Rethinking Urban Ministry

urban ministry

[dropcap3]I[/dropcap3] am often asked why I choose to live in the city. The story is long and complicated about how I ended up in Kensington back in 1992, arriving quite literally with my backpack and nothing else. I started out sleeping on a couch in someone’s office, pretty much clueless about anything urban, except that I wanted to learn from people in the city how to be effective in ministry to young people.

My story is one of being taken in, cared for, blessed, and given opportunity. Perhaps only in a community that others had given up on would someone from the other side of the world with no Bible training, little appreciable skill, and a whole lot of arrogance be welcomed in and given a chance. The community taught me about loving people where they are at, accepting their failings, and about abundant grace.

[blockquote align=”left”]We’ve become so used to “giving to the poor” that we forget what the poor have to give us: grace, mercy, abounding love, generosity, acceptance in the midst of our failings.[/blockquote]So, twenty years later, I find myself living and raising my family in that same city. I send my kids to school, go to church, have lots of barbeques, ride my bike, and hang out with my friends in places that many from the outside seem to never want to come. I have more stuff now than when I arrived, though I am probably just as arrogant and outspoken. Most importantly, my community has never given up on me. Despite my constant sin, my failings, my ignorance, and my selfishness, my friends and neighbors seem to keep loving me where I am at.

This is part of why I think every Christian educational institution needs to be engaged in the city. Not to come and save the city. Not to send their students in to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or shelter, run a youth group, or witness on the corner (none of which are bad in themselves). No, Christian educational institutions, most of which are now based outside the urban context, need to learn what it means to be loved by the least of these. We’ve become so used to “giving to the poor” that we forget what the poor have to give to us: grace, mercy, abounding love, generosity, acceptance in the midst of our failings.

One of my former professors often says that seminaries need to “pitch their tent amongst the poor” before they can truly understand God’s heart for the cities or truly be effective at urban ministry. I have had the privilege to study under and work with great men who have dedicated much of their lives to helping students become part of the fabric of life of the city—not so students can develop some great ministry program to change the lives of the poor, but so the students can learn from God’s people in the city what God is up to. I’m not saying the city is the only place you can learn great theology, but I am saying that I believe it is the best. For too long, we who come to serve in the city have overlooked the voices of the poor when it comes to our learn­ing, because we think the poor are in desperate need of our help. What could they possibly have to teach us? We go on mission trips, send our youth into the city, give money to urban missionaries, listen to their stories about how tough it is doing ministry in the city. But we don’t often listen to the voices in those communities as they teach us about God’s faithfulness, about hope, about longsuffering, about joy in the midst of trials, about Jesus Himself entering the midst of chaos to dwell amongst the broken.

I am often saddened about how many people come into the city trying to fix things. They have a great plan; they read a great book; maybe they even came once on a mission trip. They tend to be drawn to others like them, visit ministries run by others who have come from the outside, and pay little attention to the indigenous local churches in the community. How many times I have heard people from outside the city “talk up” a new church plant started by an outsider with all of fifty people, yet fail to give any honor to the local pastor who planted a church in his living room that now has over a thousand people. It’s not that the outsider’s plant is a bad thing—planting churches is a great thing, and there is great need. The issue lies in how little respect is given to the men and women who have lived and ministered in Philadelphia all their lives, doing amazing ministry in challenging settings. These men and women don’t often write books, don’t usually raise outside support, don’t spend their time talking about all the negatives of the city. They see the people around them in much the same way they see themselves: broken people in need of a Savior.[blockquote align=”right”]We go on mission trips, send our youth into the city, give money to urban missionaries, listen to their stories about how tough it is doing ministry in the city. But we don’t often listen to the voices in those communities as they teach us about God’s faithfulness, about hope…“[/blockquote]

Even folks who are relatively unsurprised that I live in the city are shocked to find out that I not only raise my children in the city, but also send them to non-Christian urban schools. The school system in Philadelphia is undoubtably a mess, and my wife and I are among the fortunate few who have our kids in quality schools, a mix of selective public schools and charter schools. But I am still convinced that the city is the safest place to raise our children, in the same way I am convinced that it is the best context for learning theology. You see, there are things about raising kids in the city that are much safer than outside the city. In the city, sin is much more open. High-density housing, combined with a lack of air conditioning and yard space, force people to live in a more communal atmosphere. People know when I am yelling at my kids because they can hear it through the walls. You know when someone is using drugs or neglecting their children because you can see it on the street. Anger, crime, and depression are all more visible in the city. In suburban and rural contexts, we create isolated housing where we can hide our sins within its walls. This isn’t just in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense also. People in poor communities are far more likely to talk about their sins, their failings, and their brokenness than are our brothers and sisters outside the city, because it is far more difficult to hide those things here. As I talk with my suburban colleagues about ministering in their context, I am driven to prayer for the great challenge it is to minister in a suburban or rural context. Issues of drug use, infidelity, materialism, neglect of family, and idolatry are just as rampant in the suburbs, but a whole lot more difficult to deal with, because they are so well hidden away.

So why do I choose to live in the city? Because I think that a messed-up, broken sinner like me needs to be surrounded by the grace of the poor in order to live a fruitful life. I’m not saying the suburbs are all bad, but they’re just too rough a place for someone like me to have a chance of making it.

 

[info]Dr. David “Coz” Crosscombe is the Director of Cairn’s new Urban Ministry First Year Program. He can be reached by emailing dcrosscombe@cairn.edu.[/info]