Urban Ministry is messy. It involves loving all people. Some come into our stream of consciousness with messy and broken lives. Because of the struggles their lives have gone through that makes our ministry with them will look messy. Our need to include others makes our partnerships with community leaders and congregations outside the comfort zone of our tribe look messy. But our message is unchanged. Our purpose is clear. We preach Christ and Him Crucified! – Keith Haney
I need to begin this discovery process to figure out how we witness to those in our cities. I want you to know my roots. Honest reflection is good for the soul and transparency. I did not grow up in the bright lights of the city. I grew up in a medium size southern city. We had only one tall building in my town and no downtown area. When I graduated from the seminary, I had no desire to do urban ministry. My intern year in Detroit was more than enough of the big city. To be clear, it is not that I was afraid of urban ministry. I know some who are just terrified of being in the city. There are reasons to be fearful or at the very least cautious. Urban pastor’s and congregation on a daily basis face real life and death issues right outside your door. If were to ask those who do ministry in the city they could share stories of real human hurt and pain.
That one story that remains frozen in my memory bank took place over ten years ago. In one parish I served, about twenty minutes after our elementary school’s spring musical there was a drive-by shooting on the steps of our church. I came back the next day and saw the bullet holes. Left in the aftermath was a twenty-four-year-old man whose life was snuffed out and the funeral was at our church. A funeral attended by his fellow gang members. His life shortened and his toddler daughter and unwed mother left with an uncertain future. He had big plans to move to Atlanta and start fresh. The city streets have a way of changing dreams in an instant. Two minutes changed the course of their history in the blink of an eye. I don’t write this post to come off as some know-it-all expert in urban ministry because I am not. It was thirteen years of mistakes and a lot of on the job training. You can check my head for the bumps of experience. If you asked me about how to do ministry in the Deep South that would be an area I could talk about with some level of confidence. Or if you wanted to talk about doing ministry with college students, that was where my passion was, but that door never opened. God placed me in the city centers of Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and now near Chicago and God said: “Go!” My answer was, “Who me and are You sure?”
So, this is the beginning of a deeper discussion. There are my impression of the challenges and the opportunities the church has to make a positive impact on the city. As Reformed Pastor Tim Keller points out, “It is imperative that the Church understands how to reach out to the expanding cities of the 21st century.” We have to figure this out because studies show that half of the population of the world lives in cities of one million or more. If we don’t reach and disciple this community, our churches will continue to decline, and our pastoral ranks will be diminished.
The needs are great, the resources limited but we are called to help.
I am not a big fan of the writings of James the brother of Jesus. He is a little too blunt at times for my taste. For example, the way he talks about faith in chapter 2. Just read this.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; (ESV) James 2:14–22
People often ask me as a former urban pastor isn’t ministry in the burbs the same as in the city? Don’t all people have “stuff” to deal with in their lives? Isn’t there brokenness all over? Don’t all people need the same, Jesus? The answer to all those questions is a big “YES!” And here it comes, “But” poverty is a major problem in most cities. You cannot do effective urban ministry outreach without addressing the felt needs of the people struggling our communities. Our connecting point with people are the services or ministries our congregations provides to the urban poor under-resourced. There is a collaborative relationship between outreach to the poor and needy and an urban church. As James points out in the verse above it is hard to connect someone to a church who is struggling with the daily concern of having their necessities met. Just saying, Jesus, loves you does not address their needs. Faith is active. The probing theological question asked by James gets right to the heart of the question urban ministry must seek to answer. And this is not only an urban ministry question it is a question the church doing ministry among all people must struggle with as well. If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? James 2:15-16. This post is the starting point of this conversation. It is too big and too important not to give it several weeks to review, discuss, and dream of ways we can make a difference in the lives of those living in our urban backyards. I pray it will generate discussion and maybe together we can explore solutions and brainstorm ministry partnerships to reach those struggling in our cities.
Other posts in this series.