Cultural Intelligence and Youth Ministry: Creating Safe Spaces for Questions and Community
A youth minister reflects on the necessity of cultural intelligence in ministry alongside youth in order to create safe spaces to ask questions, wrestle with biblical concepts, and hear thoughts from people different from them, all with the purpose of loving God and others better.
In Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth series, pastoral leaders from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their ministry work with and for youth through the lens of several key values: youth agency, theological practices, role of parents, intergenerational relationships, and multiple pathways.
I serve as the youth minister for Sol Life, a joint youth group that serves teens from two different churches of two different denominations located in the Eastside neighborhood of Austin, each with different cultural and familial makeups. Being in the Eastside, a historically poor and marginalized community currently experiencing mass gentrification, means we serve a wide range of families. Our community is multicultural: made up of kids from Black, Brown, White, immigrant, single-parent, two-parent, city, and suburban communities.
Being a cross-denominational youth ministry carries with it different inherent assumptions and expectations of what a youth ministry should look like, how a church service should flow, and even how our faith should play out in our lives. Cultural intelligence in our youth group isn’t just a commodity; it’s a necessity. Cultural intelligence is what helps us to acknowledge different assumptions and expectations that people bring into any space, and to be flexible enough to be able to value, love, and care for any teenager who walks into our space.
A game my youth group enjoys is called “Ninja.” It’s a game where everyone stands in a circle and takes turns moving one limb at a time, trying to hit each other’s hands or feet, slowly knocking out the use of individual arms and legs to get each other completely “out.” Of course everyone has their own variations: Do you include arms and legs? Are you allowed to jump as part of your turn? Do you have to hit only hands or feet, or can you hit from the elbow or knee down? The list of variations can go on for as long as there are new people playing the game. Suffice it to say that the first time we played, it didn’t go perfectly. We had teens who had played different versions and some who had never played it before. For my youth group to successfully play—and enjoy playing—the game, everybody first had to get on the same page.
Once we got over the bumps of each other’s hidden assumptions about different rules, the game went great! We had teens who didn’t know each other making inside jokes and taking flying leaps across the circle with giant smiles on their faces. It succeeded because we took the time to make sure that everyone was on the same page so that everyone could play the game well. We didn’t have every single detail perfectly planned out beforehand, but we took time to set up a framework we all understood, and we created space to pause and adjust as needed.
Cultural intelligence in youth ministry looks like bringing the understanding that the body of Christ is made up of many different parts, but are still all part of one body (1 Cor. 12:12). That means recognizing that though we are all one in Christ, image bearers of the same Lord, we also all bear uniquely different images. Ultimately, a question we should be asking across the breadth of youth ministries across the body of Christ is, “Are we valuing unity over uniformity, or are we expecting everyone to look and act the same way once they enter our doors?” This means that when a teenager walks into our youth ministry spaces, we don’t expect her to culturally accommodate or to modify herself to fit into our space. We should be able to welcome her and adapt to meet her where she is.
Speak Truth and Welcome Questions
In youth ministry, we start by identifying what all of our teens can understand and empathize with in relation to each other, and then speak truth and life into those areas. For teens in our Western society, that begins with understanding the context and power imbalances of simply being a teenager. Culturally, in our Western society, teens are inundated with the message that outside of their own spaces, they need to find a corner to sit still and “behave.” In their own spaces—school, their bedrooms, a library, online, in books, or anywhere their thoughts, views, and very existence are valued—they can be themselves. This is where cultural intelligence in youth ministry comes into play.
Instead of telling our teens that they need to come, sit, and listen in our youth groups, we should be welcoming them with open arms, putting their thoughts and questions front and center. After all, they’re the ones going back into their own spaces with the unique ability to be the light in ways and spaces that adults simply can’t. Putting their thoughts front and center in our youth groups might simply mean giving them ample discussion time as part of whatever your teaching time looks like. Teens don’t just need to be talked at for twenty minutes (although sitting under the teaching of the Word is always of value). They mainly need a safe space to ask questions, wrestle with biblical concepts, and hear thoughts from people different from them, all with the same purpose of loving God and others better.
In our youth ministry we’ve recently shifted our model away from having any formal, direct instruction teaching time; we now have two main learning times instead. The first breakout is into middle and high school groups in which leaders use guiding questions to help each group figure out what’s going on in the passage, what the main themes are, and so on. They come back from that time of discovery to share with the whole group what they learned or noticed, and then we break out again, this time into gender-specific middle and high school groups.
In these groups we go deeper with applying the text, praying for each other, and talking about personal struggles with the text or God in general. Not every youth ministry needs to follow this exact model, but giving teens a set time dedicated to their questions about the Bible and God carries high value in an age that tends toward uniformity and being able to produce a single “right” answer. It invites unity as we all seek to understand the truth of the passage together, as members of the same body.
The Fullness of Faith for Everyone
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul exhorts Timothy, his younger brother in the faith, with this encouragement: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (NIV). This exhortation carries in it the calling to everyone toward the fullness of faith no matter their age. What a beautiful image for our teenagers of all backgrounds! Not only is your ability to enter into the fullness of faith and life in Jesus unlimited, but perhaps you can have an even greater impact as a young person as you set other believers an example of what it is to live life walking with Jesus!
In a society that often says “Wait until you’re older” or “You’ll understand when you’re older,” the drum we as the church should be beating for any teens who come our way is: “You are capable. Your thoughts and questions matter. You are known, seen, and loved, right now, as a teenager.” That is the space we minister from. We don’t need to give our teens watered-down truths with all application and no theology; we just need to be culturally flexible enough to speak in their language and meet them where they are with the Word.
With this in mind, another key element of implementing cultural intelligence in our youth ministries is building a culture of listening. This is where things get sticky. Remember the Ninja game? People enter into spaces with different experiences, assumptions, fears, and biases. Seeking to grow in cultural intelligence can help us identify what those differences are and, as we take time to listen, respond with relevant insight, wisdom, and biblical truth. This can look a lot of different ways, but ultimately it means having a willingness to pause a perfectly planned gathering time to change the seating of a group, or making sure your adult leaders are active in seeking out and inviting in teenagers they notice are on the fringes of your group.
As you continue to build a culture of listening and valuing teens’ insight and questions, the natural result is the creation of a safe space where any teen from any background can enter and immediately feel seen, known, and loved because they know that they will be heard. Our task then becomes a simple one, though it’s not easy in practice. A common mantra often taught to future teachers is “Flexibility is key.” In the realm of seeking to minister to, love, serve, and teach teenagers, cultural flexibility is key.