In high school, my youth group took a missions trip to West Virginia. As a bunch of kids from inner-city Philadelphia visiting the hills of coal country, we expected to find a sleepy little town that was a cross between Mayberry and a Norman Rockwell painting. We were in for a shock. In an old beat up church van, the pastor’s wife gave us a tour of the area they were ministering to around their church. She nonchalantly pointed out the local drug house—a trailer home on cinder blocks with no front door, just like the drug houses in our neighborhood. She showed us the scene of a recent grisly murder–a jealous ex boyfriend had intentionally run a man over numerous times. In a field across from the church a man lived who everyone called “Blind Chicken.” He lived in this little shack during the summers, and then every winter committed a crime to get locked up to stay out of the cold. “Blind Chicken” startled us city kids one day as he was cutting through the church’s yard heading back to his shack. He was shirtless, disheveled, with long greasy hair. He had an ax resting on his shoulder and, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice us. We couldn’t believe it—at least in Philly the homeless people don’t have axes. Apparently our city didn’t have a corner on drugs, crime and homelessness.
Were they doing urban ministry in rural West Virginia? I was starting to wonder.
In college, urban ministry was all the rage. The coolest, funniest speakers were often from the city. The most popular guys on campus said they wanted to plant churches in the city. We devoured and discussed the books on urban ministry. My senior year, a couple of my friends organized an “Urban Survey Trip” where we visited several churches and ministries in Philadelphia and New York. After I graduated from seminary, I took an urban missions class at one of Westminster Seminary’s satellite locations.
After college and seminary, I jumped back into serving at my local church here in North Philly. I spent the first few years at an office job, working mainly with our church’s youth group with the rest of my time. The last five years, I’ve been able to be full-time as one of the pastors of the church. You could call the last eight years “urban” ministry: I’m raising my family and serving my church in the same low-income neighborhood. My youth group is almost all un-churched kids. Our car has been stolen. I’ve been the victim of a violent crime, counseled drug addicts, and preached at Quinceañeras. I’ve helped start and run a non-profit for our neighborhood that’s brought local businesses together and attracted some development to our area.
But I’m done calling this urban ministry. Here’s why:
1. Gentrification has muddied the urban ministry waters.
In the last ten to twenty years, upper middle class white people suddenly realized that it was a pain in the butt to drive an hour and half to work every day in the city. Then their children realized that buying a house and fixing it up in a low income inner city neighborhood was only slightly more expensive than living in their parent’s basement. Plus, they thought that bare brick walls and re-purposed factories looked really cool with their skinny jeans and flannel shirts. And so, gentrification began. Coffee shops, artist studios, and sky rocketing real estate prices have come to the city.
America has really fallen in love with gentrification–foodies get their restaurants, developers get their business and politicians get their tax dollars. The only people who don’t love gentrification are the poor people living in the neighborhood before gentrification starts. Landlords jack up the rent because there are higher paying customers waiting in the wings. Real estate taxes double and triple for people on fixed incomes. People in poor neighborhoods have actually started to band together and fight gentrification, to the point where an anti-gentrification advocate was recently accused of throwing a brick through the window of a coffee shop that was bringing gentrification to a neighborhood here in Philly.
This controversial trend matters because a lot of churches being planted in the city are planted in gentrified neighborhoods. You rarely hear about an exciting, booming church plant in a low income, high crime neighborhood. Upper middle class white people migrate back to the city and, lo and behold, suddenly the church has a burden for the city. Don’t get me wrong, gentrifying neighborhoods with hipsters need the gospel too. But isn’t it a little embarrassing for the evangelical church in America that we’re not burdened for a neighborhood until it gentrifies? It’s like a guy asking a girl out on a date right after she loses 75 pounds. I mean go ahead and do it bro, but you better have an explanation for why haven’t done it earlier, right? Why can’t we plant a church in a neighborhood before the politicians, developers and baristas get there? It’s great that we’re planting churches in the city, but it’s sad if we only do it once the upper middle class has displaced most of the poor.
As easy as it is to pick on hipsters, I’m not anti-gentrification. I don’t think Christians should be throwing bricks through coffee shop windows, but I also think we can plant churches in neighborhoods without coffee shops. I’m just saying that we should all get tired of the American church running after the upper middle class like a 6th grade boy who’s in love with the prettiest girl in the 8th grade. We don’t have to blindly, adoringly follow someone around who doesn’t even care that we exist. A lot of good churches moved out when white flight hit the big cities in the last twenty to forty years. Now that gentrification is bringing some of the middle class back, churches are getting started in those same neighborhoods again. One generation hates the city and sees the promised land of the American Dream in the green front lawns of the suburbs. The next generation thinks the suburbs are for phonies and old people. Sound theology and a love for people means that we put roots down that can withstand the shifting cultural winds. What would have happened if those same gospel preaching churches had stayed in those neighborhoods all along?
