Monday, December 26, 2016

Planting an Urban Church

Urban Ministry 10

NOTE: Today’s blog is a guest post from Pastor Courtney Lewis of the Cornerstone Baptist Church here in Chicago. In my 13 years in the city he is the only independent Baptist church planter to successfully plant a church in Chicago’s inner city. This is his second post in this series. This one is directly about planting a church in an urban environment.

Acts 18:10 "For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee:
for I have much people in this city."

God used this verse to solidify my call to the great city of Chicago.  We have been blessed to find some of his people in this city, and we are looking forward to winning more in years to come.  I believe God is preparing the heart of "much people in this city."  I continue to pastor the church we started almost nine years ago.  It is a privilege to Pastor Cornerstone Baptist Church.  I am not an expert, and have learned much by trial and much by error.  At times my zeal caused me to offend people that I'm convinced needed to remain under our ministry. My people deserve a better pastor, but I know I'm called to lead them.

Before writing on the subject of Inner city church planting, I would like to commend Pastor Brennan for taking the time to address the subject of urban ministry in general. His posts on this delicate topic have been insightful and challenging.  I am privileged to pastor in the same city as my friend Pastor Tom Brennan.

In 2008, we were led of God to plant a church on the spiritually destitute south side of the city of Chicago.  Ours is not a large work, but our people love God and the church is slowing growing.  Yesterday was a normal Sunday and 124 people gathered to worship.  Most of these attenders were in the main adult service.  While we make no apology for having a small bus ministry, we are not a "bus church." In February 2017 our church will make a transition and become fully autonomous and financially independent.

Definition of Church Planting

What is church planting?  Simply stated, it is what the Apostle Paul did during his missionary journeys.  His basic blueprint consisted of going to a city, winning souls to Jesus, baptizing them, and organizing them into a New Testament church. 

Paul's works were built from scratch, mostly with new (baby) Christians.  From the start we were determined to follow this Biblical model.  I have no toleration for the cancer that I see spreading in Independent Baptist church plants.  In many a scenario, a man will begin his church planting endeavors by taking disgruntled members from other churches.  Then he solicits a bunch of Bible college graduates to come "join" him in the work as "unpaid staff."  The numbers look great for that church, but church planting is not about the membership of one church increasing at the expense of another church decreasing.  It is about increasing the family of God and decreasing the family of the Devil.  If another member of a church of like faith visits Cornerstone, their pastor will receive a phone call from me.  If they don't belong to this flock, why are they coming to this shepherd?  Ministerial ethics is poorly lacking in our ranks. 

New urban churches grow best with new converts.  Newly saved Christians will not be bothered by your less than ideal facilities.  We have met in three different locations from Sunday services over the past eight years.  The first location was the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club.  The smell of sweat from their much used gym would hit your nose upon entering the building.  The place was often very dirty and we had to do much of our own cleaning.  Homosexuals used our space the night before for parties and we had to pickup after them.  Now we have a beautiful, spacious, church building that the Lord blessed us with in 2015.  We even have our own gym!  One of  our men told me that he missed the first location.  I was in disbelief!  His reply was simply this, "Pastor, that old place is where I found Jesus."  The point is simple, newly saved people will sit in folding chairs, drink cheap coffee, search up and down a crowded city block for parking, and enjoy a new pastor's early sermons.  They are the best (and only) sermons they ever heard! Urban church planting is not about "member swapping" with another fundamental church, it is about going to an area and evangelizing that area with the good news of Jesus Christ.

(The first few to accept Christ in 2008. They were the only ones to attend these first services.)

They tell me that church planting in America is at a historic low. In Chicago, churches that have been started have grown old, changed doctrine and practice, and become lukewarm.  Many die, shutting their doors never to reopen them.   

Where To Begin?

Men of the past have used various methods to start new churches with great success.  I would not condemn those various methods unless there was a violation of Scripture.  While there is no exact science, here are some unifying principles that I feel should govern any church planting mission.  Especially in the inner city.  The Apostle Paul is our example in this.

