By Dr. Thomson K. Mathew, D.Min., Ed.D.
Indian Christian youth in the US are not a homogeneous group. There are those born in the US. Then there are young people who migrated to America with their parents from different parts of India, with different languages and cultural backgrounds. And there are others who came to America from countries other than India. These people may all look alike in terms of their physical features, but they have their individually unique perspectives, needs and issues.
There are three groups of Keralite Christians among the Indian immigrant churches of America. 1 The first group is living in the US, but all their norms of behavior are Indian, as if they never left India. They are recent immigrants or those who have not had any significant cultural experience with non-immigrant Americans. Lower levels of education, language difficulties, and low employment and economic levels define life in America for most of the people in the first group. They may speak English outside the home but not within the family. Those in the second group can relate to Indian culture and American culture with equal ease. Members of this group can move back and forth as needed. Though they may speak some Indian languages their preferred medium of communication is English. The third group is mostly native born – I call them ABK’s, American-Born Keralites – and their ‘Indianness’ is only a secondary experience. They are more comfortable in the American culture, although they can relate to the Indian culture on a limited basis. In most cases, this group does not speak any Indian languages.
Many churches have attempted to minister to the Indian youth as if the only difference between them and their parents’ generation is the linguistic difference. They have attempted to minister to young people by translating the services and messages geared to adults into English. In most cases this has been a failure, although adults will attempt to point to the polite tolerance of the young people as proof of the success of this method. They have not talked to the youth to determine their true feelings about this method. The truth is that language is only a small part of the problem. Young people who are subjected to this type of “ministry” seem to have such a bad taste in their mouths that when they finally leave home for college they avoid anything that looks like the Indian church they left behind. If this is the outcome, certainly the method used at the local church is not appropriate.
What is required of people who wish to minister to the youth is primarily a deep understanding of the developmental level called adolescence. There are many theories of human development that can shed light on this part of life. The most famous might be Erik Erikson’s theory of the stages of life. 2 Erikson believes that there are eight stages to life, each stage associated with a psychosocial crisis. Our progress to the next stage depends much on the way we master the previous crisis. The first four stages, according to Erikson, are trust versus mistrust, autonomy verses shame, initiative versus guilt and industry versus inferiority. These stages take place in childhood. I do not wish to describe these stages in this chapter. Our focus is the next stage of life – adolescence. The crisis of adolescence is identity versus role confusion. All young people struggle with one major issue: identity. Adolescents are in pursuit of discovering who they are as opposed to who their parents are. This is a major struggle for the youth of any culture. It is even more so for American immigrant youth.
The influence of culture on the identity of the individual is tremendous. American culture is a very potent culture for any one to deal with, especially for a teenager of Indian origin. Even kids coming from the most accultured families have to deal with many conflicting cultural messages. What is sacred in the Indian community is often profane in the American culture. What may be common in the American culture may be detested in the Indian culture. Parents who avoid socializing with non-Indians can hide in their comfort zone; their sons and daughters do not have that luxury. They must talk with their friends, study with their friends and engage in communication at various levels with the American culture.
The Indian American youngster does not have enough of the Indian culture to totally resist American peer pressure. At the same time, he has enough exposure to the Indian culture to make him uncomfortable to accept all of the American norms. So he struggles more than his American peers to find a happy medium. He is in a desperate struggle to find a comfort zone where he may define himself, because that is the overwhelming task of his life at this stage. People who minister to Indian youth cannot ignore this. A successful youth minister must help young men and women discover who they are in Christ and how they must live in their current context as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Being an Indian Christian in America is tougher than being a Hindu in America. The Hindus can tell their children that what they see in the American culture is Christian and therefore not to be adopted as such. It is harder to say the same to Indian Christian youth, because much of what is seen as unacceptable to the Indian parent or minister is often gladly practiced in American churches. Young people want to know why certain behavior is okay for American Christians and not for Indian Christians since both groups have the same Lord, the same Bible and the same faith.
In numerous youth meetings and conferences, I have encountered the same type of questions: What is wrong with choosing your own mate without involving your parents? What is wrong with certain style of clothes or make-up? Why can’t we do some things our white and black Christian friends are doing? If God won’t punish them for having fun or doing certain things, such as dating, going to the movies, kissing boyfriends or girlfriends, ignoring traditional norms of modesty in dressing, or choosing a life partner without parental direction, why should He punish us? These are tough questions for Indian preachers who act as if all Indian Christian customs are biblical customs.
