First Third Conversations

The Changing Frontiers of Urban Mission: Beyond The Great White Hope

by Daniel White Hodge, PhD, Assistant professor of youth ministry & director of The Center For Youth Ministry Studies, North Park University, Chicago, Ill

The ministry flaunted itself as a “community leader”; an organization that was “for youth in the city” and “creating relationships across cultures.” The ministry had been in the city for a decade, had city wide support and a major funder who requested all its money go to “urban needs.” The youth that this organization served came from under resourced schools and most were from single parent families. Moreover, the crime rate where this ministry was located was in a fairly decent “crime zone” according to the cities “crime tracker.” The ministry leaders operated out of their home and one of them, a former educator in the local public school, still had many connections to high ranking administrators in that system. They attended numerous PTA meetings, opened their home for community meetings, had a vision for the future in their community, were avidly connected to numerous local churches, touted a “holistic approach” to ministry, and, of course, loved Jesus. A seemingly “perfect” ministry organization which is holistic, connected in the community, has the trust of the people, and is following out Christ’s mandate to serve and bring the Gospel to the lost.

However, under this veil of seemingly perfectionist ministry, one needed only to ask a student who attended this ministry “what are your perceptions of this organization” and the answers were astoundingly contrary to the public persona of this organization: “I’ve never really ever felt welcomed here as a Black person, “ stated one young woman. “They have plastic all over their furniture so that we don’t get their nice stuff dirty. What’s up with that” exclaimed another young woman. One young man asserted, “I never feel at home with them; like there is always a straight arm every time I enter their property.” To add insult to racial injury, the family had added a type of “outhouse” bathroom addition to their home so that the students would not enter and use their personal bathroom. They had built an additional meeting room to their house as well, however the furniture was covered in both plastic and/ or sheets and the students were made to stand if they could not fit on the four person couch. Moreover, the organizations underlying ethos was one of pity and superiority over the students they served. I know all this because I not only worked at this organization and was the only ethnic minority in leadership but also because I interviewed many of the youth who a part of this organization and came through it.

Unfortunately, this type of attitude, insolence, and racial effect on students is not uncommon among many White/ Euro American led urban ministries. Further, what compounded this phenomenon further was the fact that the two founders and leaders had no idea their impact among their students and assumed things were “great” among dwindling middle and high school student numbers.

The influx of non-White students into suburban White churches is inevitable.[1] Therefore, it is not just urban youth ministries dealing with racial, ethnic, and intercultural communication issues. The racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. is changing rapidly and the coming generation of youth is the highest group of “non-religious” population conjoined with the most diverse.[2] Thus, these types of issues can become a much larger problem of the continuing significance of race in America.

Moreover, White youth workers, who typically lead these organizations, that do not have a grasp on the larger tones surrounding racism, White privilege, and White racism, will continue to perpetuate neo-colonialism; while the intentions may be great, and noble, the effect of White ignorance is catastrophic and calamitous on multi-ethnic and multi-racial urban youth. Therefore, the need for multi-racial literacy coupled with a strong personal ethnic identity awareness for White/ Euro American leaders of youth organizations and churches is of paramount importance.

But how do we move forward when many of those White leaders are simply unaware of the issues surrounding racism? What to do with the “Great White Hope” theological ethos? How does a ministry do “urban ministry” without coming off as colonialists? And what does the Great Commission look like, in real time, in 21st century urban multi-ethnic America? How do we move past the statement: It doesn’t matter the color of God, the Gospel is for everyone?

We have much work to do.

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With over 18 years of urban youth work experience, Dr. Daniel White Hodge is a recognized urban expert & cultural literacy scholar. Hodge is the Director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at North Park University. Dan teaches classes around the world on subjects such as Black popular culture, personality & the self, Hip Hop discourse, and race/ ethnicity within religion. His two current books are Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur (VDM 2009), and The Soul Of Hip Hop: Rimbs, Timbs, & A Cultural Theology (IVP 2010). He is currently working on a book titled The Hostile Gospel: Finding Religion In The Post Soul Theology of Hip Hop (Brill Academic late 2013).


Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church [in English].  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Kosmin, Barry A, and Ariela Keysar. "American Religious Identification Survey." In ARIS. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2009.

Smith, Christian Christoffersen Kari Marie Davidson Hilary Herzog Patricia Snell. Lost in Transition : The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood [in English].  New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Smith, Christian Denton Melinda Lundquist. Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [in English].  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.


[1] Census data is showing that by the year 2025 the majority of people groups in the U.S. will most likely be Latino/ Latina and White/ Euro American ethnic groups will be, for the first time since the inception of the U.S., the minority.

[2] See Barry A Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, "American Religious Identification Survey," in ARIS (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2009).

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