As I work with churches and communities groups developing strategies to reach "at-risk" youth two things are very clear. First, what was once considered a problem amongst inner city youth of color has now become a problem affecting suburban middle class families. Secondly, the term "at-risk" no longer applies only to low-income, children of single parents, or less educated households.
In 2011 the FBI released a 100-page "National Gang Threat Assessment" claiming that criminal gangs pose a growing threat in communities across the United States. Violent gangs exist in the suburbs and in the hood. Any young person, who lacks support, feels neglected, disrespected, misunderstood, alone or uncertain about their future is an easy target for gang recruitment. According to the FBI, Gang membership increased as much as 40 percent in the United States between 2009 and 2011. Nothing suggests that this trend has changed. In my personal experience working with communities it appears to have remained the same. Request for strategy sessions and workshops in suburban communities now equal those in urban centers.
In many cities I've visited gangs appear to be growing faster than youth ministries. In the Church where we are called to be a source of healing and hope, this is a reality and a problem we cannot afford to ignore. One of the critical questions that we have to answer is, "How do we compete in the market space of recruitment and growth with gangs?" In response, many churches are trying to develop programs that reach and resonate with young people in their communities.
That's problem No. 1. Gangs don't have programs. Programs come and go, they change with leadership and in some instances, may never get off the ground. What's more, they often depend on financial resources or issues related to figuring out who's going to run it that isn't already over extended or on the verge of burnout. Rather than developing programs we have to find ways to make reaching young people in our communities a part of our institutional identity to the extent that it becomes apart of who we are and what we exist to do.
As someone who grew up on the streets among gangs and now serves as an ordained minister working with religious organizations to reach young people, the biggest difference between gangs and the church as it relates to growth or recruitment lies within the strategy used to reach vulnerable youth.
In terms of strategy, we must identify the tactics that gangs employ consistently and well that we as the church can incorporate into our strategy to save and change the lives of young people. Engaging young people is something gangs do every day. They are in the community, they know the hangout spots and can tell you where every school in the hood is located. Public school students and children without siblings are two of the biggest targets for gang recruitment. When gangs recruit they know which kids are bullied and offer safety, which kids walk home alone and offer friendship, which kids need money for food or clothing, and they offer assistance, etc. What does this mean for us? It means we have to be just as committed to having our finger on the pulse of the community with the same (or greater) intentionality that the gangs have when it comes to targeting vulnerable young people.
Gangs are visible seven days a week. They recruit using social media, throw recruitment parties, post videos on YouTube, they create Facebook pages, send messages via Twitter and place pictures on Instagram. Churches in communities where young people face the daily threat of gang recruitment should consider strategies to maintain visibility in the community every day. Some churches are using the similar tools gangs are using but all gangs are using these tools. We can't allow ourselves to be outworked by gangs when it comes to reaching young people.
Gang members drive around and walk the streets; they know their neighborhood well. As the church we often recruit on Sunday morning when the "doors of the church" are opened at the end of worship. By the time Sunday comes around it's too late for many youth who are walking the streets Monday through Saturday. In order to connect with and reach youth in our communities, we have to walk outside those doors everyday letting the community know who we are and what we have to offer so they will choose us instead of a gang.
Lastly, gangs cultivate relationships with young people before ever asking them to join and they incentivize membership by meeting basic needs of food, protection, shelter and companionship. We may not like what they offer and the negative impact they have on the lives of our children, but if you were to ask a lot of kids who joined gangs why they did it, you'd hear them say, it's because they love me, they gave me a place to belong, they protected me, and they cared about me when no one else did. We, the church, have to compete against this and find ways to make our "crew" or "set" more compelling to join than their "crew" or "set."
Reaching young people in our communities has to be about more than programs. It has to be a part of our purpose, identity, and what we are known for and seek to do every day. In order to create an environment in our communities where young people see churches as a viable alternative to gangs, our strategies to reach and engage them must be just as compelling if not more compelling than what gangs offer. When we compete in the public sector of our communities for the lives of young people we will change the tide so that youth ministry growth surpasses the growth of gangs. And when we are successful at implementing strategies to target and meet the needs of young people in our communities, gangs will have no one to recruit and their numbers will begin to decline.