And yes, it cuts both ways–if my neighborhood gentrifies, then I’ll start loving and serving people with flannel shirts and horn rimmed glasses. (I don’t mind the coffee shops, but I’ll skip the skinny jeans.) And to my brothers planting churches in gentrifying neighborhoods–plan to stay and prepare your church to stay regardless of the economic and cultural winds. If a sudden economic downturn brings minorities, illegal immigrants and section 8 housing to your neighborhood, let’s not run like last time.
If urban means a population with density, diversity, and poverty–gentrified neighborhoods have only density and a very different diversity. Plus, (partially due to gentrification) poverty in the suburbs has been skyrocketing–jumping 67% from 2000 to 2011. And poverty in rural America continues to be a problem. More than ever–crime, drugs and poverty are everywhere. Someone might plant a church in the same city that I’m in, but they may be working with upper middle class young people in trendy coffee shops. The only coffee shop anywhere near my neighborhood is a Dunkin Donuts. Meanwhile, I might have a lot to learn from a brother in a rural or suburban area that is sacrificially and passionately serving the poor.
You can see what I mean about gentrification muddying up the term urban ministry.
2. Urban ministry is a term for a people outside my ministry.
Whenever I’m outside the city and tell someone I’m from Philadelphia, they will inevitably bring up our cheesesteak. I’m fine with that. Our cheesesteak is a legend that deserves all the hype it gets. But whenever people bring up cheesesteaks and call it a “Philly cheesesteak,” it gets on my nerves a little. (It gets on my nerves a lot when people call it a “Philly steak and cheese.”) I know it’s probably a little condescending, but I can’t help correcting people and telling them, “In Philly, it’s just called a cheesesteak.” You can always tell someone’s not from Philly if they have to call it a “Philly cheesesteak.”
It’s the same with “urban” ministry. For people living in the city, it’s not urban ministry, it’s just ministry. This would all be just hairsplitting if there wasn’t a whole model of “urban ministry” that does ministry in the city by bringing people in from the suburbs. It can be a tempting offer for a pastor in a low income neighborhood. It’s visible, instant success–a big group comes in, gets a lot of work done, and admires your ministry. But there are pitfalls too–the pastor has taken valuable time away from discipling his people, and the people in the church have been taught that the only real hope, the only real exciting times are when the church can get help from teenagers in the suburbs.
A few years back, a pastor contacted us from a nearby neighborhood. His church was in a neighborhood even poorer than ours, and he had been there for over ten years. He seemed to be a great guy. He had gone to a couple of sound, evangelical seminaries and was preaching the gospel. But the bulk of his ministry had been bringing in missions trips in from the suburbs. The steady stream of groups had refitted two houses next to the church with showers, kitchens and space for more large groups to come. The church building had benefited from all these groups as well, and his office wall was filled with pictures of smiling teams. But he was burnt out and discouraged. When he contacted us he had just realized that in all that time he hadn’t done very much discipleship, and he didn’t have even one biblically qualified elder. He was leaving the city and was looking for someone to give his three beautiful buildings away to.
His story is a constant reminder to me that my focus as a pastor needs to be on discipling in my church and evangelizing in my neighborhood. The primary challenge in a low-income neighborhood isn’t to get people from wealthy neighborhoods to come visit. That’s easy. The challenge is getting the gospel to flourish in my own sinful heart and in the hearts of the members of my church. If that happens, I’ll have native missionaries from the city, for the city, that stay in the city longer than five days at a time.
We can learn from Hudson Taylor here, the great missionary to China in the late 1800’s. When he first arrived in China as a missionary, he had an immediate disagreement with how most missionaries were working there. Most missionaries were staying in the coastal cities where things were easier–they could speak English, mingle with diplomats, and enjoy many of the comforts of home, courtesy of the constant trade. Taylor recognized that very few Chinese were actually hearing the gospel and being discipled this way. Many of his fellow missionaries spent a lot of their time holding services in English for the sailors and merchants from their home countries. But Taylor wanted to push further into the continent and culture of China to reach the people of China. So he started his own mission and called it “China Inland Mission.” Taylor wanted missionaries who would “become the Chinese to the Chinese that [they] might save the Chinese.” He trained them to travel inland, wear traditional Chinese clothes, and live in normal Chinese houses. He didn’t set up committees in the structure of his China Inland Mission because the time and expense of travel would take away from the work on the mission field. Taylor’s methods were criticized and controversial, but after a short time no one could question their effectiveness. Using this model of ministry, much of China heard the gospel. The church in China today that continues to thrive under communist rule can trace their roots back to Taylor’s sacrifice and vision.
