Urban Ministry: The Hard Work of Prophetic Impact
Defining “Urban Ministry”
In my time of research, I have found that “urban ministry” is a term that does not have an easily accessed, or singular definition; there is a subtle assumption that one already has examples of activities in their minds when this language is brought up in blogs or seminars. There are many possible reasons for this. For one, “urban” is a designation primarily given in conversations on cities, which themselves are full of vastly different cultures, lifestyles, and ever-colliding histories. This broadens the scope of discussion greatly, and makes it hard to assume what someone may consider as relating to urban matters. The other not-as-obvious semantic hurdle comes from the fact that “urban” is also interchangeably used as a code word for “area populated by persons of color,” and most specifically as a type of synonym for “Black” (as in Black/African-American). This once hidden reality is now such an indisputable fact that under the word “urban,” Oxford Languages actually lists “denoting popular Black culture in general” as a secondary definition (Lexico, n.d.). As we continue, I will define urban ministry as “the work of the Gospel, as applied within urban areas and communities,” and will also make reference to the specific nature of serving in POC groups, with emphasis on Black spaces. Speaking personally, I have lived between these two ideas my entire life - the general notion of the populated city atmosphere, and the distinctions of that atmosphere among its Black and minority inhabitants. Yet in my dealings with individuals and organizations from outside of my native milieu, when it came to the subject of evangelism or outreach in general, whether from the pulpit or simply in small group discussion, the consistent response to the prospect of urban ministry was that of fear - fear of the “unchurched” culture, fear of the political climate as it stood beyond the rural/suburban silos, and especially, fear of all that could result from interactions with other races or ethnicities.
In America, history shows that cities, especially coastal cities, often exist as hubs for ideas that affect the future of cultural ideologies as we know them, whether it be through the LGBTQIA+ advocacy of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) in Los Angeles, or the globally-influencing counterculture of hip hop created in New York City. The urban context is where some of the most dominant thinking rises to prominence, and where some of the most unique deterrents of gospel ministry take residence; this serves as a prime social location for the ambitious and the disenfranchised. It is the purpose of this writing to prompt us to pursue urban ministry in wisdom and diligence. If disciples of the Truth would give of themselves missionally into the places that hold such tension and promise, then we would see the fruit of Christ-empowered labor in the people of the city.
Much to our dismay, it can be argued strongly by many that Christianity in America has a disconnect with cities. Historically, we have seen perpetual economic factors which make church planting more difficult in urban areas, most notably the cumber of higher property costs. According to a 2016 Bloomberg study, the price disparity between urban and suburban homes alone put buyers at a 25% handicap in urban areas - even within the same city, such as the case with Boston, where urban homes in 2015 were worth within $400 per square foot, compared to almost $250 per square foot in suburban homes (Florida, R. 2016. para. 3.) The standard expectation of many church planters is to gain a core group of believers, and then launch a campus, hoping to own it (and other properties) in the near future, as prior generations have done. However, with real estate costs only increasing over the years, it is simply not nearly as easy to buy a church building as a base of operations in cities. There are also regional complications that affect the perception of churches in urban environments as well. The socio-political consequences of raising up a “Bible Belt'' within Southern states can be witnessed clearly when you take a look at the top ten largest congregations in America, where only one is in a Northern state - and is itself Episcopalian, a far cry from the Southern Baptist offshoots most Evangelicals tend to identify with (Polly, S., 2021). Whereas the “Christianizing” of the rural south has led to a type of normalizing to the Gospel message, where the acceptance of the story of Jesus is common and familiar, the pluralization of the urban north lends to an opposite reality, where Jesus is less known, and seen as one among many gods or faiths that one may or may not find value in.
In a 2016 blog post about dying churches, Thom S. Rainer argues the popular exodus into cities is a top determinant of church declines, given that rural congregations are typically more loyal than urban ones: “In 1790, only 5% of Americans lived in cities. By the 1960s, the percentage of Americans in cities skyrocketed to 65%. Today over 80% of Americans are city dwellers.” (Rainer, T. 2016). What was missed by Rainer’s observation is the absence of answers as to what facets other than the ambiguous concept of “loyalty” could explain the lack of ministry presence in cities. Going further into the historical conversation, we must acknowledge that some of the disconnect of churches to the urban context was wedged intentionally. This wedge came amidst competing philosophies between the institutionalized church and broader society, and includes a blight on church history which intersects with matters of race. David P. Cline addresses the prejudices of American Christians regarding city culture in his commentary on the findings of Harvey Cox’s book, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, writing that the “common portrayal of the modern industrial city” in the 1960s was that of “a soulless metropolis in which technology and modernity had replaced more traditional beliefs in modern systems. (Clide, D. P., 2016.)” He continues to posit that as the views of our nation began to change about Black Americans, bearing the fruit of legal action on their behalf, “...some fled to the suburbs…” (Clide, D. P., 2016.) The receipts of history sadly detail that due to the bitter root of racism, the absence of the church in the crucial ecosystem of urban cities came at its own hand; when influencing culture moved inward to the metropolis, professing disciples moved outward to flee progressive sway.
