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