Perspective of African American Youth Leadership in the Lutheran Church

[1] This paper addresses African American youth leadership and the role that the Lutheran church can play in their development. In giving our opinion, based on our experiences on this subject, we will define youth, citing some of their needs as it applies to leadership. We will 1) identify how the church responds to some of these needs, 2) address African American youth experiences at gatherings and conferences, and 3) examine those African and African American systems that develop leadership, recognizing how gender and intergenerational experiences assist in youth development. Finally, we will suggest recommendations for both the church and youth and give a short summation.

[2] Youth, for the purposes of this paper, refers to someone 18 years of age and under. This encompasses primary-school-age, adolescent, and teenage individuals. In all of these stages of development, there are opportunities to lead and to develop leadership skills and confidence. Leadership means having qualities of positive participation, confidence, respect of self and of peers. It requires a great deal of self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence in oneself. It requires that one has a vision or direction and is able to influence peers to see that vision. Leadership requires knowing who one is and being proud of one’s heritage. These qualities enable one not only to lead, but also to follow in support of positive efforts.

[3] The church can play a powerful role in developing self-esteem and self-worth in African American youth. The need for developing self-esteem and self-worth for African American youth in church begins with toddlers. In nursery or early childhood Sunday school classes, Sunday school teachers do all they can to support a child’s sense of self worth, desire for independence, and for security. Their curiosity and creativeness are accepted. Though they may be self-centered, they are directed towards values of Christian sharing and love for one another. Materials are provided that show African American images to which the child can relate. Bulletin boards show African American leaders past and present. Pictures of biblical characters of African descent are displayed. At a point in time, multicultural materials are introduced. Songs that the children sing introduce them to African American spirituals and gospels. At times, they can make active responses to these songs. In these ways the church supports the beginning stages of African American youth leadership.

[4] Children within the middle age range (6 years to 12 years of age), continue to need affirmation of their self-worth and their African American culture, always centering them in Christian values and offering cultural experiences. As early as six or seven, youngsters are beginning to define themselves in relationship to the culture to which they have been exposed. They begin to see Jesus as an active person in their lives. One seven year old who was having difficulty with math homework asked his mother, “is this where Jesus is going to help me?”

[5] Most children by this time have been baptized. If they have not, the pastor presents the child in baptism to the congregation. The pastor also has the opportunity to support leadership through youth sermons. At that time, he/she calls upon the youth to read verses from the Bible. They are encouraged to respond to questions based upon the role Christ plays in their lives. The acceptance of their responses and of their oral readings by the congregation increases a child’s confidence and aids in developing leadership skills.

[6] This is also the stage where the youngsters have many opportunities to become active participants in the structure of the church as leaders. They can become members of the youth choir in praising God, some may become acolytes, and some may be lectors. As they near the end of this age range, youngsters usually are confronted with the nascent issues of puberty, negative and positive peer pressure, decision-making, and challenges to their belief systems. They are at the age for confirmation classes, which can steady their spiritual belief system by knowing that the Holy Spirit is indeed present in their everyday lives.

Ages 13-18
[7] During this stage, youth have a strong need for belonging. They search for someone outside of the family who cares for and takes an interest in them. This is a critical time for decision-making. They ask themselves, “which way should I go? Whom should I follow?”

[8] Some members of a congregation become a nurturing community by becoming an example of following Christ. They reach out to youth, taking an interest in them, interacting with them outside of the church, and inviting them into their lives. Youths can see, for example, how conflict is dealt with, how decisions are made, and how people rely upon their own personal relationship with Christ. These are valuable components in forming leadership.

[9] There are opportunities outside of the home church to learn more about leadership and to experience broader fellowship. African American youths are able to meet other Lutheran youth at gatherings, conferences, camps, and retreats. As these opportunities present themselves, African American youth need to have a strong sense of identity. For within the larger scheme of things, they become a small entity of the mass group of youth gathered. In most instances, the focus, environment, and worship of these gatherings tend to be of the mainstream and of European culture, thereby dismissing other cultures of the American society. Without a strong spiritual background and cultural identity, a sense of comfort level, African American youth become isolated, lonely, and feel unappreciated. There have been instances wherein African American youth do go back home from such conferences, questioning their spirituality, leadership ability, and confidence within the Lutheran church. For this reason the option of a multicultural youth gathering is an important one.

Other Influences on African American Youth Leadership
[10] In American society, African American youth are faced with racism. We, as Christians and as Lutherans, believe in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the commandments that God put forth for us to obey, honor, and live by. When youth are faced with such critical issues and societal realities, they’re in disbelief that their Christian counterparts, apparently, do not love their neighbor as they love themselves due to racism. African American youth leadership is tainted by racism and youth are challenged to confront and overcome this barrier. To be a good leader means that one confronts the injustices of society.

[11] For Africans in Africa, isolation and a system of racism may not be so prevalent. There, issues such as politics and economics play a major role. African youth rely on their parents rather than themselves to develop their leadership skills. When they’re old enough to lead, there’s a high expectation to help a family member.

[12] Community is a high priority in the African system as experienced in Cameroon and other west and central African countries. The value of community, with people working together and sharing, is a basic concept for African youth leadership. In the African society, men dominate most leadership positions. After a certain age and maturity (i.e. marriage), African men are automatically placed in leadership roles and women are expected to remain in more nurturing roles. Therefore in the Lutheran church, in Africa, African men (or foreign men) hold positions of leadership.

[13] The American system has valued independence, individualism, and capitalism. Through the years, African American women have worked alongside their men. The challenge to work in American society has always put the woman in leadership with the man. African American men in leadership roles have been somewhat of a threat to the greater society even in days of slavery. Although men and women of African descent hold leadership roles in Lutheran churches, there have only been three African American bishops in the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. What does this say to our youth? How can the church explain this discrepancy to them? The church needs to pay strict attention to these questions so that African American youth will have role models within the church.

Recommendations and Summary
[14] Based upon all the information within this paper, there are several recommendations that we posit to improve African American youth leadership within the church and society. First, youth need to believe that they are heard. Congregations need to find ways to actively incorporate youth input from conferences, summits, and retreats. Youth attendance and participation at congregational meetings can be a way to accomplish the need for youth to be heard.

[15] Secondly, congregations need to not only afford opportunities for youth to attend Bible study at all ages, but to live as examples of what’s taught, so that The Word will dwell richly within them and therefore within the youth. Reading and studying about disciples and leaders is one thing, but to live as the disciples lived and to be a walking Bible and witness is another. This exemplifies leadership and enables the development and elevation of youth leadership.

[16] Thirdly, the older members of the congregation need to be open to change and to new ideas proposed by the youth. The youth need to be open to and understand the traditional ideas of the older members. Through communication and appreciation, the generation gap within the Lutheran church can be bridged and both can be brought closer together. As aforementioned, this is something that can be done in and outside of the church walls. When this is accomplished, there will be better leadership, greater stability within the membership, and more evidence of Christ’s spirit within the congregation.

[17] Fourthly, pastors play a vital role in ensuring that spirituality is sufficient to overcome. In times when youth are struggling with decisions and trying to counteract negative societal influences, pastors can make counseling available to youth and their parents.

[18] Fifthly, youth ministry must have a high priority in the church’s mission, teaching community service and youth outreach. These two opportunities make youth leadership a reality.

[19] In summary, in order to understand and build relationships among leaders of all generations and cultures, there must be an understanding of self, and family. In relation to this paper, African American youth’s understanding the history of Africa and America is important. The backbone of establishing youth leadership is in honoring family and church.