WEEKEND IN LA
African-American youth take worship on the road
The bus was filled with the sounds of joy. Teenagers were teasing one another playfully, fingers were feverishly dancing across cell phones and iPads, music was seeping from headsets, all drowning out the roar of the bus engine. Then, without warning, the mood changed. Silence engulfed the bus like a San Francisco fog rolling over the bay. The face of each young person vividly displayed the fear of what lay before them. We were in Watts—the notorious riot-torn neighborhood of the Sixties; an incubator of gangs and violence today. The windows and doors of the government projects that lined the streets were covered with thick bars, as if to keep unwanted people out while confining those who wanted to escape a vicious cycle of poverty.
Suddenly, one teen’s voice pierced the stillness. “We got to give God the glory tonight!” Immediately, fear was erased and faith emerged.
We were in Los Angeles with 35 young people from New Hope Church Community in Vallejo, California, to sing, dance and mime to the glory of God. Though we were not on a foreign mission field, this was an unfamiliar land for these young African-American worshipers. Would they relate to youth who have to grow up with violence at their front door? Before we departed the bus we asked the Lord to give us the strength to make a difference.
Thank God for “icebreakers.” Todd Grant, pastor of Watt’s Powerhouse Church, and his team asked the youth to get into groups according to their birth month, favorite color, favorite football team or favorite ice-cream. The walls began to crumble as we ran around the sanctuary finding those who had something in common with us.
Our youth then led praise and worship. More than 100 young people were on their feet, clapping, singing, rocking and swaying to the music. Smiles of joy and beams of hope shone from each face. We were no longer two groups of African-Americans from Northern and Southern California; we were all simply Christians or seekers with one goal: to see Christ glorified.
The Watts youth were captivated by the dance and arts ministry. Praise dancing, a phenomenon seen especially in African-American churches, puts a hip-hop spin on liturgical dancing. It showcases a passionate, joyous interpretation of popular gospel songs. “We got to learn how to do that,” one youth from Watts said to another. This was one of the purposes of the trip: to show others in our Association of African-American Churches (AAAC) how they can use their gifts and talents in worship. The praise dancers and the mime troupe vividly displayed to teens that they can express their love to God in various ways.
After I gave a message based on John 3:16, I felt led to pray for all of the African-American teenage guys in the audience. When I asked if any of them wanted a closer walk with the Lord, they flooded the altar and fell to their knees weeping. These young men—written off by society and perhaps even by their own family members—passionately responded to the hope of the gospel. The young men from our team prayed for them. Young ladies in the audience began to seek out the young ladies who came with us, and we simply took our time to pour hope into their young lives.
“Pastor Todd, you can stop praying for male leaders,” I said. “You are looking for 30- or 40-year-olds. God is showing tonight that He has sent you 17-, 18- and 20-year-olds. Continue developing them for leadership.”
The next night we journeyed to Wayside Christian Church, an Alliance congregation in Lancaster, California. Dr. John Ward, the pastor/church planter, had invited four local music ministries and our team for a traditional night of gospel soul music. The challenge was to minister to an audience in which young people were not the majority.
God tremendously used our youth to lift hearts and glorify God. The evening was filled with hallelujahs and hand-clapping. Praise poured from the heart of each member of our team. Grandmothers shouted words of encouragement. Grandfathers stood and waved their hands toward heaven in delight. Tears flowed as the dancers twirled their way into the hearts of many. Worship wrapped us in the arms of Christ and reassured us that He is in control. Joy and hope had arrived.
Several area churches were represented, so we had a chance to cast the vision of the C&MA among different denominations. Many told me that they now have a burden to reach youth in their neighborhoods. One woman suggested that we conduct a weekend workshop teaching singing, dancing and mime to the youth of their area, culminating in a concert.
New Birth Bible Church C&MA is where the vision of this ministry trip was born. Last year, I met with Pastor Roy Wheatle and his elders to talk about encouraging AAAC members to build youth ministries. After contacting several pastors, we developed the idea of New Hope’s Music and Arts Ministry coming to Los Angeles for a weekend, in partnership with the AAAC, the Southern Pacific District and Multicultural Ministries. Our youth and parents washed cars, sold baked goods and sent out letters of support to raise funds.
I love the Wheatles, and their church family is filled with love and passion. It is contagious. Though many of their members are from the Caribbean or Africa, the second-generation youth—“born in the U.S.A.”—are “Americanized.” Our youth fit in perfectly.
During the morning worship our youth performed one dance and one mime, and the youth choir sang a song before I preached. The congregation was enraptured. They called the choir back up. Once again the Spirit of the Lord was sweet during the altar call, and several people rededicated their hearts to God.
After a delicious dinner prepared by church members, our team led a discussion about the Multicultural Camp at Alliance Redwoods, and several youth from New Birth were interested in attending.
The hearty lunch was exactly what we needed to prepare for the 3:00 p.m. citywide Youth Explosion that New Birth had planned. Several youth groups from the area filled the quaint Culver City church with fresh wind and worship. The church was overflowing with exuberance. Pastor Wheatle and I even joined the youth on the dance floor. They loved it!
“There is hope for this hip-hop generation,” I told the congregation. During the altar time, once again God moved among the young men. It was powerful to see these African-American brothers crying out to the Lord.
God is awesome. He made this dream of joining AAAC youth in worship and fellowship a reality. He went beyond all of our expectations. Each ministry stop was different; each church made an impact upon our young people. God invigorated youth ministries, inspired the young people and established some lifelong spiritual networks. He certainly challenged me to continue to mentor youth at New Hope and through the AAAC. I am grateful to the Lord for bringing all of the pieces together to make it a success.