The same is true today, especially in low income neighborhoods. It’s possible to live a middle class lifestyle ministering mostly to the middle class while living in a low income neighborhood. You can borrow the vibe, convenience and allure of the city without ever actually discipling anyone from the city. We need to eat, sleep and breathe our neighborhoods and the people in them. We need to put our heads down, put our shoulder into the yoke of ministry and plow the row He’s given us. We need to evangelize our neighborhood by growing genuine disciples of Jesus from the neighborhood, not by trying to get people from the suburbs to do the work. Jesus told us (Matt. 9:38) to pray that workers would go into the harvest but that doesn’t mean that the workers can’t come from the harvest.
Something’s off when a fish is always talking about how wet the water is. Wet water, Philly cheesesteaks and urban ministry make you wonder where the person is spending most of their time.
3. My identity doesn’t come from urban ministry.
For a long time, whenever I met another Christian outside the city at a conference or bumped into an old college buddy, I loved bringing up my “urban ministry horror stories.” As soon as we met, I was looking for the chance to scare the willies out of my naive, simple suburban brothers with what ministry in the city was really like. Inevitably and quickly (with the proper amount of feigned humility of course), I would steer the conversation to let them know about a street fight that broke out after youth group or the time I needed stitches in my face after three guys attacked me after church one morning. I wanted them to know that my church was racially diverse and in a rough neighborhood.
Without realizing it, in the blindness of spiritual pride, I had convinced myself that I was special forces in God’s army. Sure, I was technically on the same side as the other soldiers. But my background was more intense. My missions were harder and more important. While the other soldiers were out just doing regular soldier stuff, I was behind enemy lines with my bazooka doing more to win the war then they could ever dream of. I was Rambo, and everyone else was just regular joe soldier. I secretly relished the opportunity to make that distinction clear.
Over the last few years, God has shown me how wrong this is:
First, it’s really just plain old pride. As much as I mask it with spiritual words and motivations, that attitude just reveals that I think I’m better than everyone else.
Second, more than just an evidence of pride, it shows that I’ve started to get my identity from the kind of ministry that I have. Instead of remembering that I’m a rebellious sinner who daily needs God’s grace, I’ve started to think of myself more as a forward-thinking pastor, who daily needs everyone to know how special I am. I’ve started dressing myself in the robes of urban ministry, when what I really need is the robe of Christ’s finished ministry on the cross.
Third, there are no special forces in the New Testament–just good soldiers and bad soldiers. Paul told Timothy to be a good soldier (2 Tim 2:3). Bad soldiers get tangled up in civilian life and don’t listen to their commanders. But Paul didn’t tell Timothy to join the Green Berets in the army of Jesus–he just told him to be a good soldier. Jesus is special. We’re not. All too often, our conversations (especially as pastors) reveal the desire of our heart to make our ministries more important than Jesus Himself. Instead of fixating on Jesus’ finished work on the cross, we delight in revealing how special our ministry for Jesus is.
Fourth, Jesus has servants not heroes. It’s a strange contradiction when we talk about how biblical and special our ministries are in the same breath. We do it with urban ministry and with anything else we think makes our church special (small groups, church membership, music philosophy etc.) For instance with urban ministry, we build the case that it’s biblical. We run through the texts of Scripture to make our case for the church’s racial diversity, ministry to the poor, and loving our communities. This is all true. But it also means it’s not special. It’s just what the Bible told us to do. It can’t be clearly Biblical and super special at the same time. I think we forget sometimes that we’re servants, not heroes. Jesus told us this in Luke 17:7-10, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Proud servant is an oxymoron. I can’t have the attitude in my heart that I’m an unworthy servant of Jesus Christ and then humblebrag about my ministry every chance I get. What makes my ministry special is Who I’m serving not necessarily where I’m serving. Being just an unworthy servant takes a lot of pressure off of me, too. It means I’m going to have more joy in serving–and I’ll probably serve longer.
Fifth, realizing that I’m a plain old servant and a soldier for Jesus leads me to an instant, precious unity when I meet other servants and soldiers. Their part of the battlefield may be a little different than mine, but that’s OK because we’re using the same weapons and fighting for the same Commander. We don’t have to outdo each other with war stories because we both know what the fight is like. We don’t need to subtly make the other feel like less of soldier by showing them our ministry scars. As pastors doing urban ministry, we often complain that we feel like we’re on an island all by ourselves, but some of the reason (not all) is that we put ourselves there.
