Q&A with Irene Cho

Q&A with Irene Cho


Irene serves as the program manager for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). She holds a Master of Divinity from Talbot Theological Seminary and a BA in Christian education from Biola University, and is a PhD student in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies.

At FYI, Irene is the point person for Urban Youth Ministry training and resources. Having served over 25 years in youth ministry, her passion is for the misfits of the world and to bring the gospel message to those who seem to fall through the cracks. In her minimal spare time, Irene enjoys a great book, movie or television show, hanging out with friends, former students and her new husband and, of course, getting some sleep.

Q: The research turned up lots of evidence that urban teens, compared to suburban and rural young people, often experience a wider spectrum of diversity on a daily basis—cultural, sexual, moral, religious and so on. They tend to know more people who are different from them in some significant way. What unique challenges and opportunities do you think this poses for discipleship? 01

One unique challenge urban teens face is how intersectional every part of their life is. For them, diversity is not just about race; it’s a complex intersection of values, language, culture, family structures, interpersonal dynamics, customs, finances and education. Our urban students’ lives are the focal point where all these different highways converge in a massive interchange with no traffic lights or rules. As you can imagine, it gets messy fast. Conflict is inevitable, which makes conversations, relationships and discipleship difficult. However, this intersectionality also creates one of the greatest opportunities for discipleship. This freeway interchange forces diverse cultures and values to come together in once place. The key is to slow down and take a good long look at the different ideas and people swirling around you. By slowing down, engaging in intentional dialogue and doing the hard work of listening to understand the people around you, the intersections can be transformed from perilous to disciple-making.

Empathy is really the key. And you can’t practice empathy if you’re trapped in your own car going 90 mph with only your own destination in mind. The key is to slow down, get out, ask questions, be a passenger and deeply understand what each person in your ministry values, contributes and needs. A second unique challenge is the phenomenon of code-switching. Code-switching is shifting your language or behavior in order to fit a certain social situation—and urban students become masters at it to survive. For example, a second-gen Korean teenager will speak to their parents in English, but with a Korean accent. They will use mannerisms and gestures common to their ethnic culture. Then they’ll turn around and speak in English with zero accent to their American friends, and hold their body completely differently. This is code-switching. Research indicates that code-switching can have negative effects on young people, in particular with identity development. Many urban teens experience a sense of either not belonging or having dual identities. They’re one type of person with one set of friends, and a different person with another set of friends.

On the flip side, this challenge also presents a unique opportunity for discipleship. Jesus himself was constantly code-switching when interacting with diverse people from the devout religious leaders to the disciples, from the bleeding woman to Gentiles. Jesus himself had many intersections in his life, and showed us what discipleship with the other looks like in a complicated and challenging environment. One thing Jesus modeled in this complex context was the concept of the “close inner circle.” He spoke to the masses, but had a small circle of disciples that he confided in and shared with. The church has a discipleship opportunity to be this space for urban teens who need an inner circle to process their multiple worlds, a “home base” where they can breathe a sigh of relief in the midst of daily code-switching, that helps them find identity and belonging in a perpetually unstable environment.

Q: When it comes to their priorities for the future, a majority of churchgoing teens, along with their generational cohort, is most interested in educational achievement and financial independence. Only one in five expresses a desire to “become more mature spiritually” by age 30. One in four says they want to get married by then; just one in six says they want to have children. This is pretty much the case for all teens, regardless of faith background or practice. What, if anything, can parents, churches and youth leaders do to help Christian teens reprioritize? 02

We have been exploring this specific question at the Fuller Youth Institute through both our Sticky Faith and Growing Young research. What gives us hope is that a lot of young people do prioritize their faith, the church and, most importantly, the gospel of Jesus. Yet, there is sometimes a disconnect between the faith and gospel teens are prioritizing, and the faith and gospel their church is prioritizing.

Our research shows that churches sometimes, whether intentionally or not, present a predominantly legalistic gospel that young people translate into a checklist of do’s and don’ts. This is what Dallas Willard called the “gospel of sin management.” This checklist leads many young people to experience a burdened life of guilt, shame and failure, instead of a thriving relationship with Jesus that transforms their life and bears fruit.

It’s because of this many young people depart from the church in search of communities that have a more holistic understanding of the gospel. How do we change that? FYI’s research reveals that providing young people with safe spaces to ask difficult questions, express doubts, learn how to integrate with their world and engage with internal struggle is absolutely crucial to cultivating faith. Doubt is not what kills faith; silence is. When we don’t allow young people to explore challenging ideas and questions, we inadvertently preach a small Jesus rather than the Lord and Savior of the world. Instead of silencing young people, it’s imperative that leaders and parents help young people develop critical thoughts about faith and life. Sadly, many young people in our research shared that church was the last place they felt safe as they wrestled with their identity, future and life.

We need to shift our teaching methodsfrom rote memorization and regurgitation toexperiential dialogue and growth. How canwe do this? One of the greatest gifts my mothergave me was the skill of asking good questions.She asked me insightful, introspective questions, which in turn taught me how to ask better questions of myself, my faith andrelationship with Jesus, and how that all intertwineswith the world. And most importantly, she did not always provide the answers. Rather, she utilized the method Jesus uses throughout the Gospels. It’s amazing that Jesus never answers closed-ended questions with closed-ended answers. Instead, he always elevates conversations with open-ended questions.* He helps people find their own answers by asking questions, allowing people to process their faith journey and arrive at answers, rather than forcing answers. This is an extremely important method we need to utilize in our everyday conversations with young people. Our culture is too focused on providing answers. Asking deep, introspective questions ca initially feel unsafe for leaders and parents and the journey may take longer; it’s fraugh with uncertainty and tension. But while i takes longer, it will last longer. It will be deeper And it’s what young people want. Providin closed-ended answers is more like a quic diet: speedy initial results with little long-ter change. Instead, we ought to go the difficul route of a lifestyle change: having faith and trust that the Holy Spirit is working throug the questions young people are asking, engagin with them and allowing them the space t wrestle and realize.

Questions and processing is what will help young people integrate their faith with life, and ultimately make faith a priority now and in the future.

*From “Love Is an Orientation,” Andrew Martin

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