Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry–One Year Later

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It’s been a year since I finished my blog series, “Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry.” It was the first entry I wrote, and it was the main reason I started the blog in the first place. I wrote this series mainly to get it out of my system. It was bugging me so much, and I only expected a few my friends to read it. I always tell the teens in my youth group that anything you put up on the Internet can be read by anyone. Most of the time that’s a negative thing. This time it wasn’t. More people ended up reading it than I ever imagined.

That happened thanks mainly to Dr. Anthony Bradley, a widely published author and professor at King’s College. He wrote a piece that was originally published on the think tank Action Institute’s website and then republished several other places. His article “The End of Urban Ministry” summarized my main points and fleshed out some implications that I hadn’t thought about. Thabiti Anyabwile, now a church planter out of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C and speaker at Together for the Gospel, plugged my article on his Twitter account. I’m one of pastors at a little church in a low-income neighborhood and have never crossed paths with either of those guys before. I can’t get out to a lot of conferences, but if I did, it would be a privilege just to sit in the back row and listen to those men teach. So I don’t have to tell you that I was blown away.

Here are some random reflections after writing “Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry” twelve months ago:

  • I’m definitely not a blogger. Having a small church, small children, and sporadic bouts of self-discipline doesn’t lend itself to the craft of blogging. There are times when I just have no time to write. There are a lot more times when I just feel like I have nothing to add to the conversation. Thankfully, social media drives most of the content these days so regular posting isn’t quite as important (at least that’s what I tell myself). I do enjoy writing, though, so I’ll keep paying the eleven bucks a year to keep my domain name. I do it for those few times when I actually have a chance to write and have something important to say.
  • One of the biggest, unexpected blessings that I’ve gotten out of this series has been the number of pastors who have contacted me to thank me for what I wrote. Some of them were pastors I knew, but many were pastors whom I’ve never met. They contacted me to let me know that the article seemed to take a weight off of them. The burden of the “special forces” mentality weighs on pastors more than we realize. Some of the pastors were from rural contexts, and they appreciated the idea that ministry is the same everywhere. They’re often given the impression that their place of service is second class because it isn’t “urban.”
  • With people reading my blog and talking about my ideas, I was surprised how much my sinful heart fell in love with unique visits, Facebook shares, and retweets. I knew in my head that this was just one series that happened to strike a chord, but my heart wanted to be more stuck on itself. This made me thankful for my church and my community for keeping me grounded in what matters most. Most people in my church don’t have a Twitter account or read blogs of any kind. Only a handful of them even read what I wrote. The teens in my youth group don’t even know I have a blog. The most important thing, though, is that most people in my neighborhood have never even heard of the gospel. Twitter and Facebook are fine, but let’s not forget that there are a lot of people out there who can’t afford Internet access and who don’t have the reading skills to follow a blog. Because Jesus loves them too, our churches should be strategizing about how to reach them.
  • Why was being “Done with Urban Ministry” so popular? I’m not totally sure, but I think part of the reason is that we’re moving back towards biblical terminology. Poverty is a biblical category while rural/suburban/urban just are not. Yes, God told the Babylonian exiles to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) and encouraged Paul that He had “many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). But are we really going to say that those verses are only for those of us who are ministering inside city limits? Sticking with the biblical distinctions and the principles of dealing with poverty will serve the church better. Adding the “urban” or “city” label to our ministry makes it look like we’re advertising to the millennials who love gentrification. Instead, we need to be reaching out to the people who have lived in the city for decades. Plus, if the Bible says that helping the poor is important, then that’s important everywhere–not just in cities.

I am a little surprised that there was no backlash from Dr. Bradley’s article “The End of Urban Ministry.” I expected the people and institutions out there pushing “urban ministry” to respond (hopefully kindly and thoughtfully) and tell us all the reasons why that label mattered. They’re still using it. Gentrification, suburban/rural poverty, the decline of upward mobility, economic segregation–these are important issues that affect how we spread the gospel here in America. Urban ministry has become urban legend. The faster we realize it, the more the poor will “have the good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)

Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 4)

(This is the last in my four part series, Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here)

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4. Relying on conversions, not transfer growth.

There’s nothing wrong with transfer growth. Hopefully, though, no one plans to grow their church entirely with people from other churches. Every doctrinally-sound church wants to see people saved, but transfer growth still happens. We know that transfer growth is just moving around the same pieces of the universal Body of Christ.

Your church can only draw people from two places–from other churches or from the world. People can leave other churches to join yours, or new members can come from conversions–when people leave the world and start following Christ. We accept the reality that some people are going to come to our church from other churches, but we’re praying for conversions.

Here’s the challenge when you minister in a poor area–you’re not going to get a lot of transfer growth into your church. The whole vibe that a lot of churches give off in order to get transfer growth falls flat in poor neighborhoods. Proving that you’re just so much cooler (or your worship band is better, or your programs are better, or your doctrinal distinctives are so much better, etc., etc.) than other churches, doesn’t do anything to save people. The whole “this ain’t your grandma’s church and we are way hipper than your parent’s church” just doesn’t matter if you’re a brand new Christian taking your first baby steps as a believer.

