By Terry MacCabe
A Facebook friend recently posted, “How can we worship with a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” It was one of those posts I wanted to comment on, but didn’t want to make waves with a friend (who, like most of my Facebook friends, I don’t know well).
To be honest, I live in a comfortable part of town and I don’t interact with Monday’s downtown homeless and troubled people. And perhaps my response shows the callousness that creeps into the hearts of those who seldom connect with those who are down and out. When I do venture downtown and see those who are struggling with addiction and other demons I always wonder, “Did they ever have a chance to live a normal life? How is it fair that I was born into a home with a mom and a dad who loved Jesus and each other, and most of these people were probably born into homes where addiction and abuse ruled the day?”
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I am grateful for the Christians who have a heart to serve and minister to these people’s needs—both their physical and spiritual needs. I’ve spent some time speaking with various church leaders who are immersed in urban ministry. Here are the key principles I’ve learned.
Urban Ministry Is Hard
Leaders of churches based in urban settings or that make intentional efforts to reach out to the urban centers will tell you that urban ministry is harder than most other types of ministry. One reason urban ministry can be difficult is that the mind-set of those who live in the urban core is different from those outside it. People move to the suburbs to “settle down” and become part of the community (buy a house, join a church or service club, coach basketball). Conversely, people often move to the urban core for the opposite reason. They want to be anonymous and escape the sense of community that living outside the city center demands.
Coupled with the desire to escape a sense of community is the simple fact that urban dwellers are often transient, causing people to be less inclined to make a genuine connection with a church. Aaron Thomas, lead minister and planter of Restore Church (located in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, one-half mile outside of Washington, D.C. and six miles from the White House) says, “People are more individualistic in urban areas, Washington, D.C. in particular. We live in the most transient city in the U.S. Most people who live here view the city as a stepping-stone to something better. Therefore, people don’t think of this as home and don’t pursue community.”
Another reason that urban ministry can be hard (and one we might not consider) is because of the greater financial strain upon churches in urban settings. Thomas says, “It’s about five times as expensive to plant a church in the city than a suburb. Everything is more expensive: groceries, gas, and housing.” Many times churches located in the suburbs will pass over the challenge of urban ministry because of the high financial cost of reaching out into the downtown core.
Finally, although we generally associate downtown living with poverty, there is also affluence in the heart of the city. Michael Fewster of New Life Christian Church in Chantilly, Virginia says,
The hardest part of doing urban ministry in the context of our community is helping people make “church” a priority. I do not simply mean attending Sunday services but actually joining in and being the church. In our community most people are gainfully employed and make fairly good incomes and quite frankly do not think they need church or more importantly, Jesus.
Vision and Commitment
Because urban ministry is generally harder than most other forms of ministry, the level of vision and commitment required for success is much greater. While discouragement, fatigue, and burnout are common Monday morning experiences for most ministers, the urban minister can go through these emotions several times a day—every day. The constant highs and lows can wear you out.
Jason Villanueva, minister of Aviator Church in North Wichita, Kansas communicates his commitment when he speaks about Aviator’s vision for ministry: “Our vision is to see our city transformed one life at a time, and we do that by honoring God and building healthy relationships at the speed of life. We’ve seen God move in our community, tearing down geographical and cultural walls by sending people to our congregation who are from different areas of the city as well as different cultural backgrounds, and that fuels my soul.”
Similarly, Damian Boyd, planter and lead minister of Vertical Church in Atlanta, Georgia, says a key to maintaining vision and commitment is recognizing that the generally accepted outward signs of accomplishment don’t always apply in the urban setting. He explains, “A minister often has to use different measures for success. Church attendance may not be a gauge to sufficiently gain understanding of the effectiveness of this kind of ministry. Knowing what success looks like in one’s own context is key to keeping your own, as well as the financial supporters’ hearts, encouraged.”
When your church is focused on skid row you’re going to be dealing with people and situations that are almost impossible. Even with Jesus as part of their lives, many people have superficial scars that hide bone-deep wounds; some of which are infected! There are people in the downtown whose only real hope is the life to come. The urban minister must have sufficient vision and commitment to enable him to get through the hard times in the hardest of ministry.
Credibility in the Community
We’ve all heard that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and that is certainly true in urban ministry. People are especially skeptical of religion in the downtown, and may have been previously hurt by those they should have been able to trust.
Jason Villanueva says, “The biggest challenge we currently face is the perception of Christian organizations as ‘outsiders.’ In this urban context, trust goes a long way. For some, it takes a lifetime to build enough trust to allow someone into your personal life. It’s the hardest thing to gain and very easy to lose.”
Villanueva explains how Aviator Church has gone about building credibility in their community.
We’ve seen success with two very distinct outreach events. In June 2012, we hosted what could be considered a traditional block party, but by changing the name to “Barrio Bash,” selecting musical artists from genres that our community connected with, and changing location to one that is highly visible, we saw a 400 percent increase in our block party attendance from one to the next. The term barrio is a term of endearment to our community, showing that they love the place in which they grew up and have childhood memories. This year we will host two Barrio Bashes with the inclusion of foods that are well known to our community, including carnitas tacos, tacos el pastor, chicharrones, and various beverages that are unique to our people.
The other event that has been highly successful for us is our clothing giveaway. We set up tables and clothing racks and give out free clothes to the entire community. We’ve seen many families blessed by clothing, but we’ve also seen as much as 10 percent of the number of people who’ve attended a giveaway actually show up on Sunday mornings to worship as first-time guests. Some of these families have come to Christ, been baptized, and are serving weekly in our volunteer areas.
The ultimate goal of any ministry is to see lives transformed by the gospel. Though ministry in the urban core presents unique challenges and obstacles, the rewards are also great. Jesus said, “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35). Today he might say, “Look at the city, look at the downtown, look at skid row.” And he might say with even greater emphasis, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” Let’s support those who tackle this difficult ministry and lift them up constantly before the Lord.
Terry MacCabe is a freelancer writer in New Brunswick, Canada.
Thriving in the City
The Urban Christian
by Raymond J. Bakke with Jim Hart
(InterVarsity Press, 1987)
Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God
by Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz
(InterVarsity Press, 2001)
The Urban Face of Mission: Ministering the Gospel in a Diverse and Changing World
by Harvie M. Conn, Manuel Ortiz, and Susan S. Baker
(P&R Publishing, 2002)
A Framework for Understanding Poverty
by Ruby K. Payne, PhD
(aha! Process, Inc., 2005)
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
by Timothy Keller
A Heart for the City: Effective Ministries to the Urban Community
by John Fuder
For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel
by Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter with Joel A. Lindsey
Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
by Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard
A Theology as Big as the City
by Raymond J. Bakke
(IVP Academic, 1997)
Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City Is the Greatest News of All
by Jon M. Dennis