Missional Lessons from Hunting Park Youth Alpha

From time to time, I want to introduce a ministry which may not get a lot of press but which can illustrate good missional practice principles for us all to learn from.

A couple of months ago, I heard about a Youth Alpha ministry going on in the Esperanza Health Center gym in the Hunting Park neighborhood of Philadelphia from my wife Christe, who works at the Health Center, and from my church planter friend Matt Lin, the pastor of One Hope Community Church. I was hearing about some wonderful energy for ministry among the mostly Hispanic neighborhood teens. I wanted to find out more, so I sat down for a chat with Jeremy Chen, a Biblical student and an intern at One Hope.

What I found out was that the HP Youth Alpha program cannot be perceived as a stand-alone program in a vacuum. Rather, it must properly be situated in the context of a relational network that has been built over many years by incarnational churches and individual Christians within a particular urban community. The story being told is a story of partnerships, presence, and prayer.

Matt Lin has been a resident and church planter in Hunting Park for many years. His wife, Shinhyang, has also served as a teacher at Hunting Park Christian Academy for many years. As a part of their church plant’s ministry, Matt began to gather and hang out with community teens that he got to know through various avenues — whether neighbors, children of parents that have attended church, or through other relational networks in the community. Over time, this informal gathering turned into something more structured — basketball game nights at the Health Center gym.

When Matt, Jeremy, and others attended an Alpha course last summer, they saw a natural fit. An incarnational ministry was already going on; they now had the tools to conduct something more structured and formalized. The leaders started with prayer. It became clear they needed to approach Youth Alpha as a series of partnerships.

In the fall, a Pre-Alpha meeting started with a game night. By this time, a widening partnership had formed, and teens associated with other neighborhood churches and ministries were invited and brought in by Eighth Street Community Church, Logan Hope, OKA House (an arts/community development ministry), Esperanza Health Center staff, and other individual Christians in the neighborhood.

Other partnerships ensued. As the 9-week program unfolded, the security guards and janitorial staff partnered, looking out for the young people and creating a safe space. Various church members drove the teens to and from their homes; others volunteered to cook for the meetings — this proved unexpectedly empowering. One of the teens shared, “These are the first home-cooked meals I’ve had since Thanksgiving.” One older lady came to the meetings, closed herself into a small room, and prayed.

Even the teenagers themselves became partners. Some of them were more advanced in their spiritual walks, through their involvement in Christian groups in area schools. They were the ones most energetic in inviting their friends. Jeremy recalled how he struck up a conversation with a worker in a Dunkin’ Donuts, and how in the course of the conversation he came to find out that the worker had already been invited by a school mate, a Youth Alpha attendee.

Now that the 9 weeks were over, the pressing question had turned into: “How can we keep the ministry to these teens going in a different form, longterm?” There are plans to continue with regular attendees, but with less intensity and with new volunteers. The plan is to shepherd the teens into different churches and ministries, but also to continue having multiple points of contact with various members of the faith community in the neighborhood.

What principles can be learned from this case study?

1. Partnerships

It is abundantly clear that HP Youth Alpha took partnerships at multiple levels to pull off. We see these partnerships at work in at least two levels:

  • A local plurality of servant-leadership: Various area churches and ministries were involved and each contributed to the whole willingly; yet, none took the program as an opportunity to promote themselves or their own ministries. Servant-leadership can perhaps be best manifested in times of partnership for the sake of a common goal — each falls in line to serve a needed role, without clamoring for the spotlight or control. Humility, cooperation, and love for gospel mission without regard for ego speak volumes to a watching neighborhood, especially in our age of self-promotion, competition among religious bodies (even those who profess to be on the same team), and worship of success.
  • Priesthood of all believers: Everyone’s gifts were utilized and valued, and everyone was invited to contribute to the work. A good pastoral practice in this case was to operate as a triage of spiritual gifts, turning away none but directing all to a role appropriate for each and contributing to the common goal. For instance, older people weren’t dismissed as inappropriate to a youth ministry (which of course is what usually happens in youth ministries); instead, they were invited in and guided to a role that fit into the overall project, such as prayer, or interjecting as elders during discussion times. Their presence had the effect of discipling young people in their relationship to elders, the elders gaining a sense of mission and purpose, and contributing to the overall community building. This principle is valuable for the health of any ministry, but it takes on a special significance in many urban settings that have been historically beset with poverty and/or marginalization, for dignifying contributions from the marginalized by utilizing them in a missional work is in itself healing. So while “professional” leadership has its place, the approach we’re examining takes the route of “bottom-up” and not “top-down.”

2. Presence

The secret to the success of this project had less to do with the pre-packaged program itself than with the larger missional ecosystem in which it took place.

Alpha gave the incarnational leadership the tools to carry out a short-term program, and tools are important. But the 9 week project was built on a foundation of faithful missional presence in the local community of church plants, community development ministries, and individual Christians — pastors, teachers, neighbors, friends, students, professionals — over many years. A missional ministry program presupposes a faithful missional community.

There is no programmatic silver bullet to a missional ministry — the real fruitful work happens at the very basic, building-block level of forming personal relationships and creating community that is journeying more fully to Christ, which more often than not takes years, even decades, of persistent and faithful labor on the part of many.

Missional communities need to recognize this calling to longterm missional presence in a particular place and to a particular people, and not become easily infatuated with quick and easy formulas. They will continually need to resist the natural tendency to fold inward upon themselves, to create exclusive insider groups, and keep engaging the outsiders. The payoff is the ability to facilitate creative ministry endeavors utilizing the missional infrastructures within a local community that may have taken many years to build beneath the surface — but that is often where the real work is at.

3. Prayer

Finally, those leading the project kept calling each other into radical dependence on God. Ministers experience great temptations to rely on techniques and formulas. The very act of outlining these principles and presenting an analysis can easily be understood as a recipe for missional success — add these ingredients, stir, heat, and voila, ministry fame. That would be a mistake.

At the heart of a missional journey is the same calling that every disciple received throughout all ages — to trust, obey, and be Christ’s witness to the ends of the earth. Such calling precludes building our own institutions up for the sake of our own comfort or fame. Rather, it embraces a vulnerable trust and a great joy in the gospel mission of the Lord who is at work to reconcile all things under Christ, so that we journey with him outward to the world that he loves.

Hence, we cannot skip prayer or have prayer as a spiritual gloss over our own efforts. Instead, we look to the Lord as his Spirit leads us out into our neighborhoods.