My American Culture Shock

I’ve had a few great conversations (thanks Mark, Jude, and Tim!) with people in the last week about the challenges of urban ministry (and specifically the urban poor) and the differences in how we need to go about it from suburban ministry.  I have spent most of my life in suburban churches, both growing up there and working there.  I’ve taken many great things away from that time, but it has also left me quite unprepared for the challenges I’m facing now.  It’s felt like culture shock.  Just wanted to document some of the differences between urban (poor) ministry and suburban ministry that have come out of my recent conversations.

  • Resourcing.  In the suburbs most churches have fairly significant financial resources.  Usually when they don’t it is because they’ve made decisions to do things or build things that have put them in debt and therefore caused them to struggle.  In the suburbs if you want to build something or do something you raise money to make it happen.  In a poor urban context making things happen is much more about networking.  Instead of asking the question, “How do we get the money to make this happen?”  You have to ask, “How do we bring together the resources to make this happen?”  This was an important point someone brought up to me, because it helps me to have a greater hope for what can happen in our context.
  • Leadership.  Suburban churches generally have a good percentage of well-adjusted people who are accustomed to being leaders to some extent in other areas of their lives.  This means the primary task of the church in leadership is to develop the spiritual lives and leadership skills of these people in relation to the kingdom of God–a very important pursuit.  In poor urban contexts however, the majority of people are dealing with major issues of brokenness as well as a lack of leadership experience in any part of life.  Many of them are much more concerned with getting by for another week or day than they are with developing leadership skills.  Also, because many of them are beaten down by society’s view of them, they often don’t think they have the ability to become leaders.  If you offer them opportunities to lead they will back away.  So it takes a different approach to develop leaders in a poor urban context.
  • Community.  Many suburban churches employ some form of small groups (community groups, home groups, mission groups, whatever you call them) to help grow relationships among people that can lead to spiritual growth.  These usually meet in homes or a coffee shop or something like that.  I have thought about how we could start something along these lines and then this week it hit me–many of our people don’t have homes or cars to drive to someone else’s home!  Many people are living in small apartments, motel rooms, or on the street so hosting a group of people would be really difficult.  Equally difficult would be having a group at someone’s home since they rely on the bus, if they have the money, to get around town.  So building community and relationships will require a different approach.

I’m sure many more of these will surface as I go, but a few that have been important realizations recently.  Anyone have others they’d add?

About Big Tasty

Be better today than yesterday.

Posted on March 15, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have two.

    1 – Ecumenicity. It seems like the demands and urgency of the need in such ministry cause different churches to come together more often than in suburban ministry. The leaders of urban churches seems to personally know each other and get involved in each others’ ministries. In my experience this is true not only inter-denominationally, but also inter-religiously. This leads to…

    2 – Ministry over doctrine. Of course this is a false dichotomy, but obsession over correct doctrine seems to fade in the face of the needs of the people urban ministries are trying to help. When I applied to teach at a private school in the suburbs, there were six pages of doctrine essays on the application. When I applied to teach in the city, the essays were concerned with my motivation for working with the students. I was the Bible teacher and four months in I was asked for a statement of faith to keep in a file. I guess my point is that my views on the age of the earth are a little less important if I feel a calling to spend time with the students in urban ministry.

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