Another great guest Post By Ryan Rudolph. Youth Worker in South Africa, graduate of Oak Hill College and blogger at ryangrudolph.wordpress.com
1. Where are you based?
A medium sized Baptist Church in the CBD of East London, South Africa. It is a small, coastal city on the east coast, and is affectionately called “Slummies”, as in a slum-town. We are in an area called Southernwood, historically one of the oldest parts of the city.
2. What unique challenges do you face?
Some of our biggest challenges as a church are based around the area we find ourselves in.
- Being in the city centre means we are more pre-disposed to issues arising from poverty. Prostitution is large and there are many homeless and hungry on our doorstep.
- Drugs are readily available. At the end of a Friday night, I can get offered an assortment of drugs at the various places I drop some of my kids off. You would think that after 3 years the drug-pushers would know me by now (at least in the very recognisable church bus)!
- South Africa still has a race struggle, I believe. Being where we are has helped me to address this in my personal life as well as in the lives of our kids.
- Most of my youth are young black boys from the Xhosa culture, and generally poorer backgrounds (though not exclusively). This provides the most unique set of challenges:
- Culture: How do we present the gospel effectively as I’m not talking to white-middle class kids as my theological training taught me? This opens up another unique struggle we face: Our boys enter a rites-of-passage ritual whereby they enter the bush for around 4 weeks (after having their foreskin sliced off). These practices are flooded with satanic/witchdoctor (known as Sangoma’s – “Sun-gor-ma” rituals from sacrificial offerings to ancestors, to scarification on the body and wearing beads and bottles of blood for protection. I’ll speak later how we’ve begun to address this.
- Language: Often I feel like the odd one out at the youth group I run. I don’t understand their language, their jokes or when they are upset with me. They can talk English – they just chose not too! This is a challenge for me to learn Xhosa, but also what happens when we have a non-Xhosa speaking person coming? Youth groups often attract those on the fringes, those who are shy, and those who struggle to make friends as it is. Further alienation because of language can sometimes be a real issue.
- Boy-dominant: We have very few girls. And a large portion of the boys we have don’t know how to treat girls with respect. This could be because of culture, but also because of a lack of godly-men in their lives (or any men, for that matter).
3. What shape and format do your youth work projects most often take?
As with most youth groups in our city, we run our youth group on Friday for very practical reasons. There is no other night that our young people would rather come. This means that traditional cell-groups don’t work for us. Our young people don’t walk around at night as the area is not safe. So unless I drop them off, we can’t meet.
Friday nights are not hugely programmed events, but are designed for a relaxed atmosphere. Most of our young people enjoy soccer and so we provide space for that. Others are happy to sit at the sides, though there are a few who enjoy a programmed event once in a while, so we do that on occasion, as well as meet with other youth groups on the odd-occasion.
I’ve always been very clear with my young people that an important part of our time together is to hear from God and allow Him to move in our lives. So each Friday we spend a significant amount of time in the word. I have a ministry philosophy that says young people aren’t stupid. If they can learn complicated scientific, mathematical and philosophical concepts and ideas at school, then they can manage the deeper truths of God, we don’t need to dumb down and we don’t need to entertain.
We have two other methods that we use to reach young people, a soccer ministry and an open gym.
Over the past year we’ve spent more time approaching other churches for soccer matches. This is a growing area for evangelism and we find that there is an openness to hear the gospel over really good, well-played and tough games. A difficulty of this, however, is that Christians are notoriously bad sportsmen when it comes to playing a game and so we have to watch our walk in a very real way when we are on and off the field. We promote clean and fair games and ask the players to be honest. We also try and let the referee be the referee! We’re not doing this well enough, I think, but each time we play I believe we’re getting better (both as a team, and as an act of direct evangelism after the games).
“I have a ministry philosophy that says young people aren’t stupid. If they can learn complicated scientific, mathematical and philosophical concepts and ideas at school, then they can manage the deeper truths of God, we don’t need to dumb down and we don’t need to entertain.”
I also run an open gym filled with rusty equipment (though I’ve put some of my own money into making it better equipped). The idea is pretty simple: young people love to work out. So I give them a space to do this. I have found this to be the most helpful area for beginning one-to-one relationships with young men, and these very quickly turn into a vehicle for discipleship and mentoring. What’s funny is that I’m a pretty slender person, the young people often laugh at me when I try give them advice. However, their opinions quickly change when I show them that I can actually lift a weight or two!
Ultimately, I believe that ministry to young people cannot be a one-size-fits all model, but has to continually change and evolve to work within the contexts we find ourselves in.