A person ministering to the Indian immigrant youth must be honest with him or herself. He or she must do some serious self-examination to see what he or she believes about holiness and culture. One must be committed to the word of God and have strong biblical convictions, but at the same time, one needs to be flexible concerning certain non-essential issues of daily Christian living.
A person ministering to Indian youth should not invoke biblical authority or special revelations on the basis of personal preferences or even cultural preferences. He or she should also be willing to engage in open dialogue (appropriate to the age groups involved) with young people on important issues without feeling threatened or becoming a threat. One must keep in mind that Indian young people are intellectually astute, and they will not accept appeals to personal titles or raised voices to settle an issue.
Some training in the field of pastoral care and counseling can help a person become a better youth minister. The basic skill needed in a counseling ministry is the skill of listening. A youth minister must be a long-suffering listener. Young people will say some shocking things from time to time. A minister must be willing to hear these things without being shocked. By reacting strongly, the minister may silence the youth and may not help him or her solve the issue at hand.
A youth minister needs all the skills a good counselor needs, such as listening, leading, reflecting, summarizing, confronting, interpreting and informing skills.3 He or she should also have the characteristics of a helping person defined by experts in the field of counseling: empathy, warmth, openness, positive regard, concreteness, communication competence and intentionality. 4
Because young people are struggling hard with their identity issues, a youth minister should have a handle on his or her own identity. Although we recognize that identity formation is a lifelong process, even a young minister can develop a healthy sense of self. Without it, the minister may not be able to keep the boundaries that are required in such a ministry. A youth minister has much to learn from the field of education. Pedagogical skills are very important to a youth minister. Being able to understand the affective, cognitive and psychomotor developmental stages of the youth and their related needs are very important. Sensitivity to these issues will enable one to deal with the youth in an appropriate way and deliver God’s word into their hearts in a profitable fashion.
A youth minister also needs a keen appreciation for the concepts of faith development. Several models of faith development are available. The easiest one to grasp is Charles Farah’s types of faith. 5 Farah believes that there are seven types of faith. They are: historical faith, temporary faith, saving faith, faith in God, faith of God, fruit faith and ministry faith. Historical faith is the kind of faith one claims due to one’s personal, family or cultural background. Temporary faith does not count the cost of discipleship. Saving faith involves commitment to Jesus Christ as savior and Lord. Faith in God is the ability to believe God for healing and miracles, but it is at a level where one thinks faith should be “worked up”. Faith of God is the gift faith Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12. It is God’s faith flowing through us, not our own faith being worked up. Fruit faith represents one of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. Ministry faith, which is considered the highest type of faith, is the measure of faith Paul mentions in Romans 12:3.
Westerhof’s model of faith development has four stag¬es.6 He calls the first stage experienced faith. This is the faith of a person during childhood and early adolescence. The next stage is called affiliative faith. This is considered the faith at late adolescence. The next stage is searching faith. This represents faith at young adulthood. The final stage is owned faith. This usually begins at middle adulthood and lasts for the rest of one’s life. A youth minister must understand the dynamics of experienced faith and affiliative faith. Children experience faith by interacting with others of a particular faith tradition. Adolescents like to participate in activities that connect them to their faith tradition. They receive a sense of belonging from this faith experience. This makes sense in light of the fact that the adolescent’s biggest struggle is in the area of identity. It also explains why most conversions take place during the formative years of childhood and adolescence. Many ministers could tell of their spiritual experiences in childhood and adolescence and how those experiences impacted their Christian commitment and vocational choices. A youth minister with a proper understanding of faith development can impact young people in profound ways for the kingdom of God. America today is witnessing a great battle for the minds and spirits of her young people. Secularism, violence and materialism are very powerful forces attracting young minds and hearts. Youth ministers are battling against these forces through their ministry. This battle cannot be won without prayer. Youth ministers must be people of prayer. Without prayer, one cannot win the hearts of today’s young people. Interceding for the youth might be the most potent ministry one can perform.
