(Second in a series of ten posts on reaching city kids)
You can’t generalize about city kids. Cities are usually diverse, with people of different races and income levels living close. So a church within city limits is ideally a diverse congregation.
The children and teenagers in our church are Americans and immigrants, black and white, some with their natural parents and some adopted. We have kids with parents who own companies and kids whose single moms are on public assistance. We have children with autism and other disabilities.
It can be harder to meet the needs of diverse groups than homogenous ones, but there is no more visible witness to the love and power of God than a bunch of really different people getting along together.
I’ve found that it helps me to keep three things in mind when working with diverse groups of kids in church:
1. Focus on Jesus: Any church should be doing that by definition, but with a diverse group of kids, God may be the only thing they have in common so you might as well get right to the point. Don’t gather to have fun or give people a chance for ‘fellowship’ or provide ‘a safe environment’. Gather to worship, pray and learn the Scriptures. Gather to draw near to God together.
Many of our high school kids, at an age when kids often drop out of church, have been sticking around since they started meeting in ‘huddles’ – discipleship groups where there is a teaching about one aspect of the Christian life followed by a check-in time where people disclose what’s going on in their lives and pray. In this structured setting of confidential honesty, cultural differences no longer separate people. A kid from the foster care system and a kid from a privileged family are on equal footing when it comes to following Christ.
2. Have a lot of adult leaders: It is crucial that kids are safe and feel understood, so we need enough adults to monitor behavior, with zero tolerance for put-downs, disobedience or exclusivity. We state up front that this is a safe zone, a place where everyone gets respect. Have clear, simple rules enforced consistently. The worse kids’ behavior is, the higher the ratio of adults needed.
There should always be adults available to help kids one on one if they struggle with reading or communicating, or to remove kids who are disruptive. I have four adults when I work with a dozen fourth through sixth graders. At our summer camp this year, we added older adults to assist the high school and college interns we hired. We need as many spiritually mature adults as it takes to establish a culture of love and respect.
3. Be brave: I used to worry about mixing rough, unchurched kids with sheltered Christian kids. I was afraid they would misunderstand each other, avoid each other, hurt each other. But I wasn’t thinking about how they could bless each other. One day a guy called me on it. He said, “You’re overthinking this. Just throw them together and they’ll have a good time.” He should know. He has a household full of his natural kids, adopted kids and foster kids. Of course he is vigilant about supervision, but he’s brave too.
Every week, our pastor leads us in a prayer that includes, “Connect us in Jesus, no matter our differences.” To see a roomful of people – adults and kids, black and white, rich and poor, – all laughing and talking and playing together – that is a great joy and an answer to our prayers.