Growing a Multi-Ethnic Ministry: An Interview with J. Scott Samarco

February is Black History Month. At Rooted, we’ve started asking ourselves an important question: How can we equip parents and other leaders of youth to help their teens foster authentic interracial relationships as part of God’s design for his kingdom? We thought we’d begin this journey by taking the posture, first and foremost, of listening.

What follows is an interview between Rooted contributor, Sarah Nixon, and J. Scott Samarco, the TC Teens Director at Transformation Church in Indian Land, SC. Transformation Church was founded in 2010 with the gospel vision to be a multiethnic, multigenerational, mission-shaped community that loves God completely (Upward), themselves correctly (Inward), and their neighbors compassionately (Outward).

We had to find out more about this remarkable ministry! We’re thrilled to share their story with the Rooted Community today.

SN: Tell me about Transformation Church. Paint a picture of your context, your mission, your culture.

JS: Pastor Derwin Gray (lead pastor of Transformation Church) and his wife joined the family of God in the late 90s. Early in their faith, they noticed that the church was separated and segregated when it came to race. As Pastor Derwin often shares, sports teams were diverse, schools were diverse, clubs were diverse, but the church, the body of Christ was not diverse.

With this realization of where the Church in America stood, he developed a passion to see all people, all nations, tribes, and ethnicities doing life together. So what started as a realization of God’s heartbeat for His bride, developed into a calling to see Revelation 7:9 lived out. Through much prayer, studying, tears, and wrestling with what to do, a small group of courageous people in a living room stepped out on faith, followed God’s vision for His bride, and Transformation Church was birthed in 2010.

TC’s vision is born out of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 37-40) Our vision is this: The Vision of Transformation Church is to be a multiethnic, multigenerational, mission-shaped community that loves God completely (Upward), ourselves correctly (Inward), and our neighbors compassionately (Outward).

As you can see, the vision of Transformation Church is the very heart of Jesus.

The culture of TC is a beautiful picture of the body of Christ. It is a picture of Galatians 3:25-29. What this means for us as the body is that we, the people of God, are all clothed in God’s righteousness. We have put on the Messiah, there is unity by faith, our ethnicity is redeemed and classism, sexism, and racism is laid to rest at the cross because we are all one in Christ.

If you were to visit TC on a weekend, you would see different cultures and ages, both young and old serving, celebrating and lifting up Jesus together with one voice.

SN: Out of curiosity, what is a rough demographic of your teens?

JS: I am not quite sure of exact ratios. We are really diverse both ethnically and socio-economically. We have students who are black, white, Latino, Asian, Indian, Russian, and Italian – so a pretty diverse bunch. We have students who are well below the poverty line, on free or reduced lunch, and we also have students who come from quite wealthy families. I believe when we look at the early church, we can see this same diverse picture of God’s people doing life together.

SN: Tell us about your youth group for someone who has never heard of your church. What makes you guys different than most youth groups around the country?

JS: For starters, one of the unique things about “TC Teens” is that we do not refer to ourselves as a youth group. I know this may sound shocking to some and before you throw tomatoes at me, let me share a few reasons why. We have learned three things in our research and study over the years that have led us down a different path:

  1. Youth groups tend to be separated from the local body and what happens on weekend services.
  2. They sometimes aren’t in alignment with the direction and discipleship of what’s happening overall in the local body. They might have a different vision or mission than the local body.
  3. Students tend to graduate out of youth groups and walk away from the faith as they enter into the next phase of life, away from their youth groups.

So instead of a youth group, we have developed a small group community for our students.

Our vision for TC Teens is the same as our vision for the church: To see students in a multi-ethnic body, in a multi-generational setting, who live a mission-shaped life. For us, this is done through our small group community. Students between 6th-12th grade are in a small group with their peers led by adults who are multiethnic, multigenerational, mission-shaped. These adults lead students in their groups through our sermon discussion guides.