First, there needs to be a strong sending (mother) church that is burdened to see the new church started.  Dr. Roger Voegtlin pastored Fairhaven Baptist Church in Chesterton, Indiana for 43 years.  For 12 of those years I had the privilege of being a member there and receiving a quality Bible college education that I would not trade my house for.  Fairhaven is a soulwinning church.  My wife and I are proud graduates of Fairhaven Baptist College.  Pastor Voegtlin had planted Fairhaven and consequently had the heart of a church planting pastor.  I learned much from him.  He stressed prayer, the power of God, and the family.  The church is now led by Pastor Steve Damron. Under the new leadership, the church continued it's unwavering commitment to our church plant.  Pastor Damron led the church to help us finance the purchase of a 15,000 square ft. facility. What I can tell you is that both of these men were greatly desirous of seeing an independent, fundamental, Baptist church planted in Barack Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood.  Cornerstone needed the oversight, resources, prayer, encouragement, and pattern of a strong, vibrant sending church.  While admittedly biased, no modern church planter on earth has had a better sending church than Fairhaven.  The Apostle Paul had this type of sending church in the church at Antioch. 

(Me and my wife at Fairhaven)

Secondly, Paul was sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I have read everything I can get my hands on pertaining to the subject of Baptist church planting and most of the material out there is light on the subject of the Holy Spirit.  He must lead, and He must empower.  I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am not a charismatic, and I will not argue semantics. Good men argue about what term to use and die for lack of the experience! When Paul wanted to preach in Asia, the Spirit would not allow him.  Paul listened, and received the Macedonian Call into Greece.  He went to Europe empowered by the Holy Ghost. The innercity church planter must wait on God.  When things get rough in "the hood" you better know God the Holy Spirit put you there. 

Thirdly, Paul chose a region and then narrowed down the location for the new works.  Paul went to specific regions or provinces, and then chose the largest and most dynamic cities in those regions for his works.  His focus was on the big cities of the Roman world.  Paul was sort of a "city slicker", as one who grew up in the city of Tarsus ("no mean city"-Acts 21:39).  He studied in Jerusalem, and served Christ in Antioch.  He was as "urban" a church planter as could be found at that time in church history.  Keep starting churches in the small towns and suburbs, but don't overlook Chicago!!!

Fourthly, Paul was active in seeking out potential areas for evangelism.  This will take time and effort from your current place of ministry.  If an area is on your heart, take a drive to that area.  Buy a neighborhood news paper to get a feel for the people there.  While you are in the store buying the paper, study the people. What does Wikipedia say about that neighborhood?  In other words, do your homework.

Fifthly, Paul was flexible as he took steps towards finalizing the location. One man said it best: "Paul wrote his plans in pencil. He was willing to change them to stay in the will of God."  Pastor Voegtlin and I drove around the different neighborhoods, but he made it clear that I had to find God's will on where to start the church.

Sixth, Paul focused his church planting efforts in areas destitute of churches. In Romans 15:20, Paul made it clear that he didn't want to "build upon another man's foundation."  Because of the sheer number of people in Chicago, I could never build on Pastor Brennan's foundation on the north side, even if I tried! While our city can handle lots of churches, I would not have started next door to him.

Seventh, Paul had to begin all of his works in someone else's property.We refused to let the fact we did not own a building intimidate us.  Paul did't have a building, but he had church! 

(Grand opening Sunday in 2008)

Starting the church

We were not sent out as a team with another couple.  I took no members with me from my sending church.  When we arrived in Chicago from Indiana, we knew we had to hit the ground running if we were going to have people to preach the gospel to.  Me and my wife spent one full year raising support as missionaries to Chicago.  Most works fail because of lack of finances.  We raised enough support to be full time from then until now.  It takes all the time a man can find to start and pastor a new church in an urban area with a high cost of living so take the support from other good churches and run with it! Let them know that your goal is to transition the church to an autonomous and self-supporting church.

Door to door soulwinning still works.  Don't let the devil and backslidden pastors tell you different.  Some of the most dedicated Christians in our church were reached from door to door soulwinning.  Where would they be if we didn't knock on their door?  Door knocking is necessary to meet a lot of people.  You will average 45-55 doors per hour when you are door knocking.  Keep good records of the doors you knock.  Get names and phone numbers of those interested.  Have a first class church flyer and good gospel tracts.  Look for opportunities to share the gospel.  43 visiting adults came to our first service.  Most came from the door to door efforts.  I personally knocked on doors at least 30 hours a week that first year.

