How To Disciple Urban Teens

It was a sweltering summer night in Chicago at the church of my youth and an annual evangelistic rally was taking place. It was a time of team challenges and chants which culminated in a presentation of the gospel to mainly unchurched, urban teens. A young man, who by any account was from the wrong side of the tracks, went forward at the end of service and responded to the gospel, professing Christ as his Savior. Leaving full of hope and joy, he was dropped off at his home by the church van that night only to be shot dead in front of his house. This is the life in an urban center like Chicago, where life seems unpredictable, circumstances appear unchangeable, and hopelessness seems unavoidable. A reality show recently chronicled the lives of a group of high school girls going through years of schooling in Chicago. In the show episodes centered on the teens discussing sex, bad grades, identity, goals, violence, and pregnancy, among other things. It was hard to watch the show without gasping at what was being presented as an inside look into the lives of urban teens.

As a pastor in Chicago, I have the unique opportunity to engage with an assortment of people from different backgrounds, with different stories, and in different cultures. However, in addition to being a pastor, I also work at the public high school featured in the reality show and was able to engage with some of the teens featured. We know the gospel truly transforms lives and can radically change the lives of the next generation. Yet, we have to realize that in urban centers everything is intensified, multiplied, and amplified. How can we genuinely disciple a young person in the hope in which they've been called as they navigate through a hopeless city?

I was educated in one of the most diverse public high schools in Chicago while going to one of the most diverse churches in the area. I was discipled by my former youth pastor and it was during those times that the foundation for my future maturity in Christ was established. Having been discipled as an urban teen and now working with teens I have come to a few insights in affective ways to disciple urban youth.


There is usually something going on at home, be it an absent father, economic despair, or emotional upheaval. For example, fatherlessness is prevalent in urban centers. I was recently told of a young woman in our church whose father literally lived in the same neighborhood, yet was in and out of her life constantly. This is typical of urban youth. The first step in discipling these young people is to care. Care to know their lives; care for their whole person. Whether being fatherless or coming from a loving family, urban youth need to know you care.

In Gospel Coach, Scott Thomas writes that as Paul was pouring into young Timothy, he was interested in the development of Timothy's whole life: personal (1 Timothy 3:1-13, 2 Timothy 2:1, Titus 1-2), missional (1 Timothy 5:17, 2 Timothy 2, 5), and spiritually (2 Timothy 3:14-17, Titus 1:9). Paul even goes as far as giving Timothy advice for his stomach ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). They need to have a sense of belonging to you, before belief, just as Timothy was a "son" to Paul. Urban youth don't care what you say, until they know that you care.


Tim Keller says, in Center Church, active contextualization is a three-part process: entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listener. We need to engage urban youth culture to understand the hopes, beliefs, and questions they have to show how the gospel responds to these areas. Urban youth hear false "gospels" everywhere they turn. Their identity crisis is addressed in their culture by having more, being physically handsome, and beautiful (including being thin), and getting whatever you can from people. We need to understand the false "gospels" they are receiving from their culture in order to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges their hopes, questions, and beliefs.

I remember my old youth pastor was actively engaged in our school life, building relationship with our school principals and teachers. To reach urban youth, we need to enter their culture, challenge their culture, and then appeal to them. Know what they are listening to, who they're listening to, know who their influences are, know who they idolize, know the movies, music, and books they enjoy. Then you can be able to say how the gospel according to Jesus is more hopeful than the gospel according to Bieber.


Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." They are looking for someone to follow and to imitate. In my time with my youth pastor, I was able to be involved in the details of his life, including when his first child was born, going on hospital visits, visiting other youth in the projects, and in his own study of the Bible. I may not remember the weekly sermons preached each week at youth group, but I remember the hands-on life lessons I learned and still find myself remembering those lessons as I imitated him as he imitated Christ. As a pastor, I find myself still imitating him over 10 years later.


Urban youth are used to hearing, "Don't do this." Christian youth especially are told constantly, for example, "Don't date in high school," or "don't drink," and "don't cut class." Oftentimes good advice falls on deaf ears because we relegate the gospel to a list of do's and don’ts. Urban youth need purpose. When they are aware of God's redemptive plan, and his purpose, they can understand that the purpose of their lives isn't about which guy they can get to like them, or buying the latest Jordans, or getting good grades so they don't get punished. When my youth pastor shared with me the advice given to a young pastor (Timothy) in a large metropolis (Ephesus), to set an example to believers in speech, conduct, love, faith, and in purity despite his youthfulness, it gave me a sense of purpose. Although I failed time and time again, it still resonated with me knowing that I was an urban missionary in a concrete jungle, and my high school was my mission field. I was living in a world in dire need of reconciliation with Jesus, and that, as Rick Warren puts in the opening pages of The Purpose Driven Life, "Is not about you."