As I mentioned in Reason #2 in this series, there is a lot of transfer in poor neighborhoods. Most of the time, though, it’s just transfer OUT, not transfer in. People get saved, God changes their lives, and they assume that part of God blessing on them is His providing a way for them to move out of the neighborhood. Some people may fall in love with the romantic notions of helping out a small church in a poor neighborhood. Before long, though, that wears off, and they move on to greener pastures. If your church is located in a low-income neighborhood, there probably aren’t a lot of Christians moving into the area that your church can draw from.

So how does a church in a poor neighborhood grow? People get saved and join the church. Easy Growing-team-garden-analogyenough, right? Except for the fact that God is the One who saves people. We can’t talk about church growth without remembering that God is the One who does the saving. If no one can come to Jesus “unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44), then God has a lot to do with how the church grows.  God sovereignly chooses who to save. I’m not going to rehash the doctrine of election here. That’s not the point of this article. I’m just saying that if I want the church to grow, and if growth is people being saved, then doesn’t church growth ultimately depend on God? Of course, God’s sovereignty in salvation doesn’t mean we forget our God-given responsibility. The church needs to keep sharing the gospel, loving people, exalting Christ, and above all praying. But when God starts saving people, he’s going to save poor people, too. The first and second Great Awakenings in our country are proof of that. When the Holy Spirit begins to move in a special way, He saves people from every economic class.

Believing that the doctrine of election has something to do with church growth keeps the church going in a poor neighborhood. It brings peace, faithfulness, and courage even when you can’t see results. Transfer growth is fine, but we can’t depend on it in poor places. We must be diligently praying, passionately spreading the gospel, and then waiting for God to do the work that only He can do.

Conclusion:

More of our resources in America should be focused on reaching places that aren’t hip, but where people need help. Denominations and church-planting organizations should have plans, training, and structures in place to start churches in poor rural, suburban, and inner-city communities. When Christians are looking for a new place to live, they should consider the impact they can have for the kingdom of God in a poor neighborhood rather than just looking for comfort and convenience. One of the best ways to help the poor is to live next door to them.  We need to get used to doing cross-cultural ministry in our own backyards. We need to plan and work to stay in these places long term. We need to recognize that there are great people who aren’t great readers but who still need to get introduced to a great God. We need to be patient, pray, and wait for God to save people. We don’t have to rope off poor communities in America and assume that the church can’t grow there.

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Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 3)

(This part 3 in this series, Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

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3. Not recognizing and adapting to the education gap.

Did you know that only 1 out of every 12 seventeen-year-olds can read the science section of the newspaper? But wait, according to this study, it gets worse. That number was for white seventeen-year-olds. It plummets. Only 1 out of every 50 Latino seventeen-year-olds can read that science section, and only 1 out of every 100 African-American seventeen-year-olds can read it.

The next time you pick up a newspaper, (here’s the link to the science section of the Philly papers) flip over to the science section and think about how few people can read what you can read.

Then ask yourself this question, “Compared to this article, are the sermons, literature and songs at my church easier or harder to understand?” I don’t think we’ll like the answer.

A recent survey of the top 40 books assigned to 9-12th graders showed that most high-schoolers are AA039550reading at a 5th grade reading level. For a point of reference, the English Standard Version of the Bible is written on a 10th grade reading level. Part of the reason that we’re not reaching people is that we’re often speaking a language that they can’t understand.

Tragically, a poor education is a characteristic of poverty culture. Three out of four people on welfare can’t read. It should shock you that a first grader in poverty has a vocabulary that is 50% smaller than a child in a higher-income family. Schools in poor neighborhoods have a higher percentage of first-year teachers that are not qualified.

Do you think that the average American’s reading level goes up or down after high school? In a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, one out of every five Americans said that they hadn’t read a single book in the last year. That number was even higher for people who didn’t graduate from high school and for people whose household income was less than thirty thousand a year.

In addition to a poor education, another challenge of communicating Biblical truth is that most people have very little general knowledge of the Bible. A lot of people don’t get passing references to key Bible stories. They’ve just never heard the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, or Moses in the bulrushes. And sometimes we completely forget that a lot of the vocabulary in Christian theology is totally foreign to many people. Key words and ideas like love, faith, and hope are now used in everyday language in ways that are exactly the opposite of the biblical definitions. In today’s vocabulary, love is a subjective feeling, faith is a leap in the dark, and hope is wishful thinking. When we say “sin,” we have a good, biblical definition in mind, but people just hear “general bad stuff that everyone does.” Too often we assume that other people have only slightly-less biblical knowledge than we do. Instead, we need to realize that we are actually introducing words, stories, and ideas to them for the very first time.

Churches are assuming that people know how to read better and that they know more about the Bible than they actually do. This mistake is magnified in poor neighborhoods where most don’t have the luxury of a decent education or any type of religious background. Our songs, sermons, and discipleship materials are written by (and maybe for?) well-educated, middle class people. A lot of the songs we sing in church don’t make any sense unless you know the theological references and vocabulary.  At pastor’s conferences, they always hand out free books. It only took me a few years in ministry before I realized that many of the people who I was trying to disciple could never read those books. The preaching at your favorite conference is undoubtedly a blessing to you, but if you use the same vocabulary in your sermons, a lot of people in your congregation are going to be lost. Is it any wonder that someone with a lousy education, without much church background, may only visit your church once?

