Leading Kids to Authentic Growth in Matters of Race

I’m pretty certain that if my 17-year-old self of 1994 were alive in 2020, I could be in serious trouble because of racial sin in my life. When I recall views I had or some comments I made or an item that I owned, I cringe and I shudder. I cringe because of the sinfulness in my heart. I shudder at the idea of being a racist, naive kid in the 2020 world. 

Fortunately, God did something remarkable in my life. He changed me over time and he continues to change me. I’m certain in the area of racial sin, I will need God to sanctify me until the day I die.

During my senior year the Lord brought a peer named La’Jonda into my life, which started a chain of events that lead to change. She, like me, was a senior with intentions of attending college. Unlike me, a white kid from an upper class family, she was black and very poor. I had the foolish notion that the solitary reason I had so many opportunities was because I worked hard. I realized La’Jonda worked much harder than I did. She supported her mother financially by working until late at night. Meanwhile, she managed all of the same school responsibilities that I did. 

My eyes were opened to the reality that the playing field on which we played was not even, and it had a lot to do with the racist history of our hometown, Birmingham, Alabama. I hadn’t done anything wrong by having opportunities, but past generations’ wrongs had a great deal to do with La’Jonda’s disadvantages. 

People Can Change

From there a number of friendships, books, sermons, and speeches over time aided my progress. Painful, awkward mistakes have played a central part in my being different today than I was in 1995. There has not been sufficient change in my life. Just progress.  

I’m relatively confident that society’s current approach to addressing racism has little potential for authentic change. The world’s primary tools for transformation are education and shame. Certain behaviors are deemed offensive and racist, and if a person violates norms, then they are shamed. If the mistake is really bad or if it gets captured on social media, then that person gets “canceled.” That’s another way of saying people try to damage your life as much as possible to punish you for your sin. While the system I describe above has no written code, that’s the caricature that young people essentially observe in the media and some religious contexts today. 

Let me tell you what shame as the center of racial justice produces in people, particularly white people. You get individuals who try to memorize certain vocabulary, avoid certain terms, post certain hashtags, and “like” certain causes on Facebook. Generally, they do this out of good will and wanting to do the right thing. At times, these behaviors demonstrate growth. In other circumstances, they follow the rules out of fear — fear of making a mistake and of being shamed. 

Out of fear, they withdraw from actually engaging in loving relationships with people of color and from seeking actual transformation of the racial sin in their hearts. Furthermore, based on adherence to some behaviors, they often check the box and considered themselves “woke,” when, in reality, their racial sensitivity and love for black people runs about as deep as a puddle. In sum, while they may behave properly in certain social situations, no authentic change has occurred in their hearts, such that they progress toward a genuine love for non-white people and sincere conviction to pursue racial justice. 

The emphasis of behavior modification can produce the false notion in a dominant culture person that they are completely formed in terms of their racial sensitivity. Outward behavior has limits, while the sin of our heart, where prejudice and racism actually reside, run immeasurably deep. No person from any culture will ever have fully “arrived” with any matter of sin in this life, particularly racial sin. Jesus was the only person who knew perfect holiness and love for people of all races. (That’s because he was God.) Hence, we have to view racial justice at the individual level, as a life-long process of sanctification and avoid false conceptions of crossing the metaphorical finish line. Shame does not permit such an approach. 

I do not make these statements in any way to portray white people as victims in this situation. I communicate them on pragmatic grounds: shame will not effectuate the kind of change we all want and need to see in our country. 

Law, Grace, and Race

The church has to do better with young people and race. It has to do better than it has in the past, and it darn sure has to do better than the world right now. Actual transformation comes through law and grace. 

God’s law leads us to be honest about sin, both at the individual and corporate levels. We need to admit our own sins, prejudices, resentments, and failures to love people of color. We also have to tell the truth about America’s sins against black people and the miseries it has afflicted and continues to afflict upon African Americans. We need to own ways in which we have participated or been complicit in the sins at the corporate levels. 

As with any other sin, we have to encourage young people to let Jesus lead them down the rabbit hole of their hearts. As with any other sin, the more we mature in Christ the more aware we become of the depth of our racial sin. That’s the function of the law. It raises awareness of our need for heart transformation through God’s gracious Spirit. It breaks our hearts and leads us to repentance.

However, if there is not an atmosphere of grace and mercy in a church or family for these conversations, then transformation cannot happen. People will lie, deny, or freeze up. A good thing to tell young people is that God hates racism and God also forgives racial sin. Yes, God can forgive and transform the racial sin in our hearts. 

If there is no mercy in the conversation, then there is no freedom to identify, confess, and grieve sin.  If there is no acknowledgment and confession of sin, then there is no transformation. 

A part of this gracious atmosphere involves the “no duh” acknowledgement that kids are young and a work in progress. They have racial sin in their hearts, and they will blow it in this area of life. The object is to always be growing under God’s leadership. 

White people owe it to people of color, especially black brothers and sisters, to seek transformed hearts of love among our kids and ourselves. Christ aspires for more than tolerance in his people. Tolerance is demeaning. It says, “I won’t hate you.” Wow, now there’s love that sets the captives free. (Pardon the sarcasm.) 

We don’t just tolerate people of different races, which seems to be the upper arc of some American’s aspirations. We aspire to love and enjoy them. We see the beauty of their cultures as expressions of God’s majesty. We listen to their experience in the world – the good and the bad – and God shapes us in those relationships. 

This kind of love does not occur through behavior modification. It occurs through a supernatural work of God in a sinful person’s heart over a lifetime. 

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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