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


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