I didn’t want to plant a church in Camden, New Jersey. When my wife and I first drove through the city, we were overwhelmed by its devastation, brokenness, and abject poverty. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings were everywhere, giving an oppressive gloom-and-doom feel to this urban community. Half the population lived below the poverty line. One-third of adults were high school dropouts. Gang wars had created streets riddled with gun violence. On average, someone was shot every thirty-three hours.
Like I said, I didn’t want to plant a church in Camden! Yet I did want God to raise up church planters to engage that city with the gospel. So, I prayed for that. But truth be told, I prayed like Moses that the Lord would send someone else.
In the midst of praying for Camden, however, I got a burden from God for that city in all of its brokenness. That’s how I ended up planting a church in one of the most violent cities in America.
That was several years ago. But by God’s grace, that church is still going strong under the next generation of leadership. These days I’m blessed to serve as the co-director of an organization that trains and supports indigenous church planters in urban communities around the world. These are places where life is just hard. They are places where it’s tough to get a quality education, a good job, or decent health care. They are places where the life expectancy is low and the crime rate is high. And they’re places where addiction is extensive and where abuse and neglect are widespread.
As I continue my new work in cities around the world, I have come to see that ministry in the urban centers of America can teach us four things that relate to missions around the world.
Barriers Are Real
Church planters are the most idealistic people on the planet. Straight out of seminary with the Holy Bible in our hands the Holy Ghost in our hearts, we think we’re about to quench all the fires of hell with our new churches.
Then we arrive in the city where God called us and realize that poverty isn’t some statistic for a demographic map we made of the city. Poverty really means people—people with real barriers to hearing the gospel as good news for their lives.
“People won’t hear us if we don’t see them in all their brokenness.”
In this way, urban ministry reminds us that the mission is hard. Sometimes we might minister for a long time before we see a single person get saved. Sometimes people are in such a bad place that we can’t even talk about their spiritual problems until we do something about their physical needs first. Don’t get me wrong: sin is everyone’s biggest problem and a Savior is everyone’s most urgent need. But people won’t hear us if we don’t see them in all their brokenness.
Context Is Crucial
Urban ministry shows us that contextualization is a reality to be practiced, not a theory to be debated. When we minister to people who, at best, hear every Sunday that faith is about moving “mountains” in their lives, then all our calls to “trust in Jesus” are actually heard as “trust in Jesus for money.” Likewise, all our talk of “the gospel” is simply the good news that life is going to get better if they just have enough faith.
In other words, urban ministry won’t let us keep talking in the ways we have always talked. We have to consider our ministry context. This means it’s not enough to know the Bible only. We also have to know how people are hearing what we say about the Bible. Urban ministry all but forces us to acquire this kind of missional sensitivity.
Risk Is Right
Urban ministry is also hard on our families, much like international missions. Often this means moving to a place where friends and family cannot or will not follow. (More specifically, unless you grew up in an inner city area, you will have moved to a place that is as unfamiliar as it is dangerous.)
Yet still, we go because we long to take the gospel of Jesus where he is not truly known or named. We commit to spending our time among the least, the last, and the lost, just as Jesus did.
Thus urban ministry helps us see that, when it comes to the Great Commission, “risk is right,” as John Piper says. It takes us out of the world of maximum security and theoretical risk and into the world of real risk and maximum faith. Like cross-cultural missions, urban ministry compels us to trust that Jesus is with us and that the people he died to save are worth the risk.
Life Is Short
The apostle James tells us that life is a mist and tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone (James 4:13–14). Yet we still act like Jesus is bound to honor our personal planners every year. Urban ministry changes that!
Too many times I shared the gospel with people before lunch who were dead before dinner. In that context, nobody could pretend that life went on forever. Instead, we were deeply aware that the people who need to hear about Jesus might not be alive next week. (And we might not be either.)
“Urban ministry reminds us that life is short, the stakes are high, and the harvest is plentiful.”
While spiritually painful and emotionally draining, this kind of constant tragedy in urban ministry highlights the urgency of the mission. In a way that’s impossible to ignore, it reminds us that life is short, the stakes are high, and the harvest is plentiful.
Urban Lessons for the Great Commission
God may not call all of us into urban ministry. But we all can learn from the kind of barrier-overcoming, context-adapting, risk-defying urgency that defines urban ministry. Indeed, these qualities can sharpen our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission, whether we’re going across town or across the world.
Doug Logan is the director of diversity for the Acts 29 Network, co-director of Church in Hard Places, and a pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia. He is also the author of On the Block: Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement. You can follow him @PastorDeelowg.
Related: For a review of Doug Logan’s book, On the Block: Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement, check out How to Be ‘On Mission’ in Urban Ministry.