Ministry as Disciple-making
There is a shortage of discipleship in American church¬es today. There is a consumer mentality among people, while a corporate mentality prevails in the churches. What is being sacrificed in this fast-paced society is the process of Christian discipleship. Jesus called the twelve and discipled them. His work must be the model for youth ministry. Youth ministers must make disciples. Corporate America has discovered the importance of mentoring. They decry the shortage of good mentors, especially for aspiring women leaders. Mentoring should not be a new concept to the church. We are called to mentor and disciple people for Christ. Discipleship is the process of mentoring people through the stages of believer, worker and leader.7The days of youth are the best period for discipleship. Workers for the Kingdom of God can be developed through discipleship. Future leaders can be identified and encouraged. A youth minister must keep his eyes open for opportunities for discipleship. Disciples are not born instantly. Discipleship is a long process. Teaching and activities aimed at discipling young people have a lasting impact on church and society.
The best form of ministry is modeling. A youth pastor who may not have a charismatic personality might be a powerful influence on young people just by being a model for them. Jesus modeled His life and ministry before His disciples. The disciples were more than taught. They caught His ministry. Youth pastors can be powerful models in this age of false heroes. Walking the Christian life might be the most powerful ministry one can perform for young people. Good youth ministers prepare young people to say no to the devil. They help young people to say no to sin. They encourage them and sustain them and allow them to grow up in Christ. The ultimate aim of youth ministry is to create disciples of Jesus Christ who will be able to stand for the Gospel. The aim is to build people such as those found in the following New Testament images. Those in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, one hundred and twenty people in prayer. The seventy disciples who were sent out two by two to witness. The twelve disciples. Peter, James and John, the inner circle of disciples. John standing alone at the foot of the cross when all had failed the master and fled. To me, youth ministry must be discipleship at its best. Its purpose is to enable young men and women to have the courage to stand, with no other support at times, on the side of Christ in spite of great personal danger.
In this sense youth ministry among Indian immigrants should not be any different from other youth ministry. It provides the challenging opportunity to turn some of the best and brightest of America to become the carriers of the message of the Kingdom of God. It involves preparing an army for God to overthrow the powers of darkness in the twenty first century.
Ministry as Caregiving
The Lord helped me some years ago to develop a Pentecostal theory of pastoral care. This theory considers pastoral care as a ministry between miracles. It has four steps: 1) enabling people to hear the voice of God; 2) enabling people to learn the will of God; 3) enabling people to live fully human lives; 4) enabling people to remain loyal to Jesus during the crises of life.8 This theory is based on a narrative study of chapters six through nine of the Gospel of John. Michael Alexander, an expert in youth ministry, took the four steps of my model and integrated them with his model of youth ministry to come up with the following four-step pastoral ministry to youth. Alexander defines youth ministry as loving those whom Jesus loves, forgiving those whom Jesus forgave, and accepting those whom Jesus has received. His four steps of youth ministry are: 1) enabling young people to listen to the voice of God between their religious highs and emotional crashes; 2) enabling young people to learn between their religious highs and emotional lows; 3) giving them something to do between their religious highs and emotional lows, helping them to live fully human lives, 4) enabling young people to be loyal to Jesus Christ during very perplexing times of their lives.9
Ministry as Evangelism
According to Michael Alexander, the most neglected area of youth ministry is evangelism. Youth pastors must consider this and respond to this desperate situation. Alexander writes: Youth pastors are responsible for equipping and training young people in the area of personal evangelism. One of the primary roles of a youth pastor is that of equipper. Ephesians 4:11-12 states emphatically that it is the pastor’s task to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. With this in mind, it is important to note, particularly in this context, that leadership is “caught” more than it is “taught.” A youth pastor’s life and ministry should embody and reflect those of a personal soul-winner.10
Alexander goes on to say that outreach should not be an option. It should be mandatory. He recommends Dann Spade¬r’s methods: 1) instead of trying to do all evangelism by oneself, the youth worker must equip the young persons to do evangelism; 2) the youth worker must keep in mind that evangelism is not an event, it is a process; 3) the youth leader needs to organize events in order to reach youth in today’s culture. Events must be well done, well organized and relevant to the appropriate age group.11
Youth ministers must consider David R. Veerman’s principles of youth evangelism: Principle #1 – Seek maximum influence. This approach uses maximum visible means of communicating the Gospel. Principle #2 – The evangelistic method should be person centered. Principle #3 – Teach the youth to be appropriately bold. Principle #4 – Do evangelism by the rules of multiplication rather than addition. Let each person win others and train others in turn to do more evangelism. Principle #5 – Teach young people the importance of long-term concern. The presenter of the Gospel must learn patience. Principle #6 – Teach the importance of follow up.12
Wesley Black identifies five evangelistic methods Jesus used: relational evangelism, environmental evangelism, presentational evangelism, informational evangelism and prayer evangelism.13 Establishing relationships and communicating the Gospel within those relationships is the essence of relational evangelism. Using the language of the listen¬er to win him to Christ is the essential element of environmental evangelism. Presenting the good news through tract distribution and other similar means is the key to presentational evangelism. Mass evangelism and media evangelism are part of informational evangelism. Jesus addressed thousands of people at a given time before the days of tents, stadiums and television. Prayer is the most important aspect of all evangelism. This can be practiced in any ministry context. All youth, even the shy ones, can participate in prayer evangelism. Prayer itself produces results.