You may think that I’m overstating my case open bookhere. Surely illiteracy can’t be such a widespread problem, right? The years we’ve spent in school and the hours we spend reading each week make it hard for us to understand this education gap. Think about this: who advocates for the illiterate in America? The politicians and teacher’s unions that have created the problem certainly aren’t speaking out. And the illiterate can’t speak for themselves. They can’t organize, can’t write blogs, and can’t make their voices heard. They’ve learned to survive with the educational level they received. They’ve learned to live with the shame of a poor education. I lived in Uruguay for a summer to learn Spanish. My Spanish skills weren’t too sharp, and I learned that I could get through a lot of conversations with just smiling and nodding. People with a poor education do that, too. They’re not going to come to you after your sermon and ask you what the 16 words you used meant that they didn’t understand.

We have to be honest about the years of abuse that the government-run educational system has done to the poor. After abortion, the systemic evil of the educational system in America should be the church’s next major cause. Abortion ends a life in the womb. Lousy schools handicap a kid for life before they’re in the 5th grade. Here in Philly, the graduation rate from high school is right around 50%. That’s right, 50%. And I personally know graduates from high school that can barely read or write. A few years ago I tutored a 10th grader that didn’t know his times tables. An eighth grader recently asked me if Maine was a part of the United States. The educational system in America cripples people for life, and Christians should have more to say about it.

Poor education in America is a major problem for the church if we want to reach the poor. I’m not advocating for a theological mushy-poo, as if poor people can never understand good, sound theology. This is also not a knock on the intelligence of the poor. The poor need rich theology, just like anyone else. I’m just being critical of the job we’re doing in Christianity at clearly communicating across cultures into the lives of the poor. If you’re trying to wash puppies in a fire hydrant, the problem isn’t that dogs don’t like water or that the water doesn’t clean. The problem is you’re just not very good at cleaning puppies.

Imagine that our churches sprinkled some Mandarin Chinese words into our outreach materials, gospel presentations, worship songs, and sermons. What percentage of our words could be in that foreign language before our ministry became ineffective? How many words can we use that our audience doesn’t understand before they give up trying to understand?

To work in poor neighborhoods we need to realize that cross-cultural almost means bilingual. We need to study the language in our neighborhoods. We have to spend more time in our sermon prep simplifying our outlines, sentence structures, and vocabulary.  We have to communicate truth in the language of the people we’re reaching. In a poor neighborhood, that means we have to be aware of the effects of a poor education.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it. You must be able to communicate your faith so a child can understand.” And by the way, most people don’t know what “vernacular” means anymore.

 

(Wrapping up the series tomorrow with Reason #4: Relying on conversions, not transfer growth)

Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 2)

(This Part 2 of this series, read Part 1 here)

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2. Christians Aren’t Staying.

High turnover is the norm in poor neighborhoods. Poverty means that people already have little control movingover where they live. One missed paycheck, one lousy landlord or one family member’s mistake and you might be living somewhere else. In poverty you don’t have the luxury of picking where you live. You take whatever you can find. There’s a lot of moving in and out of  neighborhoods.

The other key institutions that affect the neighborhood don’t offer stability either. Politicians, police officers, teachers, social workers and clergy typically take short stints in poor places. They get placed there because they’re just starting out. And like any other job, they’re looking to move up to a nicer place with better pay as soon as they can.

You can see how all this constant transition deteriorates a neighborhood. Stable families with regular incomes move out as soon as they can because they don’t like the neighborhood. Police officers and teachers spend one or two years getting to know people in the neighborhood before its time for them to move on. In a poor neighborhood, a lot of the people who stay are the people who can’t leave.

old-tree_00098325This constant upheaval is a huge opportunity for the gospel. Worldly success almost always means a promotion out of a low income neighborhood. But Christians have a different definition of success. Followers of Christ go where the people are–not where the money is. Christians shouldn’t put in a couple of years in a low-income neighborhood and then move on to bigger and better things. As long as there are image-bearers with eternal souls in the neighborhood, the neighborhood still matters. Faithful pastors and church members can easily become longest tenured members of their communities. They are a conduit of common grace to the neighborhood by being a stabilizing force in the community.  Long-term presence sets them apart from everyone else who is just paying their dues and cycling through. Their continuing presence shows that their reason for being there is bigger than themselves. Longevity in a low-income area has echoes of God’s enduring, eternal, unconditional love. It proves that the church is there ultimately because of who God is, not because everything is going well.

We have to start placing a premium on longevity in poor places. God is sovereign, and sometimes Christians can’t stay, but we need to think long-term when it comes to ministering in low-income neighborhoods. Denominations, mission boards and other church-planting organizations should have a different set of expectations for churches in low-income areas. They need to structure their training and support for churches and pastors with longevity in mind. Churches in low-income neighborhoods aren’t going to be self supporting in 3-5 years.  Pastors need to think about ministry not just single years, but in decades. We have to trust that God will honor the Biblical means of preaching, discipleship, and evangelism even when we don’t see the results that we’d like to see.

