April 6, 2010 by Dave Harvey
Categories: Church planting
Urban ministry used to mean the gospel to the gritty city. Urban church planters negotiated crime, poverty, and the realities of the hood. But it’s morphed a bit. Urban can now mean urbane—ministry to the more sophisticated single, cultured upper middle class, or maybe the arts community. I’m not complaining about the expansion in meaning—I’m actually excited about it. Everybody needs the gospel! It’s just good to remember that urban ministry can mean many things.
Do you remember Ian McConnell? You met him in a blog post a couple weeks ago. Ian loves the whole city. There’s not much urbane in his neighborhood, but this guy eats, sleeps and breathes urban church planting. And he’s someone I’m learning from. Check out the rest of this interview where Ian writes about hard-learned lessons of city ministry.
I have learned that incarnational ministry is not an option.
OK, I know that “incarnational” is a buzzword these days, and it can mean a lot of things depending on who you talk to. So let me define it the way I’m talking about it. It simply means that when planting an urban church, dwelling among the people we serve is, in my opinion, a serious “must.” Now ideally, a church could be planted with believers who already live in the urban context. But often urban church planting is pioneering work—bringing a gospel-preaching church to an area where there are few, if any gospel-believing people. Church planters should not be commuters, especially in urban areas. Before we moved, we only lived 15 minutes away from the planting neighborhood, but it might as well have been 50 miles, or even Pluto, because the demographic differences were so significant. Living and indentifying “in the flesh” with those whom you are serving is vital. Here are a few reasons why:
• It removes the “us” and “them” barrier that divides so many people in the city.
• It moves us into close proximity to those who need to see the gospel lived out in “dual communities” (church and neighborhood).
• It provides an opportunity for our homes to be places for ministry rather than places to escape from ministry.
• It reflects the Savior’s approach to be among the people he ministered to in word and deed.
• It models pastoral approachability in a radical way.
I have learned that the value of the church-planting team cannot be underestimated.
The pastoral demands of planting in an urban area are so tremendous that if one man feels the weight of all the preaching, administrating, counseling, making neighborhood contacts, reaching out, leading meetings, and so on, he is in big trouble—and so is his family. I think one of the reasons why so many church plants (urban or not) take a long time to lift off the ground is that the church planter is spread too thin. God has not gifted one man to do all that.
One challenge of developing an urban church-planting team is that you not only need folks who have a vision for the city and a willingness to sacrifice; you also need folks with gifts that can help penetrate the area of the church plant and model what it’s all about. In a sense, the ideal church-planting team member would have a radical commitment to sacrifice, demonstrated gifts of leadership and service, mature wisdom, proven character, and humility to accept a role that serves the purposes of the church. Now you’re starting to think it’s a plant team full of deacons and future elders. But that’s not likely to happen, is it? So a lot of the church-planting pastor’s work focuses on getting to know the folks who want to be part of the team, discerning gifts and maturity level, and strategizing to plant the church with both the strengths and weaknesses of the team (and its pastor) in mind.
It is still so humbling for me when I consider all the people who relocated to be part of the church-plant team at Grace. We had a mixture of people from the city and not from the city who came with a sense of calling to help build our church. Very quickly God was hunting down my pride and giving me grace to delegate responsibilities that I would normally cling to because I thought I could do it better. Delegation at the beginning of a church plant involves a lot of risk, but it’s worth it. As much as the young church needs my leadership, it must never depend solely on my leadership. I was initially afraid to let people make mistakes and grow from them. But God has used both the things we’ve done well, and the mistakes we’ve made, to remind us that this is his church and he loves to work inside our hearts so we can take the gospel outside to the city.
I am learning that even though the urban setting is very different, without exception every person has the same need—the message of the gospel!
I know this is like a “duh!” But I’m afraid that some, without meaning to, act like the gospel isn’t enough. It’s a temptation to think that the various challenges of the urban setting call for such a radically different approach to ministry that we become susceptible to not believing that the gospel is enough or that the proclamation of the gospel isn’t our main responsibility. People in the city often appear to have a lot more sin baggage that takes more time and patience to help them see the radical implications of the gospel. Discipleship in the city can get really messy. People who are typically the exceptions in suburban churches are the norm in the city. Practical needs can scream out in ways that make the fundamental problem of rebellion against God seem small by comparison. And when the gospel seems like a secondary consideration for us, we will never be able to communicate it as the primary consideration to lost and dying people. It really is a challenge to find ways to connect with people in our city neighborhoods, but once we do, they need the same thing that every sinner needs—the sin-forgiving, wrath-removing, life-transforming message of the gospel.
Many things are different in the city, but one thing is always the same—people need the gospel more than anything. And that’s where the city and the church planter always find common ground.
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