Martin Luther King Junior famously called 11am on a Sunday “the most segregated hour” in America; 50 years on Marcel Simpson and Darren Richards ask: are we happy with the level of cross-cultural engagement between ethnicities and Christian youth and children’ s workers in the UK?
What does your church look like? Not the spires and stained glass, not whether you have retro lightbulbs hanging over the stage. Rather, what does your congregation look like? Do your kids, teens and team reflect the community you walk through every day?
When the Oscar for Best Picture was briefly awarded to the wrong film, a stage full of white actors gave way to a predominately black cast and crew. It was a stark image. I wonder what your children or youth group would look like, all stood on stage together. More importantly, what should they look like?
The state of things
If the whole UK population were 100 people 87 would be White, seven would be Asian, three would be Black, and two would be mixed heritage (the other one would be a combination of everyone left). But that’s not the whole story: over half of the UK’s ethnic minority population is under the age of 30. The average age is between 11 and 13, compared to 40 for the white population. If your job involves reaching children or young people, these stats deserve your attention. These facts should, and will, shape the future of youth and children’s work across the UK.
Here’s one more for you: 25 per cent of under-10s in the UK are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). Let that sink in for a moment: one in four children in the UK are from an ethnic minority community.
If you’re a city-dweller, 80 per cent of population growth is happening in your mission field. Someone from a BAME background is seven times more likely to live in an urban conurbation. In rural areas, minorities are less prevalent and more dispersed, BAME youth are not as visible and so feel more isolated and voiceless. This makes them susceptible to bullying - the same can be said for Eastern European children. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re working in an urban inner-city estate or a leafy rural idyll, we all need to make diversity and inclusion more of a priority.
A copyright on diversity
Diversity is a buzzword at the moment (as it should be), but clearly it was God’s idea first. He holds the original copyright on diversity; inclusion is Christ’s trademark. Jesus infuriated the religious elite by showing compassion to outsiders and those of other ethnicities. What’s more, our creator made us different on purpose. He patterned our DNA and decreed that we should come in all shapes, sizes and hues. Variety is a precious part of God’s handiwork. Different by design, we’re all made in his image. And our heavenly father wants his children to get along. In the words of Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
Admittedly, ministering alongside people who are different from us is not always easy. Perhaps you’re reading this remembering a time you were hurt by others due to your background or even the colour of your skin. The truth is, the pursuit of unity is a spiritual battle. We know God is in the business of relationship, restoration and reconciliation, while our enemy seeks to divide and so conquer the Church. Unless we can unite, we’ll fail to win our village, town or city for Christ. Our enemy knows this. Ministering to children and young people is therefore a goal we all share and it’s a mission we can only achieve together. This calls for immense grace, forgiveness and mutual respect, regardless of our different creeds and traditions. Ultimately, there’s one gospel, one Lord, and one Church. Bottomline, we’re all on the same team. Hard though it may be, we must keep working at it.
Leading tomorrow’s leaders will mean celebrating the changing demographics within our communities
Late in his life, Jesus prayed that as believers we would be ‘one’; because when we’re unified, the world sees Christ for who he is (John 17:23). Interestingly, Jesus didn’t pray for us to be the same (John 17:20-23). We each have something different and valuable to contribute. Some cultures excel in hospitality and generosity, others lead the way in being family and showing honour and loyalty. Sung worship, for example, can take as many forms as there are languages on the planet: from Taize to tambourines, Pentecostal gospel to Indian sitars. The body of Christ is made up of many parts - with extraordinary strengths and complementary gifts. Every voice is needed in the kingdom. Every instrument in God’s orchestra must play its part for his symphony to be heard. The most important thing is that we stand together as one Church, all tuned to his tuning fork. United, but divinely different.
God loves seeing a spectrum of ethnicities gathered together, serving one another and worshipping with one voice. The book of Revelation paints a beautiful scene of unity and diversity; the Church worships as: “A great multitude of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues standing before the Lamb…crying out with a loud voice, saying ‘Salvation belongs to our God’” (Rev 7:9-10).
