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)

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