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