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 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. And 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 a 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, meaningful 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.