Understand that you must build a strong base before you branch out with ministries.  You must build your base with middle class to upper-middle class people.  Please capture what I am about the write:  While we planted in Chicago, and while I am black, we did not go to the ghetto to start a church.  Now, eight years later we are able to send the middle class people we have won to Christ to the ghetto.  The results are slower, but the church must be established or it will stay a mission church with no chance of true survival as an independent work.  The following thoughts have helped me over the years in Chicago:

-Bus crowd responds to a flashy bus flyer
-Middle income crowd responds to a well-done brochure
-Bus crowd responds to an exciting program on the bus
-Middle income crowd responds to a well-ordered church service
-Bus crowds like cotton candy and a hot dog
-Middle income crowd needs a clean, comfortable place to meet
-Bus crowds may provide the bulk of salvation decisions and baptisms
-Middle income crowd will fund the ministries that provide the bulk of the salvation decisions and baptisms.


Personal Finances

I would recommend not starting a church in an urban area while in debt.  Because the big cities are money traps, you will need to be free from payments.  Chicago wants to put a meter on our windpipe so they can charge us for the air we breathe (Just kidding, but I wouldn't put it past Rahm Emmanuel and Toni Preckwinkle).  Read Dave Ramsey's books, but don't let him teach you to be a hoarder.  Save several thousand dollars to start with.  You will need to pay deposits on your apartment or house and church meeting place.  Printing to advertise the new church will need to be done.  Lots of printing.  If you raise support, save money from love offerings for these start up expenses. 

Don't Forget Your Family

Your family needs to be "all in" and committed to it as much as you are.  Many men have given their lives to a ministry and destroyed their families in the process.  Have as nice a home as you can for your family to live in.  You will be out of the house a ton that first year and your family needs to feel good about where they live.  Spend special time with your wife without the kids.  Take getaways at hotels, go for lunch, coffee, dessert.  Try your best to find a fundamental Christian school for them.  Even if you have to drive an hour one way (like us), it will be worth it.  Friday nights are family nights at our home.  I turn my cell phone off and we do many of the things that Pastor Brennan mentioned in his post on Parenting in the city. 

Closing tidbit

Church planting is about soulwinning through a new church.  Many well established churches are doing their part.  However, we need a new group of church planters that will establish new embassies for Jesus in a neighborhood.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Parenting in the City

Urban Ministry 9

I confess I am hesitant to write this post, or any post on parenting. There are too many stories in my past of preachers who put themselves up as parenting experts only to watch their family blow up later. Mandy and I have both talked about this extensively, and I have promised her that I will not write a book on parenting. I want to raise my children to love and serve God more than I want anything else in this world, and I will not risk that for anything or anyone.

Jack and I at a makeshift kitchen
table the day we moved to Chicago
Having said that, I do want to help people who are genuinely searching for answers about how to raise a godly family in the middle of an anti-family environment. The Lord knows that I would have benefited from this advice thirteen years ago when I moved to Chicago but I did not have it. Thus it is – specifically in answer to requests – I bring you this post. As with so much else I write I feel like someone older than me should discuss it but nobody appears to be so I will.

One more word of preface: I am purposely limiting it to things that in my view make parenting for the cause of Christ in an urban environment unique. This is not intended to be a blanket post about how to raise children to love and serve God. It is much more narrowly aimed.

The first thing that occupies my mind as a father in this environment is the necessity to protect my children.

Some of that is physical. I had lunch a few hours ago with a man in our church who lives two blocks away from me. I learned today that ten years ago his daughter was accidentally shot on their front porch during a gang drive by. Coincidentally, on that same corner a couple of years ago, while Jack and I were coming home from taekwondo practice, we saw a man urgently limping up the street. Blood trailed down his leg and he was hollering for help because he had just moments ago been shot. Numerous times I have picked up the newspaper and read about some shooting or stabbing in the streets and parks in my neighborhood where my children have lived all of their known lives. I know what it is like to peer out my blinds while a gang mills around my corner late at night, phone in hand, borderline cursing because 911 yields nothing but a busy tone. There are 52 registered sex offenders in my zip code and two that the state labels sexual predators live within a block of my house.

I can hear you now… "Then why in the world do you live there?" Because God called me here, and where He calls He provides all that is necessary to fulfill that call. God knows I have children. In fact, He is more concerned than I am about their safety because He loves them even more than I do. He is a big God. He is bigger than the gangs, the constant foul language, the liberal worldview, the increasing paganism, the radical homosexual movement, or any other physical or emotional or spiritual danger present in this environment.

