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.  


KG said...

Good collection of thoughts/feelings Joel.

I think that your point that God is looking for super people, but those who realize and admit they are weak is a key.

I often feel weak, tired, overwhelmed, desiring to move on, but "when I am weak, then I am strong". One of the great paradoxes. God best works through the broken. God wants us feeling helpless so that we stop trying to do it all and let Him work.

God is in control. I'm sure you could tell countless stories of the amazing work that God is doing in peoples lives in the hood. Those stories are so amazing because they reflect the power of God to work in less than ideal circumstances.

Be encouraged, God is at work. Slowly, but consistently.

hammerdad said...

KG, thanks for your comments. I agree that at the end of the day we must recognize that God is in control. After sleeping on my original post I decided to edit it a bit. I think I'd drifted too much into cynicism. We've got to be able to look carefully at the challenges of urban ministry with a sort of full frontal "nudity" on our part and confidence in God to clothe us with ability, resource and grace.

I think we also need to work with and for one another to face these obstacles with God-given creativity and an inter-working of the Body. We've got to teach one another how to approach things, overcome them, and move ahead. . . fellow weaklings for Christ. . .

JudyBright said...


Love your blog.

I agree wholeheartedly that the way we train ministers (and teachers in my case) is way off. We need a much more hands on, practical approach to compliment the theological training. I was very young and naive when I had my student teaching experience in an inner city high school. I was totally overwhelmed by it and promptly quit school after I completed it. I wanted to help, to minister, and still do, but was thrown into the lions den totally unprepared.

I think your other points are right on too. I struggle with what to do out here in suburbia, yet very close to the "city."

hammerdad said...

thanks Judy~

you are so right about educational preparation being similar to ministry preparation. . . the system is simply not set up to prepare one for the racial, social, physical or economic context.

I have a friend who was raised in this community, became a teacher here, and even he could not deal with remaining as a public school teacher.

He has actually started a small Christian school. 6 students the first year, 12 the second. Not sure if there will be a 3rd. He'd rather deal with the insanity of raising money, managing staff and all the other things necessary than navigate the Chicago Public School system. . . craziness! you can check out his school at

Steve said...

Hey, Joel

You could go on and on. Pastor Lyons always likes to say that everything in the city is Magnified, Multiplied and Intensified.

Our church has been cookin' for years - lots of growth, people saved, bridges built, leaders equipped... then we hit this desert that has lasted for three years or more that we can't quite seem to get out of.

I have come closer to quitting in the last three years than I ever have. And I grew up here.

Ah, but there are always the signs of life, and of God's faithfulness.

The devil doesn't want the church here, bro. Not here in the city - his stronghold... his turf.

So grace keeps me going. If "success" kept me going I'd be in trouble. At least as it is often defined.

I have seen a lot of fruit over the years, and God's faithfulness. And miracles. But at the end of the day it's really the grace of God that has to keep us going. Think of 2 Cor. 12:9 - His strength made perfect in our weakness.

I think that's a good place to be.

BradB said...

Hey Joel,

I check out your blog about once a month (3rd time now I think).
I've enjoyed browsing it. Keep telling myself to start one, but still trying to catch up/finish up my garage.

On the topic of urban challenges/problems: yesterday Shannon and I went back and forth during several conversations with thoughts and words of "can we do this?" "how much longer" but throughout, we kept having these "hope moments"

I preached a sermon a month or so ago on Eph 2:10, being God's workmanship created for good works.
It encourages me that I'm not just called to be a gardener, planting and tending to this broken place which is being reshaped and destined for Edenic (and beyond) proportions, but I am the garden (rather, we are, corporate church), I/we are the planting of God's hand. I'm not just to build the new city now/coming, but I/we are the City, the New Jerusalem, as the Bride. So what I'm doing and what I am are inseparable. I'm compeled to do the work of ministry, tending, building, because I am God's work of ministry, tending, and building. I do what I am. See you soon,

Brad B

hammerdad said...


What a great concept -- so true. It is good to know that we are not somehow just agents of change but subjects of the kingdom upon whom God is working. You are a great encouragement to me and I am glad that God has you here. Thanks for the openness of your note here. I'll be praying for you today and hope we can connect soon.