We also have to recognize that faithful pastors are only able to stay if godly laypeople stay. Sometimes the role of the pastor in the life of the church is a little over-glamorized, and we forget that the pastor can’t stay unless faithful people stay to support him. Everyone sees the pastor up front preaching, but there have to be godly laypeople in the church who are committed to praying for their pastor, encouraging and supporting him, and tithing to the church. Churches in low-income neighborhoods need humble, courageous pastors, but they also need godly, faithful laypeople. Church members in low-income neighborhoods need to see what an essential role they play in the life of the church, and and then plan to stay long-term. They can encourage the pastor, model the Christian life for new believers, and get to know their neighbors for the glory of God.

If you’re thinking about ministry in a low-income community, give it shot, for say 20 or 30 years and see how it goes. The church isn’t going to make a difference in poor neighborhoods until it plans to stay and stays for God’s glory. Low-income neighborhoods take a long-term commitment.

(Tomorrow, Part 3: Not recognizing and adapting to the education gap.)

Why the Church Isn’t Growing in Poor Neighborhoods (Pt 1)

churchLike basically every night in college–it was late, but none of us felt like going to bed. We were hanging out after a work meeting, and since a lot of us were studying to go into the ministry, the topic of church planting came up. I’ll never forget what one of the popular guys on campus said, with excitement and ambition in his voice, “There are these suburbs on the West Coast that are just exploding. If you plant a church in a place like that, you are set!” Everyone nodded in approval. Apparently that’s the way to go. Although it was a long time ago, and I know it was just a bunch of college guys chatting one night, I wonder sometimes if that’s still the sentiment about church growth. Find an area with a wealthy, growing population, and plant a church there.

Churches in America don’t seem to be growing in poor neighborhoods. When money leaves a neighborhood, too often the churches aren’t far behind. Not only that, there seems to be very little interest and excitement in starting new churches in poor areas. Rural and suburban poverty are often overlooked.  As a pastor of a church in a low-income area, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about that. Maybe you have, too. We all believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just for the comfortably wealthy and the well-educated. None of us want to see Christianity pigeonholed as something that’s just for the middle class.

I’m starting a series on my blog today to list some reasons why churches aren’t growing in low-income areas. I’m no expert on trends in the church.  I’m just writing from what I can see from where I’m sitting. Maybe I’m wrong and there are a lot of churches growing in poor places. Maybe you know of many rural churches that are growing by leaps and bounds as they reach the poor in their county. Maybe you know of several suburban churches that are successfully reaching growing pockets of poverty in their area and that are incorporating the poor into the life of their body. Maybe there are a bunch of churches reaching the high crime, low-income communities in the inner city. But I don’t think so. Here are my four reasons why the church isn’t growing in poor neighborhoods:

1. Oversimplifying Poverty.complexity

In 1989, 1 out of every 6 children born in Philadelphia came from mothers who tested positive for crack cocaine. Researchers set out to prove the popular sentiment that these “crack babies” would grow up with serious problems. Everyone assumed that exposure to cocaine in the uterus would impair brain function and impede healthy growth over the life of the child. Researchers chose 224 babies between 1989 and 1992 to track into adulthood in order to study the long term effects of cocaine. Half the babies were exposed to cocaine in utero and the other half was the control group. All were from low income homes.

The conclusion from the study was surprising. The babies exposed to cocaine in the womb showed no long term effects in physical development or brain function. What did surprise the researchers was the effect of poverty on the children. “81 percent of the children had seen someone arrested; 74 percent had heard gunshots; 35 percent had seen someone get shot; and 19 percent had seen a dead body outside – and the kids were only 7 years old at the time.”  At the end of the study the lead researcher concluded, “Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.” (Quotes and information in the previous two paragraphs come from this July 22nd, 2013 article from the Inquirer)

51i1ePKouALThis study proves the point that poverty is a deeper issue than just the amount of money in a person’s bank account. Middle-class Christianity keeps missing this point: poverty isn’t just the absence of money. It’s better to look at poverty as a culture. It’s a different way of life with different values, experiences, and resources. Ruby Payne, a highly touted consultant in the education field, has a fascinating breakdown on the differences between poverty, middle class, and wealthy cultures. She says, for example, that poverty focuses on the quantity of food while middle class emphasizes the quality of food. Her chart lists the differences between poverty and middle class thinking when it comes to time, money, relationships, language etc.  (The chart is published in Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” which is a must read for anyone working with the poor.)

Churches are never going to reach low-income neighborhoods until they see poverty as a culture. We can’t oversimplify people and expect to reach them.  I know that I’m not saying anything new here. I’m pretty sure everyone would agree that there’s a cultural jump between middle-class and poor neighborhoods. But I think there are many ways that we pay lip service to the fact that ministry in poor neighborhoods is cross-cultural but, in practice, in everyday ministry, we forget.

First, if ministry in poor neighborhoods is cross-cultural, it gives us a decent road map on how to approach the neighborhood. There are plenty of great books about how to do cross-cultural ministry. We send missionaries overseas to do it all the time.

Second, understanding that you’re doing cross-cultural ministry gives us humility and patience.  It keeps us from oversimplifying people’s problems in poor neighborhoods and slapping ill-conceived, half-baked solutions onto serious issues. Cross cultural ministry places us in the posture of learners.

