Deep inside every person is a desire to be welcomed and wanted. Many communities across the United States are rapidly diversifying and youth pastors need tools to create spaces where youth of all races are welcomed and wanted. This may seem daunting, but it’s doable with attention and intention.
Celebrating Diversity in Your Youth Ministry
Here are a few things to pay attention to and intentionally do when creating a safe place for every race in youth ministry.
1. Know Your Community
As youth pastors, we are called to engage the students in our community and to do so we must know our community. Google the demographics of your community and pay special attention to the schools. Websites like schooldigger.com allow you to see the exact ethnographic makeup of the schools in your community. Knowing this information will help guide your strategies for making a safe space uniquely designed for your context. Also, for youth pastors serving in seemingly homogenous contexts, diversity is a global reality that cannot be ignored, and creating an environment that celebrates diversity should still be a goal.
2. Diversify Your Space
When your youth space is set for a gathering, walk around and take a moment to consider what you see and hear. Look at the graphics, pictures, colors, etc. Observe what activities, food and drink, furniture, etc. are available for the students. Listen to the music that is playing. Ask yourself these questions: What kind of student does this place welcome? Are there any kinds of students who may not feel welcome in this place? You can also take this a step further by asking leaders and friends of different races and backgrounds to give their input. Here are some specific examples of ways to diversify your space to be welcoming for students of every race.
3. Diversify the Music
Every race and culture loves music. Music is a big deal! It totally changes the mood of a space. What type of music is playing in the background of your student space? Be sure that your playlist includes music loved by multiple cultures. Don’t be afraid to include songs in other languages. This is a subtle yet meaningful way to communicate that you see and value students of all different races and cultures. Bonus: worship in another language! If you don’t have someone to lead worship, a YouTube sing-a-long works great!
4. Diversify the Room
See your walls as billboards. They are an opportunity for you to advertise what your youth ministry is all about! You can quite literally welcome students of all races with “welcome” posters in multiple languages. If you have a hard time imagining this, there are some aesthetically appealing multilingual graphics available online. Consider the you have photos on the wall. Do they feature students of only one or two races? If your youth ministry isn’t diverse, there’s no shame in using a stock photo or two. As much as it may feel cheesy, it means a lot for the new student who walks in and sees someone that looks like her.
5. Look for Diverse Leadership
Finding and keeping great leaders is hard, period. But finding and keeping a diverse group of leaders is very hard! However, it is worth the extra effort. What I am suggesting is that when you have a need for a leadership role, you intentionally pursue and consider people of races that are not already represented on your leadership team. Remember that representation matters. It is so valuable for students to interact with godly, Christian leaders that look like them and can relate with their lived experience.
A diverse leadership team will be better prepared to pastor a diverse group of students. And, even if your group of students is not very diverse, when they see leaders who don’t look like them following Jesus, their view of God gets bigger. Camps, conferences, and retreats are some of the most impactful times in students’ lives. Also be intentional here to have gifted, well-qualified people of color leading and speaking at these events.
6. Talk about Race
You probably won’t have race as a major talking point every week, but to neglect mentioning it altogether is irresponsible. Race is a national conversation right now and your students are definitely talking about it. There is a huge opportunity for you to bring God into the conversation. Make sure you do your own studies so that you can provide a solid Biblical and theological framework for interpreting what is going on in the world. Even more important, be available to compassionately pastor students that are feeling impacted by the racial tension around us.
7. Learn from Others
Youth pastors should be lifelong learners. The more we learn the better we lead. Reading on race, ethnicity, and diversity helps us to become more effective witnesses of God’s love for all people. Leaders who learn from diverse perspectives are better equipped to create spaces that take into consideration deep complexities that arise from leading a multiethnic group. Try checking out other organizations who are doing this well and learn how they create a safe space for all students. Also, don’t be afraid of reaching out to trusted leaders of different races. It’s ok if you’re not an expert on this topic, but that’s no excuse for not leaning into those with more experience. Asking trusted leaders for their input will help you create authentic spaces that represent your diverse audience well.
8. Celebrate Diversity
The following quote comes from a very wise mentor and friend: “you cultivate what you celebrate.” If diversity is something that you want to pursue, celebrate it. The celebration of diversity will allow for diversity to grow and thrive. Celebrating diversity can look like celebrating different cultural holidays, displaying flags of different nationalities represented in the group, or t-shirts featuring languages that are spoken within the group. There are many creative ways to celebrate the richness of a group’s diversity and it’s fun!
As youth pastors our hope is that all students grow in their knowledge and love of God in a space where they feel welcomed, wanted, and safe. Remember, diversity isn’t something to champion and celebrate only once a year. These steps are meant to help you create spaces that are safe places for every race, all year long. When you make permanent changes that champion diversity, you prove that you authentically care about every race being seen, known, and celebrated.