Faith-Rooted Practice – Transforming Urban Youth Ministry

IMG_0097by Johonna Turner

In 2007, I started a peace-building and youth leadership development project, Visions to Peace, that integrated peace education, arts activism, and community organizing. For our first program, youth created a documentary film called Vision Is Our Power that lifted up a vision for community peace and an end to both structural and direct violence against Black youth. The film project’s primary leader, “Corey” was 13 years old and one of our most committed youth members. Corey knew of my identity as a Christian and I verbally encouraged his spiritual growth within the context of his own Christian upbringing. About a year into his involvement with Visions to Peace, Lee began attending prayers at a mosque and studying the Koran. He told me that he was thirsty for a spiritual and theological education that felt relevant to him as a young Black male, reflected his passion for justice, and equipped him to be a leader in his community. He did not only believe that the church he attended with his mom was unable to address his desires; he perceived this of the Christian Church, more generally. How can Christian churches, located in urban neighborhoods in particular, provide young people of color in their communities with the faith formation that so many long for?

In Toward a Prophetic Youth Ministry: Theory and Praxis in the Urban Context, Fernando Arzola outlines three paradigms of ministry that have been especially insufficient for youth in urban communities: the traditional paradigm that pays exclusive attention to the spiritual needs of youth by providing Bible studies and other religious and theological programming; the liberal paradigm that specifically seeks to meet the emotional needs of youth through mentoring, field trips and the like; and the activist paradigm that addresses the social needs of young people, through social action, service and training programs. The fourth paradigm, which Arzola lifts up as critical for urban youth, is the prophetic paradigm — a Christ-centered approach to the faith formation of young people that addresses the spiritual, emotional and social needs of young people, their families and neighborhoods. This approach to ministry also emphasizes the assets and visions that young people hold for their own lives and contexts. Such ministries embrace the principle of transformation and the ideology of liberation.

Liberation, unlike revolution, is not a rejection of the institution of youth ministry. Rather, liberation, as understood by this paradigm, is rooted in the tri-fold prophetic tension between honoring the apostolic tradition and casting an eschatological and existential vision, while standing in solidarity with urban youth, especially the poor and marginalized.— Fernanda Arzola.

Churches working for a transformative and liberatory ethic teach young people how to practice spiritual disciplines that facilitate a deepening intimacy with Christ, recognize and address youths’ need for individual and collective healing from trauma, and incorporate social justice praxis. This form of ministry helps youth to apply the Bible to their contexts, and engage in reflection and action for social justice. A social justice praxis refers to much more than facilitating youths’ participation in social justice activities (e.g. a community organizing project, an advocacy campaign, a peace education program). Social justice praxis implies an approach to action for justice that is constantly informed by our understandings of God’s Word, social theory and practical theology.

Youth ministry experts Kara Powell and Chap Clark use the concept of “deep justice” to describe this “praxical” approach to social justice engagement within the context of youth ministry. The concept of “deep justice” connotes ministry that is reciprocal and collaborative, results in systemic change that addresses the root causes of social problems, and is revealed through Jesus as Emmanuel, God With Us. Powell and Clark assert that young people and adults alike can best experience and envision the fruits of “deep justice” by considering how Jesus defined and advanced the Kingdom of God. Jesus modeled a movement-building orientation. He trained and developed the leadership of a small group of people, many of whom were quite young, who went on to lead others into a movement for shalom, the peace, wholeness, justice and righteousness that is made possible through God’s reign in heaven and on earth. Geoffey Canada, a founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has described violence as one of the most intractable problems facing Black youth growing up in cities. I envision urban youth ministry as a process in which Black youth and other young people in urban communities are invited to join an intergenerational, Christ-centered movement for shalom — and are unable to resist.


Johonna Turner (née McCants) is an educator, cultural worker and scholar. She serves as Assistant Professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding where she teaches undergraduate, Masters’ level and training courses in conflict transformation and restorative justice. Johonna is animated by a passion to advance peace and justice within marginalized communities by building the capacity of neighborhood churches and investing in the leadership of young people. She resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia with the love of her life (aka her handsome husband).


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