4. What do you enjoy most and what are you most proud of?
Two things. Firstly, on the ground level I really enjoy one-on-one ministry and going away with a small group of guys, having fellowship and really getting deeper into God’s word. These are profoundly enriching times for all involved and happen far less than I would like them to! Secondly, helping to train and equip other youth leaders. I guess this was a product of my own training, but I really enjoy helping other youth leaders employ workable strategies within their own ministries. Related to this, if I can be proud of anything, then it would be our local youth workers get together called “City Youthworks” whereby we get together every couple of months to talk around youth work issues and to equip and encourage one another.
5. What is your most valuable local resource?
Other Youth workers. There are youth workers who have been doing this a lot longer than I have, and youth workers who are more specialised in certain areas (for example understanding race and culture), so we tend to use each other. It’s a great relationship and an invaluable resource! Youth workers rock!
6. How often do you meet up with other youth workers? How easy or difficult is that and how?
Other than the aforementioned group, I have a few close relationships with a small number of youth workers. Some friendships are based on similar ministry contexts, whilst one or two have similar theological backgrounds which I find useful for encouragement and help in my own thinking. I try to meet up with at least one other youth worker each month. Sometimes I’m blessed with more!
7. Tell us a story about something significant that has happened.
As mentioned above, the cultural challenges we face can be daunting. Sometimes we really aren’t sure what to do, but we know we have to do something!
Recently a couple of our young people who are walking with the Lord and serve in our church were required to go to the bush. They really have no choice. At first, our understanding as a leadership was that they should just chose not to go as Christians. However, we’ve soon realised that this is almost impossible. The rejection from family and tribes is met out in very practical ways. Forever seen as a child and treated as one. It’s a personal embarrassment that is treated with severe familial consequences, and our young people are left with little other options.
I’m reminded how Paul instructs Timothy to be circumcised even though he berates anyone getting circumcised for the sake of the law. So, instead of rejection, we’ve taken the move to embracing the young person and helping them through this often difficult and challenging time. In particular with my two boys (now men), we spoke openly and honestly about what was going to happen and why, and how they could continue their Christian faith during those trials. This involved bible studies, a weekend away, frank conversations about pornography, sex and how to treat woman as a man of God and we ended it all off with a celebration into manhood surrounded by other Christian men in the church who have spoken and will continue to speak into their lives. It truly was a wonderful occasion. Being so close to them during this, I was able to also visit them over their period in the bush, sitting with them and praying with them and their friends. I found walking this candid and open journey with our young people helps them to adjust better than their peers, and in the long run they are better off in their faith and their maturity.
We need much more wisdom as we continue these discussions. I’ll most likely be doing my research paper on this in the coming year, so would appreciate prayers and God’s wisdom in this regard.
8. What gets you through difficult or stressful times in your ministry?
Thankfully, God has blessed me with a beautiful and intelligent wife who is filled with wisdom and knows how to encourage me. She’s only been with me, however, for the past 6 months. Before that, I had some pretty bad habits. Computer games took my attention and frustrations away from the stress, but in the long run was not a helpful solution.
“I believe that ministry to young people cannot be a one-size-fits all model, but has to continually change and evolve to work within the contexts we find ourselves in.”
Taking proper breaks is a definite must. Christians are notoriously bad for having a serious work ethic. This is not good or clever but detrimental to long-term ministry. We know this, we just don’t follow through! Take breaks. Take your holidays. Take your weekends off. And make time to spend with friends and family and most importantly, make time for God outside of work. We are bad at this. Best piece of advice I was ever given is this: God cares more about who you are to Him, than what you do for Him.
9. Any final thoughts that you would like to share?
Youth ministry is amazing. The older I get the tougher it gets (you really begin to feel those late nights and creaky knees), but the joys are so much richer and deeper. When I was younger I focused on the entertainment value – because quite frankly I was catering to myself. But I’ve learned over the past 10 years that young people want deep relationships, deep answers, and a deep God – because they know life isn’t shallow. So give it to them. Don’t be embarrassed. Also, there are fewer and fewer of us up here. If you are a youth worker, my biggest encouragement for you is to stay right where you are. God loves you. God loves your young people. And God loves His church.
Ryan Rudolph is a Youth Pastor in a small city church in East London, South Africa where he enjoys the challenges of multi-cultural, urban youth ministry.
He is married to a beautiful Texan lass, is a Sharks Rugby fan, and enjoys indie-board games and even more so loves introducing these games to some of his Youth!
He holds a BA(Hons) in Youth and Children’s Ministry from Oak Hill Theological College in London, and is currently studying towards a BTH.
Ryan loves young people, loves Jesus and deeply desires to see the two connect in powerful and authentic ways.
He blogs over at ryangrudolph.wordpress.com