A very important aspect of a youth minister’s work should be to prepare young people to impact their campuses for Christ. In their book Penetrating the Campus Barry St.Clair and Keith Naylor respond to this need.14 They suggest that initially the right environment be created on campus with one’s own life. Then develop an environment of prayer for the campus among stu¬dents who care about the campus. Make sure that they pray for one another, for personal concerns and then for their non-Christian friends. The third environment creator is youth activities such as fun, fellowship, Bible study, prayer, training, and outreach. A youth minister can assist young people in all these aspects.
No Time to Waste
All these issues pose special challenges to Indian youth and youth ministers. Parents’ concerns, pastoral ambiguity, problems of facilities, and cultural presuppositions impact these issues. However, efforts to reach at least other immigrants should become a part of the concern of youth and their ministers. We cannot wait until all Indian churches agree on all aspects of acculturation before young people can be trained to live as biblical Christians in North America.
The Indian churches and immigrants are going through a difficult period of time. In the past, churches helped other immigrant groups in the process of their Americanization. The Indian churches today seem to attempt the opposite. Instead of helping people to develop their identity as Indians and Americans, the effort seems to be to keep them more Indian and less American as long as possible. Pastors untrained in America, shortsighted lay leadership and visiting pastors who see a diminishing market in an Americanized Indian church are the main reasons for this situation. Extreme multi-culturalism in society, anti-English language sentiments among certain minorities and anti-melting pot syndrome in general are also contributing factors. Ostracizing of Indians scattered across the continent who must integrate faster than others, and those in predominantly Indian communities who attend non-Indian churches are all symptoms of this struggle for and against Americanization. It may take a long time before all the issues are sorted out. But youth ministers cannot wait for all this to be settled. They must love young people enough to listen to them, pray for them, minister to them and inspire them to go and change their world for Christ, before it is too late for all.
1. Thomson K. Mathew, “Ministering to the ABK’s”, Impact, Spring 1994: 1-2.
2. Erik H. Erikson, Identity, Youth and Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968), 91-141.
3. Lawrence M. Brammer, The Helping Relationship, 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1993), 69-70.
4. Brammer, 29-37.
5. Charles Farah, From the Pinnacle of the Temple (Plainfield, NJ: Logos, n.d.), 87-114.
6. Bruce P. Powers, Growing Faith (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), 40-45.
7. Leroy Eims, The Lost Art of Disciple Making (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 183.
8. Thomson K. Mathew, “Ministering Between Miracles: A Pentecostal Model of Pastoral Care” in John K. Vining and Edward E. Decker (eds.), Soul Care: A Pentecostal/ Charismatic Perspective (East Rockaway, NY: Cummings & Hathaway, 1996) 129-139.
9. Michael Alexander, lecture, Advanced Pastoral Care Course, Oral Roberts University, February 16, 1996.
10. Michael E. Alexander, “Training Youth Pastors in Creating a Climate and Developing Skills for Personal Evangelism Among the Youth in the Church”, D. Min. Applied Research Project (Tulsa: Oral Roberts University, 1995), 4.
11. Dann Spader, “Stages of Youth Ministry” in Warren S. Benson and Mark H. Senter III (eds.), The Complete Handbook of Youth Ministry (Chicago: Moody, 1987), 235. See Alexander, 130-131.
12. David R. Veerman, Youth Evangelism (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988), 46. See Alexander, 134-137.
13. Wesley Black, An Introduction to Youth Ministry (Nashville: Broadman, 1991), 204.
14. Barry St. Clair and Keith Naylor, Penetrating the Campus (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993), 155-156.
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