Brennan family, 2002
It is also true that God calls for us to use practical wisdom in such situations. Physically, I protect my children by keeping them off the streets at night. When it is dark we are inside for the most part. For years I did not allow my children to walk anywhere by themselves other than across the yard to church. Chicago's notoriously strict gun laws forbad me to keep a handgun even in my own home. The Supreme Court has since overthrown that but while it was still law I ignored it. My oldest son has spent a thousand hours practicing taekwondo, and earned his Korean certified black belt a few months ago. There were other reasons for that than just safety but that entered into it. I am confident he could handle himself in any situation short of a drive by shooting, and that he can protect his younger siblings as well. We do not drive through certain areas of the city after dark. Etc. etc.

These are largely common sense but there is another yet more important aspect of protection that does not appear to be so commonly thought about. That is spiritual protection. If you allow your children to live the same life as all of the other city kids the spiritual result will be the same – disastrous. You must identify what actions and places are the most dangerous to your children's spiritual health and avoid them.

For example, I would never, under any circumstances, with zero exceptions, enroll my children in the Chicago Public Schools. The typical American public school is godless in its curriculum, foul in its language, satanic in its music, and barnyard in its morals. The CPS increases all of these exponentially, and adds to them the danger of a constant physical threat of gang violence and sexual assault. I know some godly men and women who teach or work in CPS or have their children enrolled and I do not wish to insult them with this paragraph, but this is my honest opinion.

I will not allow my children to become comfortable on the street. I do not mean the literal street. I mean the whole street life scene that most children and teenagers in this city experience and live in. Their friends either attend our church or are geographically distant. They do not know what it is like to hang out at the park fieldhouse or the corner with their buddies, and they will not ever know what that is like. We do not join the rest of the block during the block party. The perceived benefit of being sociable with my neighbors is over ruled by the pulsating Latin rap music that thunders from speakers dragged to the front yard of house after house that day, and the open and wide consumption of alcoholic beverages. I do not want my children comfortable in that kind of environment, and I freely confess I do not understand those of you that do.

scan0066 (2)
Brennan family, 2007
Along this line, but opposite in a sense, my wife and I seek to ensure that our own and our children's attitude toward difficult people is compassionate. The city, by its very nature, collects more people that are substance abusers, that are mentally ill, that are deeply scarred by sin, and that are challenging to work with in this sense than typical small town America. We do shelter our children and do not apologize for it but at the same time we do not want them to become pharisaical better-than-thou's looking down their nose at sinners. We are here to reach and minister to sinners, and our family dynamic and approach to parenting is to include our children in ministry as much as possible. If that means, for instance, a mentally ill person wants to throw my child a birthday party I will let them – even if I have to bend over backwards to make sure everything is ok during the event. A normal parent would probably tell them to take a hike, and I would not argue with anyone who did. But we want our children to see the dignity of people made in the image of God even if those people are badly broken. So we buy them bus tickets and take them dinner and mow their yards and pick up their groceries and invite them over for lunch after church. When the homeless approach us on foot at the drive thru we buy them a meal. And we include our children in all of these things. We want our children to be comfortable stretching themselves, adjusting themselves, being flexible and compassionate in ministry. We do not want them to view people as dangerous or contaminating for the most part; we want them to see the beauty and joy there is in serving people.

Next, be conscientious not to bad-mouth your calling in the ears of your children. God intended us to serve Him with joy. He designed ministry that way specifically, and it is just as possible in an urban environment of service as it is in the Bahamas. If your public face at church is all joyful but your private talk about ministry around your dinner table is negative you are being hypocritical and your children will notice. If you do not like your position, church, deacon board, or city the answer nowhere includes whining about it in front of your children. Take your burdens to God and then leave them there. God is not punishing you by asking you to serve Him in the grit of the inner-city; He is graciously consenting to use you and that is a high privilege. Your children should see that in you and it should be genuine.

Lastly, we strive to take advantage of the benefits that come from big city life. Our town has world class concerts, parks, recreational facilities, museums, zoos, arboretums, and conservatories. We go to all of them. Often. No, we do not pay much if anything because we have learned over the years that there are times and places when all of these are either free or relatively inexpensive. So we pack a picnic dinner and head to the lawn at Ravinia to take in a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the trees. In bad weather we join the business set listening to free chamber music and eating lunch at the Chicago Cultural Center. We attend the largest auto show in North America with free tickets provided by a man in our church who works at McCormick Place. We take family pictures at Buckingham Fountain. We stroll through the fascinating German pop up village that is the Christkindlmarket, buy the kids hot chocolate, and then take in the festive Christmas windows at Macy's. We have been to museums with the free Kraft passes available in the library so often we do not need maps anymore. Speaking of libraries, we go online and order any of the millions of books the Chicago Public Library owns and have them shipped to our closest library. And then we take in a Lego building demonstration there while we pick up our books. In winter we go ice skating at a city park two miles away. When it snows we pull the sleds out of the garage rafters and plunge headlong down the only hill I know of in a Chicago park. There are some wonderful aspects to urban life. Take your children and enjoy them.