This deficiency of witness in the urban center has birthed a host of spiritual challenges, many of which are connected with issues directly tied to Black and Brown people. The fruits of these challenges are recurring in various urban centers. When faced with actual or perceived negligence to the plight of minorities in these places, often we find counter-evangelistic measures taken to respond to the spiritual needs of people who needed the Gospel, but could not find it in their neighborhood. The late great Malcolm X was trained in the tutelage of the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, and went on to be raised up as the voice of the NOI in New York. In his autobiography, he attests that W. D. Fard, Muhammad’s mentor, “...knew the Bible better than any of the Christian-bred Negroes. (X., M., Haley, A. 1964, p. 238.)” The NOI are themselves a Black identity cult, a deviation from orthodox Islam in whose foundations are attempts to answer the question, “why have our people suffered this way?” Ironically, both the NOI and the Hebrew Israelite movement (a cult deviation of Judaism which focuses on Black identity as indicative of ethnic claims to being “the true Israel”) find connection in their theology to a four hundred years period of oppression, dating back to the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas in 1619, backing up these claims with Deuteronomist language, particularly chapter 28 of the Torah text (Malone, V. 2018, p. 69; X., M., Haley, A. 1964, p. 238.) Consider now that these two cults alone have amassed great influence in major metropolitan settings, such as Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Georgia, and others. Looking back on his undergrad years at an HBCU in the 1990s, Dr. Eric Mason stated that the popularizing of identity cults through hip hop created a sense in which “...being Black and Christian was to many African Americans an oxymoron. (Mason, E. 2021, p. xiii.) Unfortunately, a lack of emotional context for the ongoing struggles of minorities causes zealous church planters to enter these environments all but completely unaware that there are other spiritual groups whose efforts actually create hostility toward the gospel in potential converts.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to confront the great task of urban ministry when taking even a brief dive into the historic, economic, and spiritual hindrances associated with it. But we can never forget that no matter the barriers placed before us, the promise of Jesus remains that, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are capable of witnessing to even “...the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8, NIV.)” In a 2011 address to Buenos Aires’ First Region Congress on Urban Ministry, Pope Francis wisely said, “The tensions placed before us can cause fear and feelings of pastoral impotence. Nevertheless, the certainty that God lives in the city fills us with trust, and hope in the Holy City coming down from heaven fills us with apostolic courage (Bergoglio, J. M., Ryan, P. J., Herrera, M. A., Rutt, E. B., & Rutt, A., 2021.)” Francis’ call to the revelatory imagery of Revelation 21: 2 evidences that the hope of the gospel is always sufficient to motivate our mobilization in hard places. Recognizing history’s accounting for stumbling blocks to ministry should actually encourage us to operate prophetically as faithful students of Christ and the cultures that He has sent us to. Concerning the contextual nature of preaching, Yancey Arrington teaches, “Here’s the principle of delivery: the whom determines the how (Arrington, Y. 2018.)” Urban ministers should be aware of how their words are interpreted as they invest the words of life into their community. This mission is that of redeeming damage done when the church abdicated the city, and it is done at great risk. But as Philadelphia pastor James Rudd brilliantly stated, “Imagine a generation of church leaders who don't fear taking risks. Yes, urban ministry is messy, but it is worth the mess! (Rudd, J. 2021.)”
*This blog was originally written as a research assignment for ANTH 1103/Encountering Cultures: City As Text at Johnson University.
X, M., Haley, A. (1964). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House.
Scripture quotes are cited from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Florida, R. (2016, February 15). The Incredible Rise of Urban Real Estate. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-25/the-growth-of-urban-vs-suburban-housing-prices-zillow-report.
Rainer, T. S. (2016, September 14). Five Reasons Why Churches Are Dying and Declining Faster Today. ChurchAnswers.com. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://churchanswers.com/blog/five-reasons-churches-dying-declining-faster-today/.
Cline, D. P. (2016). Seminarians in the Secular City: Embracing Urban Ministry, 1965–1968. In From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement (pp. 120–160). University of North Carolina Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469630441_cline.9
Malone, V. (2017). Barack Obama vs. The Black Hebrew Israelites. LionHouse Publishing.
Arrington, Y. (2018). Preaching That Moves People. Clear Creek Resources.
Mason, E. (2021). Urban Apologetics: Restoring Black Dignity With The Gospel. Zondervan Reflective.
Rudd, Rev. J. (2021, May 7) Urban Ministry Is Worth The Mess. Reverence Journal. https://www.reverencejournal.com/journal-enties/2021/5/7/urban-ministry-is-worth-the-mess
Polly, S. (2021, September 5). Top 10 Largest Churches In The US. KnowInsiders.com Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://knowinsiders.com/top-10-largest-churches-in-the-us-32248.html.
Lexico. (n.d.). Urban. In Lexico.com. Retrieved December 11, 2021 from https://www.lexico.com/definition/urban.
Bergoglio, J. M., Ryan, P. J., Herrera, M. A., Rutt, E. B., & Rutt, A. (2021). God Lives in the City: Opening Address to the First Regional Congress on Urban Ministry—August 25, 2011. In Your Eyes I See My Words: Homilies and Speeches from Buenos Aires, Volume 3: 2009-2013 (1st ed., pp. 182–192). Fordham University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11991jg.57.