Much of America’s severe poverty is found in its biggest and most affluent cities—and affect the youth as much (or more) than anyone else. These youth are accustomed to going hungry, rarely attending school, and valuing protection above all else. With broken homes an expectation, the questions then rest on the extent of the brokenness, abuse, neglect, and addiction. The public education offered to these children is often among the worst in the country, and the lack of opportunity for success in these systems is staggering. The future offered to a teenager who has never known anything outside of one of these homes, has been educated in these schools, and is left with the opportunities presented by these circumstances is completely unjust.
In the same cities—and often within the same neighborhoods—the exact opposite is present for other urban youth. Because cities hold much of the world’s extravagant wealth, the very best schools in our country thrive there. Opportunities to study, gain experience, and pursue a career in almost any field are available to these students. The future presented to them is driven by strong ambition: educated in the finest schools, presented a variety of extra-curricular activities, and taught to pursue a “successful life.”
Their opportunity stands in direct opposition to their poverty-stricken neighbors. Only in cities do different races, socio-economic classes, cultures, and pursuits confront each other so routinely, where the wealthiest and most powerful decision makers live within a short walk of harsh poverty.
There is, however, one binding similarity that every urban teenager shares: the city’s forceful cultural current. Urban youth living in poverty face incredible pressure to protect themselves, prove themselves, and establish a reputation with seemingly no alternative lifestyle presented to them. Urban youth living in affluence are swept into a culture of success, ambition, and busyness with more daily pressure to achieve a certain status than most adults will ever face.
Whether these teenagers call government housing projects or luxury high-rises home, both are only offered a lifestyle that demands a conformity incomparable to teenage pressure elsewhere. And there is decidedly no alternative for any of them.
This context is not foreign to Jesus. He repeatedly stepped into places with a strong cultural current and offered an alternative: abundant life. Jesus’ ministry was offering life in the face of the harsh, moral boundaries used by the Pharisees, the constant oppression of the Roman Empire, and the social dividing lines between classes and political groups. Jesus challenged the status quo constantly in order to present the abundant alternative in the cultural current.
Despite the obvious need for Jesus and the power of the Gospel in such an extreme culture, there is a dire lack of youth ministry in urban areas. By experience, I can speak only of New York City. When I arrived in New York, I sought other youth pastors on the entire island. I met only one other youth pastor in Manhattan, the island that creates the culture Americans consume. Today, I personally know a total of three youth pastors in Manhattan. I am sure there are others I simply missed, there are many non-profits benefiting at risk youth in New York City. But it is clear that Manhattan youth seem primarily forgotten by the church.
Many of the issues the American Church focuses on heavily relate to the lives of urban youth. We talk about the fatherless epidemic, the lack of racial and socio-economic diversity; these problems are more prevalent in the lives of urban youth than in any other western people group. Fatherlessness is not a crisis in most urban homes; it is the norm. Over 95% of the students in the youth ministry I lead do not have a father in their home. There is more racial diversity in urban environments than anywhere else in America and like no generation before them. Socioeconomic diversity is more common in today’s cities than any other environment in our country.
Nowhere else do the rich interact with the poor on a daily basis. Nowhere else do teenagers grow up in such abject poverty only blocks from incomprehensible wealth. Nowhere else do the rich and poor youth pass one another on the street on their way to and from school. If we can work these issues out in the hearts of urban students, they will change the future of the American Church.
The youth of the city are an almost-completely unchurched people group; more than 50% of the students who attend the youth group I lead have never physically stepped foot in a church building. Our youth group is their first impression of Jesus, and their first encounter with his teachings. When I tell students in Manhattan that I am a youth pastor, the most common response is, “What’s that?”
These unchurched students are being raised by the city and discipled into the culture the city has to offer. Who is presenting the alternative? Who is, like Jesus, offering abundant life to this group? Who is shaping the future of the American Church through these lives? There is an incredible need for more youth pastors in our cities.
The beauty of following Jesus in such a context is that the Kingdom of God stands in stark, obvious contrast to the culture. Pictures of the Kingdom emerge from daily choices for abundant life against the cultural norm.
In the last week, I have watched New Yorkers working in finance, advertising, art, non- profit work, and fashion sacrificially leave work early to minister to students in the low- income projects of the Lower East Side and the South Bronx. This stands in complete contrast to the mighty ambition that shapes New York’s professional culture.
Each Wednesday I watch 40-50 teenagers from these projects—students who do not attend church—leave their homes and walk over a mile to youth group where they attempt to follow Jesus alongside their peers. They are—literally—walking in contrast to their culture that values status and reputation over every other virtue.
I have watched students selflessly give a slice of pizza—their only chance at dinner—to others who are hungry.
I have watched students go through the risky and dangerous process of leaving notorious gangs in order to choose the abundant life offered by Jesus. This is a contrast to their culture that values protection above all else.
I have seen students forgive abusive parents of terrible wrongs. They are breaking a cultural cycle that values bitterness and revenge as virtuous.
The Kingdom of God is beautifully obvious when it contrasts the surrounding culture.
We cannot forget the youth of our cities. As imitators of Christ, we must present abundant life where there is no alternative. The most affluent and most impoverished youth in the urban context live in a culture with no alternative. Disciple-makers of these students will shape the future of the American Church and the reputation carried by Jesus’ name. The city presents a context where cultural dividing lines can be broken by the church.
The simple work of patiently pouring into students who have given themselves to everything but Jesus is a transformational work that will bear great fruit in the Kingdom. God has always taken great joy in blessing small, seemingly insignificant acts of obedience causing them to bear a great harvest.
The youth currently being raised by the city have abundant lives ahead of them. Someone just needs to tell them.