Sixth, when we get our identity as pastors from urban ministry, our war stories scare more people away from the city rather than attract them to it. Again, this is all just my personal confession time here, but there was a long time where I loved to thrill people with just how hard-core life in the city really is. I’ve loved telling people how my church’s van was stolen multiple times, the shootings that happen nearby, and the people that try to sell me drugs as I walk to church. Then we’re somehow shocked when they don’t want to come visit us. We make it sound like we live in Beirut, and then we can’t believe they won’t even consider moving to a low-income neighborhood to help out with a church plant. I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the truth about what our neighborhood is like, and there’s a time and place for sharing good stories. But we don’t have to make a beeline to the urban horror stories with every person we meet. People start to think those things happen to us every day, when really we’re giving two or three stories that we’ve accumulated over the last decade. Most days of living and ministering in the city are just like everyone else’s. Plus, scaring people with sin stories is just going to shock them, but sharing big and little victories that Jesus is winning in the city will attract them to Jesus–and maybe even to the city.
So what do you call something that you talk about too much, separates you from other Christians, and makes you feel superior? You don’t call it urban ministry you call it an idol. For me, urban ministry was an idol in my heart for many years. So maybe it’s reactionary, but you can see why I’m not crazy about the term.
4. Urban ministry overspecializes biblical ministry to the poor.
Here in America we love outsourcing. When it’s cheaper and easier to have someone else do it–well, let them do it. I’m worried that one reason some churches love urban ministry so much is that they feel like they’re outsourcing their ministry to the poor. It’s too easy to let foreign missions and urban missions become the outsourced call center of the church. “Don’t worry, we’re still involved. But we’ve found that it’s easier and cheaper to have someone else do most of it.”
I want to be clear here. I’m not saying that wealthier churches outside of the city don’t care about the poor. I think they do. It’s certainly biblical for churches to help poorer churches and to send out missionaries.
Here’s what I mean by urban ministry overspecializing ministry to the poor:
The Bible makes helping the poor a normal thing for God’s people. In the Old Testament, Israel had specific instructions to care for the widows, orphans and outsiders (Exodus 22:22–24; Proverbs 21:13; Deuteronomy 24:14–22). In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles model and teach the importance of loving the poor (James 2:15–17; 1 John 3:17–18; Matthew 25:42–45). Of course, the Bible isn’t just about helping the poor. It’s about much more than that. But when we understand God’s nature and the gospel story, it only makes sense that we would take this message everywhere, even to the hardest, neediest places. In the middle of the racial division and the theological controversy in the early church, Paul said the church “asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10) They could all agree that helping the poor was important.
Helping the needy is messy business, a lot of poor theology and poor methodology have been used to help the poor in the past. But we can’t throw in the towel. James (1:27) says that part of pure and undefiled religion before God is visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction.” Everyone should read Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller and When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. Those books are eye opening, encouraging and informative. Even if we haven’t seen it done well in the past, books like that help us get back to strong biblical foundations for ministry to the poor.
It’s going to look different in each place, but every church should be involved in helping the poor in their area. James 2 gives warnings and advice for how poor and rich should be worshiping together, so apparently that’s something God thought would be happening in His church. Every rural, suburban, and urban church has a low-income area they can do a better job reaching. Every town has the “wrong side of the tracks.” Every suburb has those apartment complexes that everyone talks about but no one goes into. We can reach these areas with the glorious gospel of Christ. Not just by serving a meal on Thanksgiving or inviting the kids to their VBS once a year, but by sacrificially and consistently being present in their neighborhood. That presence of the church brings the opportunity to share the gospel verbally and show the gospel by meeting physical needs.
Aren’t all churches that are trying to be biblical doing the same things? A church overseas, a church in a low-income neighborhood, and a church in the suburbs are all working at: teaching the Bible, encouraging fellowship, promoting worship, evangelizing the lost, making disciples–and yes, helping the poor. The more we can narrow the gap in our thinking and in our terminology between what churches are doing “over there” and what we’re doing “over here” the better.
I’m worried that “urban ministry” is just widening that gap. Pastors in the city can think they’re the only ones helping the poor. And churches outside the city can subtlety leave the work to others out on the “mission field,” even when there are poor in their own backyard.
I love my little church here in North Philly, and can’t imagine being anywhere else, but I’m done with “urban ministry.” If others still like and use the term, I won’t hold it against them or condescendingly correct them. Throwing the term aside doesn’t make me more spiritual or more biblical than anyone else. I’m just saying the Apostle Paul never seemed big on pushing his little niche-ministry. You don’t see him touting his itinerant-preaching ministry, tent-making ministry, church-planting ministry or urban ministry–even though he did all those things. His letters begin with a line that introduces himself as a servant of Jesus Christ, and then he spends chapters talking about Jesus Christ and living for Him.
Looking back on my time serving in the city makes me think–maybe all this urban ministry has been getting in the way of ministering in the city.