We live in a Facebook, self-centered, "me first" world, and our teens are growing up hearing their self-worth comes through people's worth ascribed to them. How many Facebook "likes" your picture has determined real beauty and significance in the eyes of urban girls, and how many girls you can sleep with determines value in the eyes of urban boys. Our youth are being given a Kim Kardashian and Kanye West "gospel" that shows that our sense of worth comes in how people view us. The gospel doesn't just address their behavior; it addresses their core value system, and cuts to the core of who they are. We need to show them that their worth only comes through Jesus Christ. Our security and significance comes from Jesus because we are "in Christ."


We have to remember that urban youth are surrounded, for over 30 hours a week, by conversations of drinking and drugs, opportunities for sex, friends encouraging cheating, and an assortment of other temptations. In walking through the halls of my workplace, I hear foul language, talks of weekend parties and getting drunk, and sleeping with whomever. We can't expect to have any influence in their lives unless they know we care and seek to spend time with them. Jesus lived life with his disciples, and although in our context that seems virtually impossible, we have to recognize that to have any impact on these youths, it will require an investment of time. I was able to spend countless hours with my youth pastor, including talking in his office, watching him work, and being the last person dropped off on the bus. Time is one of the greatest resources we can give young people.


In my years of discipleship with my youth pastor, I was there to see friends slowly fall away. I was there when a few youth revealed they had been closet lesbians. I was there when two mature youth members revealed they had sex and had gotten pregnant. I was also there when we received word that one of our youth was caught in gang crossfire as an innocent bystander and was murdered in the street. Jesus himself dealt with a ragamuffin group of misfits who seemingly disappointed him throughout their three-year discipleship program, yet it didn't hinder him from seeing the big picture.  Jesus knew they would fail him, even to the point of prophesying Peter's repeated denial. Disappointments are times we can lovingly show grace and mercy, and bring truth. We have to point them to the truth of a God who loves them and died for them. We have to be willing to walk with teens through trials and tragedies, even the ones brought upon themselves.


With youth, we know there comes a time when they will eventually leave us. Any pastor, youth or other, have the thought at the back of our heads, "Was it enough?" We want to know if the investment we made was even worth it. We can't make a beneficial impact if we come with the impression, "I will have this youth under my care for the next four years, and that's it."  Urban youth are constantly dealt disappointments and abandonment. We are in cities where everything is conditional, and we need to show them that, despite trust issues they may have or fears of abandonment caused by absent fathers or flings with the opposite sex lasting weeks, we are in it for the long haul. Whether it be wisdom in picking a spouse, a future career, or help in a time of need, we need to expect that our job of equipping doesn't end with graduation.

Make a Lasting Investment

Working with urban youth is hard, but it is ultimately a blessing. When we teach them to know the gospel and live the gospel, we are making a long-term investment into these lives. Teens have the capacity to reach a generation of their peers by demonstrating the gospel in every aspect of their lives.

In 2010, a former youth pastor set out to embark on planting a church because of the God's call on his life. Painting the vision to the former youth he had poured into and discipled over the years, they had decided to join him in starting CityLights Church a year later. They had desired the same gospel transformation that occurred in their lives to occur in others as they reached a relatively unchurched area of Chicago for Jesus. Giving up their time, their talents, and their treasures, CityLights has been able to reach hundreds in just two short years, making disciples that touch their world with the love of Jesus.

I have been privileged to be a part and a recipient of what God has done through these former discipled urban youth, as well as being added as one of their pastors. When time is spent, when care is given, when the gospel is made applicable in their lives, when they are shown who they are in Christ, when they're given an example and purpose to follow, and have leaders to disciple them for the long haul, we can be confident that God "is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us."


Eliot Velazquez serves as a pastor of CityLights Church in Chicago, where he oversees spiritual formation and community groups. In addition, he works in the Chicago Public School system and is currently in graduate school. He lives in the northwest side of Chicago and is engaged to his fiance, Michelle. 


Read Proclaiming Jesus by Tony Merida. 

Continue reading on this topic in Taking the Long View and Discipling the Disillusioned