American, especially hip-hop culture, started influencing suburban kids. Suburban kids were paying attention to the fashion and the slang of urban kids. Unfortunately, the worst stereotypical pictures of inner-city, African-American adolescent culture also filtered into suburban mainstream culture through cable, social media, and video games like Grand Theft Auto.
Rick: What’s your assessment of that reversed flow of influence?
Efrem: Well, folks like me who have a long background in urban and multi-ethnic ministry can be prophets and teachers to suburban youth pastors and suburban youth. The mission field of adolescent culture is an ever-increasing multi-ethnic, multicultural, and metropolitan reality. So if you want to do solid, truthful youth ministry in the suburbs, you’d better study urban culture now. Suburban churches are experiencing a changing demographic—Ferguson, Missouri, is a great example. Ferguson has black/white tension now because of gentrification in St. Louis. It’s driving inner-city challenges and problems out to the suburbs.
Rick: If you’re speaking to a suburban youth minister who’s experiencing this dynamic shift, what prophetic insight about ministry would you offer a person in that situation?
Efrem: Youth ministry today needs to be relational and wholistic-on-steroids, because that’s what Jesus did. He was wholistic in that he preached—he taught, he healed, and he implored. You can’t program your way out of today’s mission field. Youth pastors in the suburbs are going to have to begin to function like missionaries, and that’s what urban youth ministers have had to do for years. The inner-city is so complex; it changes so fast. My neighborhood went from black and white to black, white, and Hispanic to black, white, Hispanic, Somali, and Nigerian. That kind of diversity forces you to become a missionary. Youth leaders are going to need mentors who represent a multi-ethnic diversity of theologians and practitioners.
Rick: You’re using words like “inner-city” and “urban,” and even the word “race” mixes in here. Inner-city and urban seem geographical, but race seems something quite different. How are these words related?
Efrem: In an urban context, you tend to have a mix of multiethnic diversity which forces issues of race to the top. You have great density, so people are on top of each other. In an affluent, suburban neighborhood, you can spread yourself out from people, whether you feel comfortable with them or uncomfortable with them. You can really decide who you want to associate with.
Urban and inner-city living tend to put people in such close proximity to one another that you can’t avoid the issues that can be avoided in more affluent communities. The more the suburbs become urbanized, the same is going to be true for them.
Rick: You know from your own experience that there’s a wide array of priorities facing youth pastors—internal pressures and external pressures, and lots of stakeholders. Into this mix you have multicultural tensions. Where do issues of race and racial reconciliation surface as priorities?
Efrem: I know this is easier said than done, because there’s so much pressure on youth pastors today. You feel like you’re held captive to whatever the driving force of the broader church is. So if the focus is on numerical growth, then no matter how much you try to plant a ministry that is primarily relational and wholistic, you’re going to feel the pressure that you’ve got to grow the youth group. Pastors, church boards, and elders must decide if they’re going to missionally reach an ever-increasing unchurched, nonchurched mission field, or not. And that mission field is becoming more multi-ethnic, multicultural, and metropolitan.
Rick: You’re describing a situation that is less a chosen path and more a choice for survival. If church leaders don’t morph to grow personally, and change the missional environment of their church, they’re not going to make it. That kind of external pressure could lead to a better environment for youth ministry, right?
Efrem: My fear for the church in America is that it’s going to become like the marketplace has become. More and more, it’s harder for smaller companies to make it, so they get bought out by big companies. At the end of the day, you’ll only have four or five U.S. airlines or major department stores. The church could become the same way, where you have 200-ish large churches that just start acquiring other smaller churches, making them their campus sites. Three things could happen to the church in the United States:
- We could become like Europe, where the church is just dying.
- We could become like the marketplace, where you just have a few hundred churches that have multiple sites where smaller churches that died used to be.
- Or we could experience a missional resurgence that changes everything. I believe this third reality would position youth ministry to be a remarkable place of wholistic and relational ministry. This model would develop present and future Kingdom laborers, regardless of what their vocation becomes.
Rick: I love that… You know, you’ve been outspoken in your critique of youth ministry organizations that are under-represented by people of color. What’s at the heart of this critique?
Efrem: I appreciate that question, Rick. I don’t always get the opportunity to answer it the way I’d like to. At the heart of it, I want youth ministry to be a reflection of the body of Christ and the Kingdom of God. And at its best, that reflection is embedded in Revelation 7:9—a multitude that no one can count, of every tribe, every nation, all languages around the throne.
Rick: If this kind of multicultural representation doesn’t exist, what are these two groups of people pragmatically missing out on?
Efrem: We’re missing out on a greater credibility in evangelism. I agree with Brenda Salter McNeil’s main premise in her book A Credible Witness. She believes that churches that have a multi-ethnic, Christ-centered mindset increase our evangelistic credibility in today’s world. I also believe that the majority white culture in professionalized youth ministry is missing out on some wonderful gifts and contributions that Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American thinkers and practitioners bring to the table.
Rick: For those who love Jesus and are ruined for Jesus and live in the spirit of Jesus, how do these issues of multiculturalism and racial reconciliation naturally percolate out from their love for Jesus?
Efrem: Great question. I think it begins with a more biblically authentic reimagining of Jesus. A more fruitful engaging of today’s mission field begins with a biblically authentic Jesus. When we see Jesus as a Jewish, multiethnic, multicultural human being walking the earth as Lord and Savior, it will change our intimate relationship with him. If my Jesus is black and your Jesus is white, that slant undergirds my practice, my theology, and my biblical interpretation. We need to see ourselves in the bloodline of Jesus.
When I read the Gospels as Jesus navigating a multiethnic, multicultural world—he’s born in Bethlehem, goes into Egypt, heals the child of a Roman soldier, goes into Samaria, engages a Canaanite—it influences the way I do ministry. It puts into proper context the Great Commission—”Make disciples of every nation”—because every nation in the United States is among us right now.
Rick: We subtly, and not-so-subtly, create Jesus in our own image. I believe the way forward, not just for youth ministry but for the church in general, is to shatter the Jesus that we’ve made in our own image and re-embrace Jesus in all of his rawness. We compartmentalize him based on the things we understand on the surface and the things we don’t. Because we’ve constructed him in our own image, we’ve been propagating a Jesus that doesn’t really exist.
Efrem: That’s where Jesus’ interaction with the poor and the marginalized has shifted the momentum of ministry for me. What does it mean to equip, empower, and disciple youth who represent “the least of these”? How do we reach, equip, and empower for Kingdom leadership the Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns of the world, before they come into altercations with police officers? I grew up in the inner-city context, and I wasn’t perfect. I made a lot of mistakes. The difference is that I had the opportunity to live long enough to accept Jesus at a church in my neighborhood. It grieves me that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown didn’t have that opportunity.
SOME STUFF YOU MAY NOT KNOW
Efrem was a theater major in college, and his dream was to act in a soap opera.
Even though he stopped playing basketball in the 8th grade, Efrem coached a high school team to the state championship.