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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Video

1st Great Awakening

I’m probably breaking every blog rule out there by posting a video that’s fifty-two minutes long. But if you love church history and God-centered revival, you won’t mind taking the time. It’s Tom Nelson, pastor of Denton Bible Church in Texas, giving an overview of the 1st Great Awakening. My Dad ran across this on Youtube and we showed it at our church.

Enjoy it. Get ready to be refreshed and challenged.

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Spurgeon on the Church and the Poor

One of my favorite Spurgeon quotes:

Spurgeon“A church…which does not exist to do good in the slums, and dens, and kennels of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existing. A church that does not exist to reclaim heathenism, to fight with evil, to destroy error, to put down falsehood, a church that does not exist to take the side of the poor, to denounce injustice and to hold up righteousness, is a church that has no right to be. . .

Church of God, your mission is not to the respectable few who will gather about your ministers to listen respectfully to their words! Your mission is not to the elite and the eclectic, the intelligent who will criticize your words and pass judgment upon every syllable of your teaching! Your mission is not to those who treat you kindly, generously, affectionately!

Not to these, I mean, alone, though certainly to these as among the rest. But your great errand is to the harlot, to the thief, to the swearer and the drunkard, to the most depraved and debauched! If no one else cares for these, the Church always must, and if there are any who are first in her prayers it should be these who, alas, are generally last in our thoughts. The ignorant we ought diligently to consider. It is not enough for the preacher that he preaches so that those instructed from their youth up can understand him. He must think of those to whom the most common phrases of theological truth are as meaningless as the jargon of an unknown tongue. He must preach so as to reach the meanest comprehension, and if the ignorant many come not to hear him, he must use such means as best he may to induce them,no, compel them to hear the Good News.”

C.H. Spurgeon (from his sermon “Christ’s Words from the Cross”)

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Thankful For God’s Amazing Patience

Perfect_Harmony_by_AavisLongsuffering, forbearing patience is to be the Christian’s reflection of the character of God.  It is part of God’s character to be slow to anger and quick to be merciful. Part of the incomprehensibility of God in terms of my own relationship with Him is this: I cannot fathom how a holy God has been able to put up with me marring His creation to the degree I have for three score and five years. For me to live another day requires a continuation of God’s gracious patience with my sin… It becomes even more difficult to fathom when we see a sinless Being being more patient with sinful beings that sinful beings are with each other.

~R.C. Sproul

Be patient with others today because God has been patient with you.

Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry (Part 4)

This is the last of a four part series, here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

4. Urban ministry overspecializes biblical ministry to the poor.

outsourcingHere 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.

Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry (Part 3)

This is the third post in a four part series, click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.

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 know that my church was racially diverse and in a rough neighborhood.

special forces guyWithout 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 that 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 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 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 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 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 everyday, 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.

Click here to read the last part in this series: Reason #4: Urban Ministry Overspecializes Ministry to the Poor

 

 

Why I’m Done With Urban Ministry (Part 2)

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.

chinks2Whenever 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.

hudson taylorWe 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.

 

Click here for Reason #3: My Identity Doesn’t Come From Urban Ministry

Why I’m Done with Urban Ministry (Part 1)

Arch2O-Urban-Planning-Museum-Architects-Collective-19

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 quinceaneras. 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.

    gentrification_ballersAmerica 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’s 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 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 have 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.

Read the next post in this series: Part 2: Urban Ministry Is A Term for People Outside My Ministry

Why Costly Mercy?

Why costly mercy? That’s a good question.

Everyone needs mercy. We love the idea. Mercy is when we don’t get something we rightly deserve. So we ask a teacher for a second chance on a test, a police officer for leniency on a ticket and a friend not to hold what we said against us. Even when we realize that we don’t deserve it and that the other person isn’t required to show it; there’s something in all our hearts that holds out hope for mercy.

My life has been radically changed by the realization that the person I really need mercy from is God. I’ve spent a lot of my life ignoring Him. There’s been so many days that I’ve pretended like He doesn’t even exist. And my wrong heart attitudes, my prideful thinking, my unkind words and my wrong choices are actually done against God. He’s told me not to do those things because they are the opposite of His character and an offense to His nature. But I do them anyway. I’m a rebel without an excuse. I’m a sinner who is hoping for mercy.

In everyone’s concept of God there’s some vague notion of mercy. Maybe He doesn’t care, doesn’t notice or just hasn’t gotten around to it–but we all kind of figure that God understands that we’re not perfect. But it’s only in Christianity, only in the Bible, that we are told that mercy is not free (Isaiah 53:5-6;Titus 3:5) . God can’t just wink at sin and pretend it’s not there. Just like we often say when someone else sins against us and hurts us deeply: ”Someone has to pay.” And so Someone did pay–Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21). In order for God to show mercy for my sin Jesus had to die. God couldn’t just look the other way when He saw my sin. But He could look at Jesus dying on the cross. Mercy isn’t cheap. This kind of expensive mercy turns your world upside down.

God’s mercy gives us the ability to show people mercy (Luke 6:36, Romans 12). Knowing mercy means we show mercy. The people we hang out with, the way we serve in our church, our concern for our next door neighbor–mercy changes everything. Costly mercy leads us towards hard places, “lost” causes and broken people (Luke 10:36; James 2:15-16). We want to show and tell God’s mercy to the hurting.

That’s what this blog is about: mercy taking root in the most unlikely, undeserved places–like my sinful heart, low-income neighborhoods and first-world countries.

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