Saturday, May 31, 2008

Urban Ministry? Expect Problems.

Urban Ministry is growing because, for Christians, the city is our future.  The city is where the body of Christ is growing most rapidly, not only in the US, but around the world.  The mere fact that the population of the world is rapidly urbanizing combined with the truth of the great commission leaves us with this inescapable conclusion.  But. . . 

Christian leaders in the city get neutralized almost as fast at they appear.  I could give you a list of a dozen or more personal friends and colleagues that have thrown in the towel, had the rug yanked out, or have regressed into apathy just in the past couple of years.  Part of the sad truth is that a hugely disproportionate number are African American -- among the most needed leaders in our urban ministries.  

In his great book Reconciliation Blues, Ed Gilbreath paints a picture of coming into a room full of CCDA leaders, all forlorn, heads down.  Palpable Discouragement.  I think for most ministers in urban America this picture resonates.  

So why is this the case?  I believe that the overall spiritual, emotional, physical and financial impact of urban ministry is simply more than "normal" people can deal with.  

One problem is that many if not most urban ministry leaders are being prepared in notoriously non-urban frameworks.  Success is defined in efficiency, relative comfort, and all-too-often distinctly partisan terms.   Theology itself, as well our sense of ortho-praxis, is done in the sanctity of the air-conditioned, well stocked, comfortable classroom.  The racial, economic, physical, social and spiritual context of the urban center constantly challenge what one has always heard before. 

About a year ago I went to a highly regarded leadership forum in which one of the most recognizable Evangelical leaders in the country (I'll call him Jack) did a workshop called  "the life cycle of a leader".   I was looking forward to it because I knew that he had been highly effective by most standards, I had really appreciated his teaching in the past, and I knew that he had faced significant trouble during his ministry (I also had a sense of skepticism about the super-leader model but was keeping this at bay).  By the time the guy was done talking, however,  he had "charted" on a white board a line that looked like a stock market growth chart during a time of nothing but affluence.  Up, up, up.  

Who could possibly live a life like that, let alone lead ministry in which everything is always up, up, up. . . on to the next level of success -- the top of which was reserved for a few super-duper leaders like Moses, Jesus, and Jack.   

Regardless of Jack's optimism about ministry leadership, this is not only a false confidence in one's personal leadership, but a patently unbiblical example to hold up for Christian ministers.  It is also a destructive standard to carry into the urban context.   It won't happen. It can't be maintained.  It is a front.  A hustle.  It's untrue.  

In the urban center you will get wounded as you enter into the suffering of others.  You will fall into pits, face persecution, deal with obstacles unknown and almost unimaginable in the affluent and "safe" places beyond communities of relegation.  The urban leader is alternatively viewed as "hero" by those who would never dare to go there, and as villain by those who don't think a responsible adult would allow their children to live there, go to school there, etc...

Of course the truth is that urban leaders are neither hero, nor villain, but simply parts of the body of Christ who are surrounded by other parts of the body of Christ.  I don't think "super-peoples" are what is needed for urban ministry either.  Rather, people who know they are weak, and therefore remain dependent on God.  As one of my closest mentors once told me:  "Expect God to work slowly but consistently . . . and expect lots of problems.  That's how God normally works."  Outside of scripture. . . . truer words were never spoken! 

All of that said, there are some specific issues that must be considered about the challenge of urban ministry and why so many leaders hit the dirt or skip town. I want to suggest a few possibilities and love it if you add your perspective:

1. The urban spiritual battle.  The urban context almost inevitably involves reconciliation between people who just don't "get" each other (racially, economically, and educationally). 

2. Change. The rate of change and information is so intense, you can't ever really get used to it - you are never all caught up!   

3.  The need:give ratio.  The amount of need in your face on a daily basis radically exceeds anyone's capacity to give to the point of "fixing". 

4. Family.  Are the kids safe? 

5. Money Irony:  It is expensive to live in poor neighborhoods.  

Monday, May 26, 2008

God Girl's Sin Boldly: A book snuck into the mix.