God revealed this hope for ethnic collaboration at the birth of the Church. After Christ’s ascension, he sent his Holy Spirit as a helper. What was the first spiritual gift bestowed on the early believers? The ability to speak other languages (Acts 2:4). We read that Africans, Arabs, Asians and Europeans were all present, and each heard the gospel preached in their own language (Acts 2:9-11). The first believers pooled their resources, served those most in need, prayed together and even shared meals as one diverse family. The result? The Lord added to their number daily those who were bring saved (Acts 2:47).
It doesn’t end there. Later in Acts we read that the first gentile church began as a community of believers from different nations (Acts 11:19-26, Acts 13:1). Outside of the Jewish community, Christianity began with a multi-ethnic church in Antioch - where the term ‘Christian’ was first coined (Acts 11:26). To be a ‘Christian’ was to be known as someone who followed Christ alongside believers of other ethnicities. Early Church history traces the story of God breaking down ethnic divisions and tensions. Right from its inception, the Church was intended to be diverse. Diverse ministry was God’s original blueprint - we’ve been trying to get back to this ever since.
Diverse but not integrated
Citing a MORI poll, Pete Grieg recently wrote: “The Church is the most socially and culturally diverse community in the UK.” The Church is diverse - but it’s not integrated. This is partly because immigrants have, to put it mildly, not always been made to feel welcome in our churches. The legacy of both overt and inadvertent racism means we operate largely in familiar mono-ethnic silos. At a local level, we duplicate many events and ministries for young people and children. Generally speaking, we’re just not talking to each other. As a result, sadly, youth and children’s workers can be unaware of what’s happening in huge sections of their community. There are key aspects of youth culture we’re simply not plugged in to. Moreover, we can miss grievous social injustice on our own doorstep. This has to change, and quickly.
There has never been a more important time to knock on the door of a church you’ve walked past but never seen inside. Ethnic minorities are far more likely to live in areas of deprivation and are disproportionally affected by issues such as low educational achievement, unemployment, poor health and substandard housing. This means their day-to-day experience of life and faith differ greatly from that of the white majority. Middle-class Christians, in particular, are sometimes accused of living in an echo-chamber, filled with people just like them. Our social networks reverberate with the views and values of what we already hold dear. We love, like and nod along with our friends, co-workers and family, but are we learning anything new, from anyone new? Or are we living in monochrome, opinion-proof bubbles of our own making?
Martin Luther King Junior called 11am on a Sunday “the most segregated hour” in America. Half a century later, are we happy with the level of cross-cultural engagement, between ethnicities and Christian youth and children’s workers in the UK? Are we really unified and standing together? Powering up our phone, we’re greeted with a surge of protectionism across Europe and the US, far-right parties gaining traction, minorities being demonised, traumatised, war-weary children being banned from the West. We’re seeing racism masquerading as nationalism, xenophobia legitimised, and scaremongering permeate the national consciousness. This hostility is damaging the mental health and aspirations of too many BAME young people in Britain. There’s a growing sense of unease, apathy and even anger and hopelessness.
Nathan Dennis of First Class Legacy speaks of his deep concern for young black males in particular. He feels grime and gang culture are adding to the malaise: “I’m fed up with the negativity that’s out there. Grime culture doesn’t help. We’re challenging our young men, saying ‘you’ve got to have a plan. What is your vision for the future? The time is now.’”
Errol Lawson runs workshops in schools and mentors young black teens. He echoes Nathan’s sentiment: “They’ve got so much talent, so much potential, so much ability - there’s greatness in them. We need to call out that sense of purpose and responsibility.”
God holds the original copyright on diversity; inclusion is Christ’s trademark
Do you know the name of the youth or children’s pastor in your nearest black-led church? Are Asian-led churches part of your churches together, or your local youth work forum? What’s more, when are these held? Many black-led churches, for instance, do not employ youth or children’s pastors, instead these roles are filled by volunteers, who have other full-time professions. So, if your local forum meets on a weekday, you’re more than likely missing key people from your community.
Rev Dr Kate Coleman, an expert on diversity, puts it so eloquently: “Whatever your present context, it will become more diverse and complex over time. It is the introduction of new voices that enable you to see and hear things you didn’t see and hear before.”
Right now, many UK churches are missing out, because they’re missing important voices - insights and wisdom from other ethnicities and fresh perspectives from cultures that differ from their own. Adding unheard voices enriches our shared experience, broadens our understanding, and sharpens our ministry edge. As Britain grows more diverse, so will the Church. Our ministries will become less effective unless we become more inclusive. We should embrace diversity, in our thinking and approaches, and expand our expertise in order to respond to the needs of Britain’s changing communities.