Third, cross-cultural ministry helps us to see the value of the image of God in people that are different from us. In other words, poverty culture has strengths that we can learn from.  The American middle class has no category for this because we’ve been trained to pity and shun the poor while inwardly nursing our resentment that they’re getting stuff for free. But if poverty is just a different culture, it means that there are some things about their world that are just different from ours, and that gives us a chance to celebrate diversity. The truth is that the poor have some cultural strengths that middle-class Christians can learn from. Look at Ruby Payne’s chart of the cultural differences between the middle class and poverty, and you’ll see what I mean. Poverty’s emphasis on relationships, enduring hardship, and generosity are opportunities for the middle class to grow. This lack of economic diversity is hurting the church in America.

Fourth, viewing poverty as cross-cultural ministry opens up the mission field to include the poor here at home.  It keeps us from the missiological schizophrenia where we applaud cross-cultural ministry done overseas and ignore cross-cultural ministry in our own back yard. It makes no sense for the church to spend thousands of dollars to send a missionary to Mexico, and then never even dream about reaching the Mexicans who live only a few minutes away in the same town. We send our teenagers on mission trips overseas to do cross-cultural ministry with the poor and can’t wait to hear the stories when they get back, but we have no stories and no concept of doing cross-cultural ministry with the poor that live right here in our country. We expect the missionaries we send overseas to make cultural adaptations, but we refuse to make any here at home.

And last, cross cultural-ministry keeps us from viewing ministry in poor neighborhoods as super-duper, extra special work that only a few people can do. If ministry in poor neighborhoods is just ministry to a different culture, then any Christian with a passion for God’s glory and a love for people can do it. The first step to de-specializing ministry to the poor is to stop over-simplifying poverty.

Tomorrow, Reason #2: Christian’s Aren’t Staying

Dealing with the Dark Clouds in Ministry

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When Hudson Taylor wrote this letter to his mother on March 13th in 1869, he wasn’t exaggerating about the thick clouds of discouragement. The past few months had been staggeringly painful: Taylor finally had to dismiss one of his missionaries. The man had been spreading lies about Taylor, refusing to follow many of the basic principles of the mission and just causing grief for years. Several other missionaries left the mission with this man. Taylor and his team, including his wife and children, had almost lost their lives in a violent attack by a mob. They were all seriously injured, lost everything they owned and barely escaped alive. The British government, looking for a chance to reassert their dominance in China, overreacted to this incident and sailed gunboats up the river to the town where this happened to force concessions. When it became clear that the British were over reaching in their demands, the press in China and in Britain blamed Taylor. It had been a hard year. But check out Hudson Taylor’s letter home in the middle of all this (emphases are all his):

Often have I asked you to remember me in prayer and when I have done so there hudson taylorhas been much need of it. That need has never been greater than at the present time. Envied by some, despised by many, hated, perhaps, by others; often blamed for things I never heard of, or had anything to do with; an innovator on what have become established rules of missionary practice; an opponent of mighty systems of heathen error and superstition; working without precedent in many respects, and with few experienced helpers; often sick in body, as well as perplexed in mind, and embarrassed by circumstances; had not the Lord been specially gracious to me, had not my mind been sustained by the conviction that the work was the Lord’s, and that He was with me in–what it is no empty figure to call– the thick of the conflict–I must have fainted and broken down. But the battle is the Lord’s. And He will conquer. We may fail, do fail continually; but He never fails. . .

My own position becomes more and more responsible, and the need of special grace to fill it greater, but I have continually to mourn that I follow at such a distance and learn so slowly to imitate my precious Master. I cannot tell you how I am buffeted sometimes by temptation; I never knew how bad a heart I had. Yet I do know that I love God and love His work, and desire to serve Him only and in all things. . .

Never were there more thick clouds about us than this moment; but never was there more encouragement than at the present time. Nay, might I not say that the very dis-couragements are themselves en-encouragements?(A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century: Refiner’s Fire, p.174-175)

Basically, to sum up Taylor:

            1. We need to pray more. (Not just talk about praying more, but spend large chunks of quality time talking to God.)

            2. Ministry is hard, really hard. (Like write-your-mom-a-letter, not-sure-you-can-keep-going hard.)

            3. I need to constantly remind myself that its always, ultimately God’s work that I’m involved in. (So its fine when my plans and dreams don’t happen.)

            4. Trials in ministry reveal my own sinful heart and weak walk with God. (That’s one reason we rejoice in trials because they’re making us more like Jesus.)

            5. The good sovereignty of God means that problems are just another sign that God is working. (Isn’t ministry pretty much always “the best of times” and “the worst of times” at the same time?)

China or the U.S., 1869 or 2014–ministry hasn’t changed that much. “We may fail, do fail continually; but He never fails.”

 

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Who Worships a Baby?

hospital equipThe adrenaline is just starting to wear off. It was a long, terrifying, thrilling night. As a first-time father, you can’t get over the fact that the precious little life just a few feet away from you is actually yours. It’s 9:00am, your wife and your newborn have drifted off to sleep for the first time. You’re trying to sleep now too but it’s taking you a while to drift off–maybe it’s the leftover excitement, maybe it’s the hospital chair that’s supposed to be a recliner or a bed but does neither of those comfortably.