Brennan Family 2016 b
Brennan family, 2016
Years ago when we moved to Chicago with a two year old and a six week old we were told that it was a mistake, that we could not raise godly children in this environment. I rejected that perspective then and I reject it now. God sent you where you are. He will provide you what you need to keep your children safe and to raise them to love and serve Him. The truth is every family is unique, and every child is challenging to parent. Yes, we have some things that cause our situation to be difficult but so do you – even if you live in the middle of the woods. The key to raising spiritual children is not location; it is the same as it has always been – love, prayer, wisdom, quality time, and a genuine faith lived out in the home.

One of God's names in the Hebrew Torah is Adonai, which means lord and master. He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants. Pharaoh was a bad master because he sent his servants to make bricks without giving them the straw necessary to do so. Adonai is a wonderful Master. If He sends you to do a task rest assured He will give everything you need to accomplish it. You can raise a godly family in the middle of a modern godless urban American environment. You can. Our Adonai will help you.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Opportunities in the City

Urban Ministry 8

Last week I wrote about the obstacles inherent in urban ministry. My intention was not to whine about how hard it is but to help younger men considering urban ministry to count the cost necessary to long term service. But those obstacles, while considerable, are only one side of the coin. Just as urban ministry carries with it some severe obstacles it also gifts us with some wonderful opportunities. There are some significant advantages or benefits in urban ministry and I want to mention a few of them to you today.

First, and most obviously, we have the opportunity to reach the masses where they live.

Some of the 5 million who gathered in my city this week to celebrate
the Cubs world championship
I spent the first seven years of my ministry pastoring outside of a town of 1100 people. We could literally knock on every door in town each week if we wanted to do so, even with our small church. The communities around us were likewise tiny. We were not that far from several small cities but we were considerably out of the way. For the most part, people did not visit our church because they drove by it, walked by it, or noticed it in the course of their daily activities. We were just too remote. We had to get the word out; we had to go find them.

In some sense that is still true even in Chicago. Our church is on a side street rather than a main one. We do not sit here and wait for people to grace us with their presence; we go after them with the Gospel. But the differences are still profound. Even on our side street thousands of cars drive past each day. Over a thousand children and their parents walk by our building twice a day on their way to an elementary school a block away, plus countless other pedestrians. A school with a thousand teenagers sits two blocks further down the road. Tens of thousands of people live within a few block radius. Our church is smack dab within the primary geographic circle of a staggering amount of people.

Widening out beyond our local neighborhood moves these numbers up exponentially. Within a reasonable driving distance of, say, thirty minutes there are millions of people. Within thirty minutes you can be downtown. Within thirty minutes you can be in the near northern suburbs. Within thirty minutes you can be in the near western suburbs. Within thirty minutes you can be deep into the disastrous West Side. Within thirty minutes you can be east as far as Lake Michigan.

There are some men in ministry who do not want to reach masses of people. I am not sitting in judgment on those men. This type of thing seems impossible to them, hard for them to wrap their mind around. They feel they are more suited to the patient task of building relationships in a less congested area, and of ministry quality rather than ministry quantity. (And please do not take this paragraph the wrong way. Every man has strengths/weaknesses, has his perspectives and priorities, and God has a place for all types of men in His service.) Other men read a post like this and drool. They look upon their geographical location of service with frustration. They do not want to reach men by ones and twos; they want to reach them by the scores and hundreds.

The latter type of men thrive in an urban setting. Their vision is not stymied by their location. Their drive is not frustrated by a semi-rural pace. Their pastoring is not bound up but rather loosed. As long and as late and as hard as they want to labor they will still find more masses of people within their geographical ministry to whom they can give the gospel.

Secondly, in American urban ministry the regions beyond have come to us.

