Praxis Connection Review is an online journal that highlights collaboration, innovation, and impact through churches in NYC.
Hope with Handles
I spent the early part of my ministry working with gang-involved youth who were involved in the drug trade. Hardly any of them became big drug dealers. Many were killed in the violence that was raging in the 80’s and 90’s. I had one young person killed right across the street from me. Many of the young people I worked with then lacked any hope and vision for their life. They did not see a future. Dying young was what some expected. Seeing that we were battling against a lack of hope & vision, I met with Dr. Elizabeth Conde Frazier. I shared with her that we needed to instill a sense of hope and vision for a positive future. She said yes but hope with handles. Something tangible to grab onto. Times are not as violent as before but I still believe that it is still about instilling, equipping, and sustaining hope and vision. Adults and youth. Below is some ideas regarding Hope with Handles from a youth ministry perspective.
Most of urban youth ministry can be described as providing Hope with Handles. Those who are on the front lines know that they are battling against a lack of hope and vision. Our young people are as John 10:10 says having their lives stolen, killed, and destroyed. We know that without a vision people perish. Just imagine being in the wilderness with no promises of a promised land or being in captivity with no promise of a Messiah or going through trials and tribulations with no body of Christ or Holy Spirit. Yet, that is exactly how our young people feel. As people called to be the salt and light to young people struggling with hope for a future with purpose, we need to focus on how to provide Hope with Handles.
Bringing a message of hope is all about vision casting. That is casting a vision for who God is, we are and what our future can be. The core components of this message are the following:
- That we are created in the image of God with a purpose (Genesis and Ephesians 2:10)
- That God has called everyone to step out of the boat of low expectations, to walk on water in life as they focus on Jesus and not the wind and waves of life.
- That when we do lose focus, Christ is always there and will grab us when we begin to sink.
- That while there are things that are out there that seek to steal, kill and destroy our futures, Christ has come to offer us an abundant life and that we have the power to choose which road we will travel.
- We were created to do good works, be salt and light to the world, and not to conform to the negative forces hurting our neighborhoods.
All of this must be combined with a person who is consistent, dependable and is actively present in the young person’s life and who fervently believes in them and sees the many gifts they possess. It’s sustained by gathering young people in a safe place where they can develop a structure or system of support to be focused on the activities that will best ensure their success.
Why handles? Isn’t hope and vision enough? Well just as faith without works is dead, so is hope without handles. All people need something tangible to grab on to. Otherwise, it’s a false hope. Part of the task of vision casting is to not only motivate young people with the message of hope, but to show them where the areas of opportunity exist so they can take advantage of them with their God-given gifts and abilities. The book of Acts demonstrates this principle by telling the story of the birth of the Apostles’ message and actions. In fact, the Greek name for the book Acts is the book of Praxis which means faith or theory worked out in action. They feed the hungry, healed the sick, and shared their resources.The principle of Praxis is what the handles side of youth ministry is all about. It’s the Matthew 25 part of youth ministry.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”, he tells stories of successful people like Bill Gates who while very talented, had access to opportunities that they took full advantage of. Gladwell states that the three ingredients to success are talent, opportunities, and practice. Our culture is so mesmerized with talent that we make people out to be extraordinary when it’s more often the case of someone taking advantage of opportunities by putting hours of practice in until they are successful. Gladwell estimates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice until someone becomes really expert at something. Our young people have that talent but need the pathways to opportunities to work on their skills. Today’s new technology based and driven economy is an example of where the capacity exists to excel in technology but the opportunities to do so will only lock those already living in high poverty neighborhoods out of the economic engine of the future.
Part of vision casting is showing where the opportunities exist and encouraging our young people to persistently practice so they can see the fruit of their gifts and abilities. Why? , so they can be salt and light for the Kingdom in their communities. The handles side of vision casting can be broken down into at least three areas: Education/technology, Vocation/Career and Christian leadership. Most ministries focus on the message of hope and wonder why their young people are dropping out or not going to college. Well, whatever is emphasized, gets done and if the areas of education, tech skill building, and vocation/career are not emphasized then what do you expect will be the result. It’s more than a message of hope since high-risk youth are trying to see if they can actually live the Christian life for real since they feel so hopeless and trapped without a future. So we must show them that there is a road; a narrow one that they can follow. All people want a positive, hopeful future; they just need someone who believes in them and shows them a pathway. They, like ourselves, may have some Pharoahs to work through and escape. We are all blessed and broken. We need guides to escape our Pharoahs. Guides that they can be trusted to share their struggles with. Someone who reminds them of their identity and purpose. Helping someone break free of their Pharoah is as Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey a matter of overcoming one’s immunity to change. In their book titled “Immunity to Change” they outline three motives for people to change their behavior. The first is that the cost of continuing that behavior becomes too great. Second is that a new behavior offers more opportunities. And finally, they realize that their behavior is in conflict with their values. Part of our role as a guide is to help them see how one or more of these things are true so they can make healthy decisions.
Every ministry will have different ways in which to provide the handles for our young people to grab onto, but here are a few:
Education & Technology Skill Building:
- Getting progress reports and grades from schools. Every Pastor should know where every kid goes to school and notify the Principal.
- College Tours early and often. Young people need to see and be on college campuses so they can begin to picture themselves there someday.
- College posters and view books should always be in proximity to our young people.
- Have young people from the neighborhood who are in college or graduated come and speak about how they got into college and what it’s like.
- Partner with colleges around a particular area like criminal justice, construction management, fashion or business. It’s amazing what the schools have and our young people get excited just seeing it.
- Establish ways for young people to learn how to code. Strengthen their math and science skills.
- Jobs that help young people that cast towards a vision for a career. Too many of the jobs kids get are to give them some money and something for them to do. Kids know this and don’t feel challenged.
- Visiting industries such as Biotech, tech firms, investment, or marketing and hearing how things really work.
- Starting and running a business. Don’t worry about it being a success. The experience will teach innumerable skills and will show how much faith you have in them. Again our young people were created to walk on water since they are capable of doing great things
We have to make Christian living and leadership practical and more about what it means to be salt and light. This will require us to do Matthew 25 activities with our young people. If we want to build leadership, then we start with Matthew 25 activities and focus on service. These service projects can be a day, weekly, a week or longer. In doing so, we can help them take their eyes off themselves and on put them on God and their neighbors. These service projects can be the following:
- Feeding the homeless
- Building houses with Habitat for Humanity
- Community organizing or mapping around issues of human trafficking, education, sweat houses, immigration and mass incarceration.
All theses activities must be hands-on and carried out by the young people themselves. In doing so, they will be practicing what it means to be salt and light and better understand the need to become fully equipped (educationally and spiritually). It’s important to note that the older the youth and more they have reaped some consequences such as parenthood, dropping out, and incarceration the more we will have to meet their real life issues of food, clothing, and shelter. We will also need greater actual skill building for them to make forward progress in their lives.
Adolescence and young adulthood are all about forming one’s identity through trying some things out for size. Youth ministry provides the place and encouragement for young people to do so and utilize their gifts and abilities. Social scientists call this providing the bridging and bonding social capital for young people to thrive; Search Institute calls them developmental assets. Dr. Granger of the Grant Foundation calls it creating the will and capacity to transition successfully into adulthood. Whatever we call it, those in urban youth ministry must provide Hope with Handles for our young people to live out an abundant life.