This is the second post in a four part series, read the first one here.
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 hair splitting 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, get’s a lot of work done, and admires your ministry. But there’s 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 time is 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 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 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 people 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.