Zondervan is releasing a book by the religion writer at the Chicago Sun-times, Cathleen Falsani.  

Falsani is the pop-culture-eclectic Wheaton grad that some how landed a job at the tabloid mag Times  ("somehow" not because of her skills but because of her pedigree). 

First I should say that I enjoy the Sun-times.  As my father-in-law pointed out to me years ago, all cities should print at least one paper like this -- it is so much easier to read while walking down the street or standing on the el!  I have also enjoyed reading Falsani who passes the "is she really an evangelical?" test the way Bono passes the "is he really a Christian test?": hopefully but with one foot conspicuously out of bounds. 

Falsani's book made me think about a recent argument made by Tim Keller that religion advocates typically are so disconnected from disbelievers that they caricature one another in argument, find no common ground, and  therefore have meaningless conversations that are more attack than discussion.  Keller would like her I think. . .

Falsani presents a series of short chapters sharing quite personally from her life's quest to find grace in the nitty-gritty, ebbs and flows of life.  She is quite atypical for an evangelical in that she finds comfort in realizing her own failings and eagerness to discover lessons on grace from pop culture, foreign countries, an odd nun, sexist African tour guide and other places.    

The chapter reciting her quasi-obituary  for Jerry Falwell (she was honest about her embarrassment about Falwell's fundamentalist ranting and pleasure not to have to explain him anymore as a fellow "evangelical") and the section in which she explains her testimony that doesn't fit the prescribed order both had me chuckling over my wet burrito at La Cantina Grill. 

I found Falsani to be someone who approached things the way Keller would appreciate; avoiding antagonism, asking questions, looking for truth.  I also read her as someone who finds joy inhabiting my urban world -- not in the inner city sense of my community, but a Chi-town evangelical institution grad (her at Wheaton, me at MBI -- both weirdly, grudgingly respected institutions in beer-drinking  brat-eatin Chicaaago) who is is most comfortable being whatever kind of Christian is the opposite of loud-mouthed and predictable.  She rocks out to my favorite radio station, gets spiritual insight from Lin Brehmer (local old school rock dj-philosopher) and quotes U2, Martin Luther (for the title) and many others.    

My initial thought was that this is a good leave-it-by-the-pot book.  You know what I mean; the kind of book you read a few pages in a sitting, chuckle, give it a little thought and forget about it.  But once I read past the first few chapters I found the connections between her various trips (memphis, Africa, Ireland, Rome, etc...) enough to string me along for the ride.  

Reading this book will not give you a complex theological definition for grace, but it will give you some implicit encouragement to see the hand of God at work, as grace, woven into the fabric of urban pop culture life.  That is always a welcome encouragement in the city. 

Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace
Cathleen Falsani. Zondervan, $19.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-310-27947-1 

Monday, May 19, 2008

Facing Poverty

I have been watching and reading about the face of poverty in the US and hearing more about various ways to address it. In reading Sowell's book on economics I am not yet to the point where I understand what answers he might give to address poverty -- beyond his confidence in the market's ability to address things better than government.  Hopefully I will develop a more nuanced understanding as I continue reading. 

But I have gotten his point that all government policies to address social ills through funding have unintended consequences as they create incentives or disincentives.  For instance, "fixing" costs for things like rent prices or gas (on behalf of low income citizens) increases demand for the same amount of goods (since artificially lower prices don't increase production), thereby putting those intended to be helped at the same or greater disadvantage.  

Still, there at times when NOT doing something is more expensive than doing something.  If I don't fix the leak in my roof while it is small (saving money) the problem will definitely get worse.  

So I am reading the most recent campaign to end poverty (called Half in Ten) which calls for specific legislative remedy around specific topics to reduce the current number of Americans living in poverty (36 million) in half in the next decade.  The drafters of the campaign and its reports suggest that this will cost $90 billion per year in additional government expenditures, but imply that it will save a larger amount of money in the long term costs of poverty to the economy (unproductive citizens both cost $ and remove their positive production from the economy.  