There’s a knock at the door. Strange–the doctors just made their rounds and family isn’t due for hospital door3another couple hours. Probably just a nurse. But they normally just do a warning knock and then come right in. The door handle doesn’t move.

The person on the other side of the door knocks again. A little louder this time. You’re frustrated now.

You hurry over to the door so they won’t have to knock again. You open the door quickly and are immediately confronted with a large crowd of people standing in the hallway. They’re all staring at you.

You’re stunned. You’ve never seen anyone in this crowd ever before. They don’t look like you. Half of them look like landscapers–muddy boots, grass-stained pants, sweat-stained T-shirts. Even though you just opened the door, the stench that hits your nostrils tells you that they just came straight from work. The other half of the crowd is even stranger. They look like princes from Saudi Arabia. You don’t know anyone from Saudi Arabia. They’re wearing the traditional Middle Eastern garb and they’re holding large decorated bags. You notice that their servants are standing respectfully a few steps behind them.

An awkward silence has developed as you’ve been trying to understand this crowd of complete strangers that’s standing at your hospital room door. They’re smiling and seem friendly, but this is just weird.

“Um, can I help you?” you say slowly and a little nervously.

“Yes.” One of the Saudi Arabian princes towards the front of the crowd says politely. “We’re here to worship your baby.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” surely you misheard him.

“We’re here to worship your baby.”

You have the typical response to their request: you slam the door and call security.

Isn’t that how you’d react if strangers showed up to worship your baby? Sometimes I think we’ve heard the Christmas story too many times. It’s weird to worship a baby. The baby hasn’t done anything yet. It can cry, sleep, and poop–that’s it. Babies are naturally cherished and protected, but not worshiped–especially by total strangers.

No baby is worshipped for his accomplishment, only for his position. This is what made Jesus special. He would go on to accomplish much–live a perfect life, purchase sinners on the cross and defeat death with His resurrection. But just the person and position of Jesus alone demands our worship. His paternity, who His Father is, gives Him honor. And His future, who He will be, demands our reverence. This is the Baby who will be the King. This is one newborn who deserved to be worshipped.

Just like the night Jesus was born, the world is still wondering why we’re worshipping this baby. Part of the answer is revelation. The only reason Maryand Joseph let these total strangers anywhere near their child was that an angel had told them this baby was different. The shepherds and the wise men each had their heavenly announcements. Today, we have something better than angelic choirs and mysterious stars. We have the written Word of God. Every page sings with the glory of Christ and points us to Him. The other reason we worship is faith. The shepherds didn’t just hear the angels message, they obeyed it. They went looking for the One the song was about. The Wise Men didn’t just see a star, they traveled for years to see the One the star was pointing to. Even now that we have the rest of Jesus’ life, the world doesn’t see much to look at.  The ridiculousness of worshipping a baby was a foreshadow of the foolishness of the cross. While the world trusts in what they can see, faith relies on revelation. Our King was a baby and our King was killed. The world sees weakness in a manger and a cross, we see another reason to worship.

Especially this time of year, Jesus’ followers forget to be Jesus worshippers. Jam-packed schedules and mile-long to-do lists seem to rule the day. The contrasts of Christmas point us back to the center of Christmas. God became Man. A virgin is pregnant. The King laying in a feeding trough. Strangers bowing down in front of a baby. And we have more reasons than shepherds and wise men to worship Him.

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There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Neighborhood (Pt 3)

This is the last in a three part series, click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.crime scene yellow tape

3. Because mankind is sinful, every neighborhood has sin.

“As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.'” “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10-11, 23) One of the core doctrines of the Christian faith is that every human being has failed to live up to God’s standard. A first point in the doctrine of total inability is that every human being is a sinner. No one escapes because we’re all Adam’s descendants.

This truth changes our perception of neighborhoods. If every human being is a sinner, then every neighborhood has sin. It doesn’t really matter where you live, you have sinners living next door to you. (Not to mention the sin that lives in your own heart, which is really the bigger problem.) Sin is everywhere.

Does it seem like some places have more sin than others? Sure, it seems that way. But I would argue that such a perception is not based on reality for several reasons:

First, crime isn’t an accurate indication of how much God’s laws are being broken in a neighborhood. Sure, there is more crime in some neighborhoods than others. Remember, though, that crime is just when people get caught breaking civil laws. If you buy or sell drugs on a street corner, you’ll probably get arrested before long. The neighbors will be upset that there’s illegal activity on your block and want to move out. Your arrest will be documented in many places, including searchable, on-line crime maps that anyone can access. But you won’t get arrested if you’re surfing porn, gossiping in the office, raising angry children, or piling up needless debt on your credit card. Some sins may be more socially palatable, and less widely known by your neighbors. God hates them just the same.