This model of discipleship allows for our students to have relational adults who are equipped to walk alongside them, pour into them, and help them see what it means to live a life for Jesus practically and holistically. It allows for our students to find immediate community and connection, to know they are valued, that we believe in them, and that they too can live out the vision of TC right where they are.

Our students are a huge part of everything we do at TC. We believe they are very much the church of today. There is no separation of our students when it comes to who we are as a church. We speak to them in our messages and they serve on all of our teams on the weekends and throughout the week. Their voices and leadership are heard and they drive us as a body to grow together. We do life together, we cry together, we laugh together, and we celebrate Jesus together. Together, we each make up the body of Christ.

SN: Can you elaborate on this small group community. Give us the details!

JS: Right now we have around 14 small groups. We meet on most Sundays throughout the semester. Middle School small groups meet from 4-6pm and High School small groups from 6-8pm. We encourage our groups to be around 8-12 people. Sometimes this can be challenging, because we want to continue to live out our vision of being multi-ethnic and multi-generational. We have two small group leaders per small group. Right now we have some small groups that have three leaders. The hope is to on-board new leaders to groups, equip them, and then split the group, making two groups out of one. We believe smaller groups work best because every voice can be heard. I mean Jesus did lead a small group of 12. ☺

Our small groups are built around discussions of the sermon that week. The discussions are around 35-40 minutes. What I usually do is send out a sermon outline on Wednesday, and on Friday I send out the study guide. This allows our leaders to begin praying through the text and processing the points. Then on Sunday morning they have the opportunity to sit in the service and take notes. If you were to sit in on a weekend service, you would notice our messages are directed to invite our students in.

A typical small group night for us begins with 25 minutes of hangout time. This allows students to catch up with friends/their small groups, and leaders to catch up and hangout with the students in their group. During this time, kids can get snacks, go outside to play games, play basketball, throw the football, etc. At the 25-minute mark a five-minute countdown comes on. After the five minutes we have a welcome, announcements, and sometimes we do a group ice breaker or game. If we don’t have a game our small group leaders will have one prepared. Before small groups break off, we intro what the sermon was about just in case we have new students or students that missed morning services.

Throughout the year, we have different ways we connect that tie into our small group community. Some of our larger gatherings we call, “Connect Events” or “Small Group Wars” with the purpose of connecting small groups through fun activities. This allows for our students to continue to live an inviting life and invite friends out to this. We see these gatherings as onramps for new students to get connected into the church and our small groups.

SN: Do you see lasting friendships developing cross-culturally with your students? Do they struggle to bring these church relationships into their everyday lives, or do you see success in this area?

JS: We teach that all of life is worship at TC, that we do not bi-furcate who we are (Romans 12:1-2). This means our relationships do not begin and end at TC.

We see a lot of our students having authentic cross-cultural relationships, whether that be friendships or dating relationships. It is so beautiful to witness! We believe in teaching cross-cultural competency; to empathize and to get into each other’s shoes. This allows for a person to feel each other’s pain as well as celebrate differences. As we encourage our students to connect and hangout, this further develops cross-cultural friendships and relationships. Again, our leaders and parents should be the first to model what this looks like.

It is a joy to see students connect in multi-ethnic community at TC and then live it outside the walls of the church. Sometimes it is very easy and comforting to do life with people who look like you, dress like you, share the same values as you. But because of the Gospel, which draws all people together, we are compelled to love each other as a brother and sister in Christ. We are challenged to get outside of our comfortable bubbles. One day I look forward to marrying some of our students from different ethnic backgrounds!

SN: A lot of our readers are youth pastors and parents who are seeking to cultivate cross-cultural relationships in their youth ministries and in their students’ lives. What advice, encouragement, challenge do you have for them?

JS: This is a great question. I would first start with looking to Scripture. All throughout the Bible, God’s heartbeat for His people is to love each other as the family and people of God. When Jesus was questioned in Matthew 22 on the Greatest Commandment, His response was: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe this is the premise for cross-cultural relationships: I see you as an image bearer of God, therefore I am going to treat you and embrace you as my brother and sister in Christ.