So I am left very interested and yet asking questions:  What disincentives will be created through these programs?  How would you calculate the long term costs/savings from such a project?  What is the role of the church?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

H'nick Support

For anyone who is on our personal mailing list you should have gotten a letter from us via email.  If you didn't please send me a note with your current contact info.   As follow up to the "hood gets personal" thread, we are very close to closure with a new mortgage company.  Thanks to all of you who've been praying and looking to help.  Our latest letter gives the process a bit more detail and what we still have to do to get through.  Email me if you'd like a copy (or post a comment) and I'll be happy to send it your way. 

Blessings!  Joel. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Using the Word of God for advantage. . .

Corban (5) to Kaylie (2):  God says everyone in the world should share!

Mom (who overheard Corban): Corban, have you learned that lesson yet?

(Corban is silent .  .  .  )

Kaylie:  God says "No" to Corban.  

Monday, May 12, 2008

The unfolding drama of the kingdom. . .

I preached recently at Covenant Presbyterian Church here in Chicago which was our home church for about 15 years.  We still think of it as home in many ways.  It is an amazing church on the northside of Chicago in a former Polish Catholic Cathedral.  The simply do not build (protestant) churches like this anymore.  

PS.  I did in fact post that last one at 1:30 in the am.  I had just gotten back from another episode meeting our local late night beat cops.  Our building was broken into again and our flat panel TV's stolen.  If you are one who prays for us please pray that we would find what God wants us to in this.  Understanding. Perspective.  Love for one's enemy.  

Reading, reading, reading. . .

I am reading way above my head. . . again.  Fortunately my sense is that if one does this often enough and sticks to a given topic, one can learn to swim. 

Reading Anthony Bradley's blog has challenged me to take seriously the viewpoints of Thomas Sowell, a highly regarded, and to some, highly controversial African American author.  Sowell is unusual in that he is a very conservative public figure in the AA community.  

While he is viewed as a conservative republican, he is more of a self described libertarian.  Thus far I find his analysis of economics sort of a heavy duty common sense approach -- thus pretty much an accurate subtitle.  

As an example of the importance of the subject, however, is his description of how rent controls end up depleting the presence of affordable housing.   As prices are kept artificially low those with the most money still benefit most and the quality of the cheapest housing, being in such high demand, no longer compells owners to care for it.  Sowell uses specific examples from New York, San Francisco, Sweden, Russia and other places.  

As someone who is interested in seeing justice within a given community addressed, and wrestling with the place of both government and Christian ministry here, this is a tough pill to swallow, yet bears marks of common sense so strong that at this stage I can't respond with anything more than. . . ok, that makes sense.  

I am already learning a lot from Sowell but I also hope to read Sowell's critics.  I hope to be able to consider ways in which injustice, descrimination and uneven playing fields tilt the market in favor of some.  I hope to be able to better understand what it means to encourage the market to become healthy in our community.  I hope to keep my head above water as I read this!  

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Strange Fruit by Nina Simone

Thanks to Jazz Theologian and Pastor Robert Gelinas for direction to this video.   Fair warning it is tough to watch.  It is a combination of haunting lyrics, a voice that is beyond description and photos that even in our overly violence laden society are still shocking.  Yet as I referred to in a recent post, they have a direct family connection to many.  

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

City Signs: It's just different in the city.

Elmo is just a guy I really want to meet. Every time I drive by this sign (and a few others I am planning to share) I slow down and sometimes stop. This one always makes me laugh.

I'm pretty sure he isn't red with a big nose and lots of fur. . . but you never know.

I think this is part of what it means to live in the city -- trying to figure out what stuff means. This is the only Elmo I know that is surrounded by barbed wire.

And this is on South State Street where Robert Taylor housing projects have been since the early 70's (a very tough neighborhood that has now been torn down).

So who is Elmo? Why would you call him before you go? Why would you want to wait for your tombstone? It's just different here. . .