 Second, some neighborhoods struggle with crime that is more visible than others. There actually is plenty of crime that happens in middle-class and upper-class areas. It’s just that crimes in those neighborhoods are typically not as obvious. The nature of muggings, drugs, and gangs makes it easy to see crime in some neighborhoods. The culture of other neighborhoods is that you get drunk and do your drugs behind closed doors. In one neighborhood a drunk collapses in the street for everyone to see, and in another, she waves goodbye to her kids on the school bus, waits for her husband to leave for work, and then begins her overindulgence. In one neighborhood a young man spray paints his signature on a brick wall. In another neighborhood he signs his name in ink on a contract that he has no intention of keeping. One guy runs away with a purse that wasn’t his. Another guy dishonestly snatches a promotion that wasn’t his. Drugs, alcoholism, theft and dishonesty are in every neighborhood–it’s just easier to see in some.

 Third, a neighborhood’s reputation determines how we respond to crime. This is really how you can tell the way a neighborhood is being perceived. In a “good” neighborhood crime is the exception to the rule; in a “bad” neighborhood crime reinforces the rule. Crime can happen in the “good” neighborhood, and people will say, “I can’t believe it! That kind of thing never happens in our neighborhood.” The exact same crime could happen in a “bad” neighborhood, and people say, “Of course that happened here. We live in a bad neighborhood.” This is why your local evening news is basically worthless. They’re only telling you about crime that is going on where it’s not supposed to be happening. A little while ago I saw a news story here in Philly about how several cars had been broken into in a ritzy little subdivision in south Jersey. They were interviewing very concerned neighbors and distraught victims and reminding people to lock their car doors. It was tough for me to listen to. Several cars a night get broken into and/or stolen in my neighborhood. I haven’t seen news crew out to cover one of those yet. Why? Because it doesn’t contradict the reputation of my neighborhood. Every area has a scripted narrative of how to deal with crime. You can buy into it if you want to, but our theology tells a better story.

BI_DLMoody1D.L. Moody said “If a man is stealing nuts and bolts from a railway track, [give him an education] and he will steal the whole railway track.” There are neighborhoods with people stealing purses and cars. And there are neighborhoods with people stealing pensions and companies. The point is–every neighborhood has a sin problem. If you live in an area where sin isn’t as visible, don’t let that fool you. Don’t mistake well-manicured lawns for correctly ordered spiritual priorities. If you live in a neighborhood where the sin is easy to see, praise the Lord. The sin you see on the streets is the same sinfulness that you’ll find in your own heart, and in any other neighborhood. It’s easier to pray for and deal with sin when it’s out in the open.

If everyone has their own “inner spark” and if some are doing a better job than others at fanning that spark into a warm glow, then I can see how we could believe in bad neighborhoods. The people listening to the “divine spark” would naturally cluster together in the “better” neighborhoods. The biblical doctrine of sin, though, means that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between neighborhoods.

Wrapping up this series:

Demographic data and geographic information are much better ways of talking about neighborhoods. The only way you can believe in “bad” neighborhoods is if you have bad theology. We should remove “bad” neighborhoods from our vocabulary, and more importantly, from our thinking. We would never talk about a bad country or a bad race of people–why is it okay to talk about a bad neighborhood? Our terminology ought to match our theology.

If there are no bad neighborhoods, then there are many more places where we can be good, gospel neighbors. We can help the poor from next door, not just from a distance. We don’t have to rant against issues that we read about in the newspaper because we can live in the places where murders, abortions, child abuse and human trafficking actually happen. Undefiled religion (James 1:27) doesn’t have to be an abstract concept–our widows and orphans can have first and last names. Dads don’t have to work three jobs and never see their kids to buy houses they can’t afford so they can stay in “good” neighborhoods. We can be a father to the fatherless by living where the orphans live. Churches can be planted in any neighborhood. We can go, live, love, and serve anywhere on this planet because our God is so big. No neighborhood is off-limits for the gospel.

There’s no such thing as a “bad” neighborhood. Crime, poverty and social stigma cannot trump our theology.  Christian theology tells us that every place has God, has people and has problems. “Bad” neighborhoods are the superstition of paganism.

 

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There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Neighborhood (Pt 2)

This is the second of a three part series, read Part 1 here.

fredhatt-2003-weeds-on-stairs

2. Because God is creator, every neighborhood has His image bearers.

Every neighborhood, “good” or “bad,” has something else besides the presence of God. It has people. The Sahara Desert, the top of Mount Everest, the moon–if it has no people, then it really is a lousy neighborhood. The only bad neighborhood for church planting is one with no people.

That’s because people are created in the image of God. After He had made the rest of the universe, God said, “Let us make man in our image.” (Genesis 1:26). Only after making the human race did God call His creation, “very good” (vs.31). Mankind would be a special part of creation by sharing certain characteristics with God Himself. Being made in the image of God is what made the fall a tragedy and redemption a rescue mission. It also means that people matter–all people. Every person carries the image of their Maker. Every human being has a soul that will live somewhere forever.

white_neighborhoodWe typically evaluate a neighborhood based on the presence of God’s lesser creation.  We call a neighborhood “good” that has green lawns, rippling streams and flowering trees.

rsz_sprawlingcityShouldn’t we call a place packed with image bearers “very good”? It doesn’t matter if the image bearers are poor, less educated, speak a different language, or have a different skin color. Image bearers carry the likeness of God Himself. Every place with an image bearer is a beautiful mission field. It can’t be a “bad” place.

