Cultural Engagement

I survey the state of youth ministry, admittedly with some distance, from a teaching and parent-of-young-children perspective. I see that the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” critique has taken hold and a small handful of congregations have begun to creatively reimagine what the integration of youth into the larger life of the congregation looks like. Still, I see many robust and thriving “ears” out there who remain unconcerned about the critiques of this model.

A number of congregations I see have “taken a break” from youth ministry for a year to reflect on what they want to be about. These yearlong breaks for active reflection seem to embody the type of practical theological thinking we want to encourage. Perhaps some coaching around this might be worthwhile or even an acknowledgement that this type of reflection itself is worthwhile.

Another opportunity I see centers on conversations around race and racial reconciliation. Frequently, the concept of “cultural engagement” has been around an engagement with popular culture. This can be fun and relevant, but there is a deeper challenge and opportunity regarding cultural engagement around identities and issues of race, class, and gender.

This challenge and opportunity became acutely apparent in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and youth ministries embody many of the same cultural divides that seemed to bubble to the surface: the wealthy suburban youth group versus the poor rural youth group, the white kids’ youth group versus the black kids’ youth group, and so forth. I see that youth are aware of these tensions, and in some ways, they seem better equipped than our leaders to address and talk about them.

My hope for the future of youth ministry is that the “culture” that we are engaging in youth ministry takes young people’s bodily social location and its implications seriously. My hope is that by addressing these we will see less political division and vitriol as these young people become adults. In my candid assessment, youth are more equipped for these conversations than adults. So how do we help adults in the realm of youth ministry “catch up” to those we are supposed to lead?

The world of youth ministry needs cultural competency training for its leaders. These leaders need to have the knowledge and tools to engage the embodied cultural realities of youth. Youth do not need to travel to distant lands to have “cross cultural experiences.” The opportunity for cross-cultural experience, partnership, and relationship is all around us. Do we have eyes to see?

Contributor: Katherine M. Douglass
Presented by: The Institute for Youth Ministry




Katherine M. Douglass (Katie) is an Assistant Professor of Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and an ordained minister in the PC(USA). Katie served, with her husband John, at the American Protestant Church: An International Congregation, in Bonn, Germany before returning to doctoral studies. 

Since 2013, Dr. Douglass has directed The Confirmation Project, a $1.1 million grant from the Lily Endowment Inc., that researches confirmation and equivalent practices that form disciples of Jesus Christ in five denominations through a national survey of youth, parents, and ministry leaders, as well as congregational visits. In addition to this research on Christian rites of passage, Dr. Douglass teaches courses on spirituality, the arts and Christian formation, Biblical literacy, and culturally responsive pedagogies.