The Future of Youth Ministry

UYWI founder and president Larry Acosta's vision is to strengthen the next generation of urban leaders for transformational ministry.

Shortly after noon on January 20, the history-making President Barack H. Obama reminded the world during his inauguration: “It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things … who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

As a veteran urban youth worker for more than 20 years, I’ve heard lots of self-serving rhetoric–trash talk–from people whose game fails to measure up.

Sometimes it comes on the playground from the false bravado of an insecure teenager; sometimes from would-be partners with hidden agendas; sometimes from suits playing politics with poverty and exploiting children for profit or votes (or both).

Whatever the source, lip service gets old and contributes to an average burnout rate among urban youth workers of 18 months. Words without deeds, like the faith James describes (James 2:7), are dead. But words that reflect a faith that manifests God’s “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) give life and inspire a greatness forged by risk-taking, doing, and creating.

Urban Youth Workers Institute compels the latter. Organizationally, UYWI embodies the kind of timeless Word that “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message), and UYWI’s staff, resources, and program offerings equip frontline youth workers to do the same.

UYWI’s mission proclaims: “UYWI exists to strengthen a new generation of global urban leaders for transformational ministry.”

Three things stand out to me about this mission.

First, UYWI exists to strengthen. Few national partners understand the realities that mostly bi-vocational urban youth ministry leaders, many without permanent space, budgets, and staff but drowning in uniquely urban challenges, confront every day. But UYWI gets it. From top to bottom, UYWI’s staff has been there done that, and their institutional commitment to making UYWI relevant, first-rate, and affordable is unmistakable. As a result, UYWI conferences, RELOAD training events, and learning communities consistently offer both an oasis from the stresses of urban life, and safe spaces for leaders to reassess, recalibrate, refuel, reengage, and regenerate for long-term effect.

Second, by definition a new generation of global urban leaders reflects a new wineskin approach that responds to the unprecedented cultural dynamics of 21st century millennials. Never before have children in Chicago’s Southside been able to communicate, collaborate, and compete, in real time, with Taiwanese teens, Malawian merchants, and their cross-town suburban counterparts. Never before have they connected in the context of an emerging, worldwide pop culture characterized by unfettered access to the largest collection of both knowledge and smut the world has ever seen. Never before have teens been empowered to produce and contribute to the evolving culture as they are now. Against this backdrop, UYWI respects those who have come before while simultaneously empowering younger leaders to innovate new strategies for a new day.

Finally, UYWI’s commitment isn’t ministry for its own sake. It’s ministry that offers transformational impact. It’s ministry that exists in the context of communities; that interacts with complex challenges without clichés; that offers long-term solutions rather than short-term sizzle. Transformation, Paul writes to the Roman church, comes not at an altar call, but through the renewing of our minds by the Word of God. UYWI inspires life learning, personal integrity, and contextual relevance measured against an unwavering commitment to that Word.

In my personal experience, UYWI is one of the few institutions whose rhetoric has so far matched its performance. Five years ago, Dr. Larry Acosta took a risk on an unknown youth pastor from New York City’s Lower Eastside, a neighborhood long defined by its problems but few solutions. He invested time and confidence in what he called a new generation global urban leader, inviting me to keynote at the national conference. He affirmed my calling when few others would, inviting me to serve as an advisory board member even as my ministry and personal finances floundered. He strengthened my resolve by offering meaningful opportunities to serve as a mentor and friend to (and receive from) his team. And he helped transform my ministry by stretching my gifts as a curriculum writer and trainer before others would. Even better, his no-nonsense approach demanded accountability. “How’s your wife?” he would ask. “Are you dating your kids? Are you walking the talk when no one else is looking?”

Larry’s personal investment in me, and hundreds others like me, attests that UYWI is more than an institute. It’s a collection of sojourners endeavoring to understand the magnitude of 21st century urban youth ministry. We may not have all the answers, but we remain committed to walk, stumble, and grow together. Because we take risks and do together, we will create transformational ministry and make history.

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