It is the presence of image bearers that gives a neighborhood value. The amount of crime or of concrete makes no difference. It doesn’t really matter what our gut feeling is about certain neighborhoods. Our culturally-conditioned, knee-jerk reactions are wrong all the time. If the Bible says that people are image bearers, then every slum, ghetto, trailer park, and refugee camp matters.

I can see how a Darwinist could believe in bad neighborhoods. The “survival of the fittest” idea means that some humans have evolved, leaving the insignificant clumps of humanity behind. Christians know differently.  Because these are people reflect the image of our God, their neighborhoods matter.

 

Click here to read Part 3: Because mankind is sinful, every neighborhood has sin.

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There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Neighborhood (Pt 1)

“It is a bad place,” the native says in a hushed whisper. “Don’t go in there!” You can easily see the area that he’s pointing at near the edge of the village. It’s a fenced off grove of densely-packed trees. The lighting is a little different there, and some of the trees even have strange writings carved into them. “If you go in there, bad things will happen to you,” he continues with fear in his eyes. As a Christian missionary standing next to this native, you’re not scared. You know better than to believe the simple superstitions and pure coincidences that undoubtedly led to this native’s fear. The God you know is stronger than any real or imagined evil spirit. You feel bad for this native because you know–there’s no such thing as a “bad” place.

Now, change the “bad” place in a third world country to a “bad” neighborhood in our own backyard. Suddenly, our fears are legitimate. “It’s a bad neighborhood,” we say to each other. “Don’t go in there.” It’s easy to recognize that part of town, that part of the city, that side of the tracks. The lighting is a little different, the sidewalks are cracked, and sometimes the strange writing of graffiti decorates the walls. The plots on old Law and Order episodes have warned us, “If you go in there, bad things will happen to you.”

darkcityAmerica is afraid of “bad” neighborhoods. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with a reputation for poverty and crime. If you happen to live in a neighborhood like this, you have two options: Buy into the American Dream and tie your self-worth to your ability to get out of your “bad” neighborhood. The other option is to resign yourself to living in this neighborhood and blame your problems on the place where you live. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a nicer neighborhood, you comfort yourself with the status symbol of your lovely home. Your house is always more expensive than the clothes you wear or the car you drive. Its “location, location, location” let’s people know how well you’re doing.

In my experience, Christians aren’t much different. Growing up, one of our church leaders who had lived in the city his whole life, always talked about how much he hated the city and wanted to move out. My church is in a “bad” neighborhood. Through the years, most people stop coming, not because they’ve found a different church, but because they’ve found a better neighborhood. We’ve had visitors on the way to our church that turned around as soon as they saw the area it was in. A few years back, I met a couple at a conference outside the city who had grown up in my neighborhood, but now lived in the suburbs. They said that whenever their kids are misbehaving, they punish them by driving them through their old neighborhood. Apparently my neighborhood is pretty terrifying stuff.

Here’s the crazy thing about “bad” neighborhoods–they don’t  exist. Let me show you what I mean:

1. Because God is omnipresent, God is in every neighborhood.

If you grew up in Sunday School, you can probably remember learning the word “omnipresent.” It made you feel smart that you knew such a big word, a word that means God is every where. Grudem says “omnipresence” means that, “God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being…” (Systematic Theology, p. 173) There is no place without God. In Psalm 139 David glories that there is no place without God’s presence: heaven or hell, light or darkness, sea or land. “Even there shall your hand lead me and your right hand shall hold me” (v.10). Believers know that they can’t get away from the incredibly-comforting, slightly-terrifying presence of God.

We often forget that God is near, but there’s something about certain neighborhoods that makes us forget God’s presence entirely. We see a few broken windows, a little graffiti, and an abandoned house, and suddenly we believe that God is no where to be found. We see one indication of poverty, and we assume the absence of God. We are culturally conditioned to allow a sense of dread and fear to come over us when we encounter a “bad” neighborhood.

knowledge of the holyChristians ought to be different. We shouldn’t let our feelings or surroundings determine the presence of God. He is everywhere. A.W. Tozer says we experience the presence of God by “recogniz[ing] the real presence of the One whom all sound theology declares to be already there, an objective entity, existing apart from any apprehension of Him on the part of His Creatures.” (Knowledge of the Holy, p. 53) It doesn’t matter what we feel, God is just as present in a “bad” neighborhood as He is in a “good” neighborhood.

Neighborhoods aren’t God forsaken, but they are forsaken by (some of) the gods of our culture. Our society worships at the feet of the gods of safety, materialism, and achievement; “bad” neighborhoods are places where these gods have no power. Their absence proves that worldly things are not real gods because they are not omnipresent. Of course, it’s uncomfortable for people who worship these gods to go to places where their gods don’t exist. Christians are different, though. Our God isn’t made with human hands, and He can’t be confined to any one place. Our God is omnipresent. Wherever He is, we can go.

“Bad” neighborhoods turn good Christians into fearful atheists. Good, basic theology will rescue us. It gives us an Almighty God who is in every place.

 

Click here for Part 2: Because God is Creator, every neighborhood has His image bearers.

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