W.R. Myers. (1991). Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry: Two Congregations in America. New York City: The Pilgrim Press.
Myers, Presbyterian Seminary professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, has been in youth ministry since 1965. This book is the result of a research project sponsored by Union Theological Seminary, through which Myers spent time with two churches with thriving youth ministries-one black and the other white-to compare and contrast how youth ministry is done within each context. Although Myers does not deal directly with racism, much can be learned about it from his observations. He gives a detailed account of both the youth programs and the churches, and his conclusions have very strong implications for the presence and impact of racism on us all.
The first church, “St. Andrews” is a white, upper middle class suburban church. The church is best understood in the context of the community. Almost all the youth are from one high school, noted for its academic and athletic competitiveness. The high school breeds kids who are just like their parents: success oriented, hard working, upper middle class whites. The primary hangout is the mall. The church seems similar, with its abundance of programs from which members pick and choose. The church functions more as a “religious confirmation program for the values of dominant American culture” (p. 23) than a center for worship and spirituality. St. Andrews’ goals are not explicit; but implicitly implied are these core values: being middle class, being morally good, being a competent manager or leader, being friendly, and not being different. This is also what their youth ministry teaches. It focuses little on Christianity, instead seeking programs to keep their kids out of trouble.
The second church, “Grace Church,” is “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.” Not only does it focus more on spirituality, it also defines itself as counterculture, due both to the fact that it is a church, and it is black. Unlike St. Andrews, the dominant culture is not considered friendly to this group of believers, and the church youth are taught this. This church’s goals are more explicit; they have a consciously black style of worship, and they challenge all members to look at themselves and where they need to grow. The lessons they teach are to be unashamedly black, to be unapologetically Christian, to be a competent adult, to be politically aware, and to make a life, not just a living. Where St. Andrews focuses on programs, Grace’s focus is on Sunday worship. Youth are not separated from the rest of the church with their own program; they contribute to the adult worship service from an early age, and participate in all aspects of worship including giving sermons by high school age. Kinship and family are emphasized; these are the values that make Grace a church a body of believers.
Myers makes some important observations, the most frightening of which is that St. Andrews, which is representative of so many white churches, has blurred the line between teaching Christianity and patriotism. St. Andrews unintentionally ends up embracing the culture too much and is unable to think critically about it. Grace Church, with its decidedly different style, really is more where the church should be. It does not totally reject the dominant culture, but pushes its members to think critically about it and advocate change where necessary-not only as black Americans, but also as Christians. Myers’ information is clear and insightful, though academic. He identifies some problems facing the church today, especially anglo churches. However, this is not a book offering solutions, nor does it address the issue of self-segregation. He finishes the book with this quote: “Until Anglo congregations (like St. Andrew’s) recognize that their embrace of dominant cultural values is an excuse to avoid the implications of racism in America, youth ministry will unfortunately remain nothing more than a church-sponsored process of cultural transmission. We should expect more from the church” (p. 190).
This is the most important implication of this research-that racism promotes the dominant culture via the church. Racism is not always overt or individual; it is most potent when subtle and institutional. We all have such partial knowledge; we must gather and learn from each other.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Think about your own church. How much does it have in common with St. Andrew’s? With Grace Church?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to the youth ministry at St. Andrew’s? At Grace?
- Grace has adopted an intentionally black style of worship, while St. Andrew’s maintains a decidedly white style. Is either one right or wrong? Do they keep us from being able to worship together? What role does style play in worship? What implication does style have for youth ministry?
Amy Allison Moreau
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