Dame Louise Casey recently published findings from her investigation into social integration and cohesion. She stated that segregation and social exclusion are at ‘worrying levels’ in some parts of Britain: “If our children grow up playing and learning with people from different backgrounds, they will be less prejudiced, more understanding of difference, more confident and more resilient, living in a globalised and connected society.”
As local church and community leaders, we have a role to play bridging the racial and cultural divides in our otherwise small and interconnected neighbourhoods. We can all do something, however small, to support one another, jointly serving the young people in our communities.
We are stewarding a pivotal generation. One that will shape the cultural, political and spiritual landscape of our society, perhaps for decades to come. As the leaders of tomorrow’s leaders, connecting with contemporary youth culture will increasingly mean celebrating the changing demographics within our communities and setting a higher standard for cohesion. This is a time for genuine Church unity - to stand side by side and reclaim what it means to call ourselves ‘Christians’. We get to write our own story on the pages of Church history.
Here are ten ways to make your youth and children’s work more effective by partnering with Christians whose ethnicity and culture differ from your own.
Commit to pray - for young people of all ethnicities in your community. The battle for unity is spiritual and it starts on our knees.
Pop the bubble - take a break from your usual social network and meet people from different communities and cultures surrounding your church. “Culture and faith are inseparable for many people from an Asian background,” says Sanjay Rajo from Naujavan. Find out more about the make-up of your local area. Charities such as The Feast can help you connect with other ethnic groups and communities.
Meet the family - go out and meet the rest of the Church family where you live, beyond your own denomination. Seek out church-based children’s and youth workers from other ethnic backgrounds. Remember that an email or weekday phone call may not suffice when building these relationships. Instead, do what families do: invite them round for dinner, be like the early Church. “It takes lots of time and lots of kindness to build family,” Sanjay adds.
Hear the struggles - ask other youth pastors and children’s workers what they’re facing. Learn about their frustrations and hear their challenges. Find out how you could support them better and be open to what you can learn.
Be intentional - take proactive steps to reach children and young people from minority communities that you wouldn’t instinctively think to contact or include. Does your Sunday school have a similar ethnic mix to the school assembly you take on a Monday? If not, why not? And what can you do to change that?
Leaders matter - studies have shown we all display unconscious bias when picking leaders - we choose people we think are like us. This perpetuates the status quo. How many leaders in your church share the same ethnic heritage? How might this impact the decisions they’re making? This is why it’s important to advertise opportunities and vacancies beyond your immediate networks.
Think again - when putting sessions together, think about the inclusivity of your images, language and videos. This may not come naturally, but imagine how it would feel for a BAME child to attend your session or class, then make changes accordingly. When planning missions or community events, do seek the advice of churches with majority congregations that differ from your own. Try to pool skills and combine forces, sharing resources and ideas where possible.
Build bridges - we are undoubtedly stronger when we work and worship with Christians of different ethnicities to reach, teach and serve in Jesus’ name. “It’s not about uniformity, it’s about unifying. Bringing our differences and really celebrating what that means in Christ,” says Genelle Aldred, reflecting on YFC’s Cohesion Network in February, when 60 youth leaders from a range of ethnic backgrounds gathered together to pray and dream about youth and children’s ministry. Perhaps you could co-host a Cohesion event in your locality with ethnic-majority churches.
Create connections - those we minister alongside shape us and our thinking. Encourage your young people to be inclusive and promote community cohesion. Challenge them to use their gifts and creativity. They could plan events, make videos, perform music or stage a drama - teaming up with BAME youth from nearby churches. Empower them to speak into the culture and influence their non-Christian peers for Christ.
Raise your voice - and a placard if necessary. We should be inspiring our kids and teens as champions for diversity and inclusion. If we each model this in our neck of the woods, it will bring about change on a national scale.
The book of Revelation offers us a picture of heaven that is perfectly diverse - today we can all do our part to bring heaven a little closer to Earth. One Cohesion Network delegate said: “There’s a real will in the kingdom for a time of unity.” Amen to that, we say.
Marcel Simpson is the national youth and discipleship director of the New Testament Church of God.
Darren Richards is Youth for Christ’s head of diversity and inclusion.