Proximity breeds love and the closer I am to you relationally the more I appreciate the differences that we have. We are all made unique with different personalities, talents, and abilities and we believe because of this we are all better together. So if we can help students see this in Scripture first and second by us as adults, leaders, and believers, there is no limit to the diverse/cross-cultural relationships that we should see in our local churches and student ministries.

In order to see a multiethnic ministry happen, you first have to live a multiethnic life. If you live in a community that is diverse and made up of different ethnic groups then the love of neighbor should compel us to have cross-cultural relationships.

Here are a few tips to begin cross-cultural relationships:

1) Pray for cross-cultural relationships.
2) Study Scripture to see God’s heartbeat for one another.
3) Develop a theological framework that you will stand on for the rest of your life.
4) Don’t see different ethnic groups as other, but as brother and sister.
5) Hand your fear over to God and ask the question as to why you even have a fear.
6) Invite someone of a different ethnic background you know not just to coffee, but over to your house for dinner so your students can see you living this out.
7) Embrace each other’s differences and find ways to celebrate them.
8) Be sure that your leadership team is diverse in gender, age, and ethnically.
9) Allow your diverse leadership team’s voices and stories to be heard.
10) Discuss and pray for the challenges that minorities face in America. Share from Scripture the challenges that Jews and Gentiles faced as they were building the church/

SN: I love hearing about God’s heart for multi-ethnic churches (I grew up in one and miss it a ton). Give us an example of how you guys make that happen.

JS: My wife and I have been a part of TC for almost two years now. TC recently celebrated eight years, and what is really cool is that a core group of our students have been around since the beginning. This means that these students have grown up seeing Scripture as multi-ethnic. They have developed a theological framework for God’s church that leads to practically living a multi-ethnic life. Multi-ethnicity is part of their DNA. Now, the students who are newer to TC are engrafted into the heartbeat of who we are. The newer students are able to see the core students who have been at TC from the start, and learn and grow from them.

As you know, Generation Z is growing up as the most diverse generation. Charlotte area is very diverse as well as where TC is located. Hopefully, churches reflect their community and surrounding communities. There are areas where we need to continue to be intentional in all we do, and there are some challenges that we face. We are still learning and growing. But because of the vision and intentionality for a lot of our students, leaders, and families of different ethnicities, love has drawn each other to do life with one another. So, I’ll sum up with this: there is no strategy other than love and to continue to preach God’s heartbeat for His multi-ethnic bride.

SN: What are some of the hardest things about multi-ethnic youth ministry?

JS: Again, another great question, but I would like to rephrase it. So often when we focus on multiethnic ministry being hard, we place the work in our own hands. But I believe if we can keep the perspective that Jesus cares more deeply about His church than we do, then living out God’s vision for his church comes with less pressure.

I’m not saying that multiethnic ministry is not hard work. What I am saying is that it’s going to take each and every one of us submitting our pride and our preferences and picking up our cross, allowing God to continue to show us the way.

In our multiethnic student ministry, we have to be consistent and intentional in our language, in our music style, how we post on social media, who is displayed on our websites and in the content of our worship guides. We have to continue to display all nations and tribes in all that we do. We have to continue to model for our students that this is what God calls us to. We have to continue to challenge our students in the language they use toward one another and how they respond to each other.

Being apart of a multiethnic student ministry is a joy. It’s born from the heart of God and the work Jesus did on the cross. It is a reminder of heaven here on earth. May our local church bodies reflect God’s heartbeat and may our student ministries do the same!

“After this, I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:9a

Sarah lives in Macon, Georgia where she is a high school Bible teacher at First Presbyterian Day School. She graduated from Columbia International University with a BA in Bible and Youth Ministry and an MA in Bible Teaching.

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