I do not necessarily need to belabor this point with as much time as I have already spent on ethnicity. America's great urban centers are anything but monolithic. I do not mean that you will find various ethnicities scattered around like green M & M's in a bowl of candy. I mean that you will find pockets of people, sometimes as large as whole neighborhoods, grouped together, relatively new to the United States, and still predominantly speaking their heart language. They will have surrounded themselves with all the emotional comforts of home such as ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, florists, barber shops, beauty salons, and hardware stores. They will form neighborhood associations and community groups that include essentially only immigrants. They will read newspapers from home, watch movies from home, follow sports from home, and wire money home. They will decorate their houses and do their landscaping like home. They will often even dress just like they did at home. Those among them that are religious will form churches that are clones of home, religiously and architecturally. In short, out of their emotional longing and insecurity they will seek to recreate home right here in America.

Thus, in a very real sense you can be the practical equivalent of a missionary easily to numerous people groups within your geographical vicinity. You can enter into their culture as deeply as you wish. You can lose yourself in learning their language and the idiosyncrasies of their customs. You can reach thousands, tens of thousands of fill-in-the-blank people just like you can on the mission field.

As a matter of fact, I would propose to you that you can reach them even easier than you could on the foreign field. For example, let's take a people group near to my heart – the Polish people. My neighbors directly to the east are first generation Polish immigrants. They rent out space in their home to other first generation immigrants. And they are not alone. Detailed investigation says there are 900,000 people of Polish ancestry in the Chicagoland area. In the city itself, and directly on the North West side where I live you can register to vote in Polish, and you can find Polish interpreters in government offices, in hospitals, and in stores. In some stores, in fact, you will not find anybody who speaks much English. In Chicago there are fifty two Catholic churches that offer masses in Polish, and one hundred four priests who speak Polish. There are Polish radio and television channels, not just programs, but entire channels.

State_Flag_of_PolandThey are here, but does that mean they are easier to reach here? Absolutely. To come to Chicago and reach Polish people does not require either a passport or a visa. It does not require learning a new language immediately. It does not require foreign travel, foreign health insurance, or foreign money transfers. I do not know how much an independent Baptist missionary needs to raise to go to Poland, but I am sure he could come to Chicago for less – and still spend his entire life doing nothing but reaching Polish people if that is what he desired.

"Ah, but Bro. Brennan, they are in America. They are already being reached." 

Um, no, they most certainly are not. To the best of my knowledge (and I have been here for thirteen years and have looked) there is one Polish speaking evangelical gospel-preaching church in the entire city of Chicago. It is not independent Baptist by any stretch but it does preach the Gospel in Polish and have a Polish congregation – and it numbers less than fifty. My heart cries out as I type that sentence. It has cried out to God about it for a dozen years now. The nations of the world have come to America's inner cities for over a century and the independent Baptist movement yawns. But it will spend and be spent to send a missionary to the other side of the world. I am glad we have sent ten or so independent Baptist missionaries to Poland. That is good, that is right, that is well, that is needful, that is wonderful – but when will we grasp that the regions beyond have come to our shores in massive numbers and are yet unreached? When will we take some of the probably million dollars a year it takes to keep them there reaching Polish people and spend it – more effectively probably – right in our country where they are going to hell by the thousands?

"Ah, but Bro. Brennan, they don't need their own church; they need to come to your church." 

With pride I can say I just barely restrained myself from punching one particular church planting expert (read "idiot" there) in the nose when he told me this. He had never been to my church when he said it. He had never walked the streets of my neighborhood, shopped in my stores, eaten in these restaurants, or tried to give the gospel one time to a Polish person here. I do not know how I can express it any clearer – the vast majority of the first and much of the second generation immigrants from any place are not comfortable here. That is precisely why they clump together and rebuild around them the culture of home. And there are always more first generation immigrants precisely because there is now a group in place to bring them over. Even if they understood English - which they do not - they would not visit my church; it is not Catholic and it is not Polish. Are we just supposed to let them die off until their grandchildren are American enough to give the gospel a hearing?

Perhaps my blog post is drifting at this point. Perhaps this reads like a rant. Perhaps it strikes you as critical. I suppose you may be right. That is not my intention, but blog posts, like sermons do drift sometimes. The point here is not the Polish people. They are merely (!) an example that could be and has been replicated in detail by dozens of other people groups in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, and Illinois. The world has come to the United States, and we cluster safely in our suburban and rural churches, pay through the nose to send missionaries around the world, and horribly neglect the people groups who have already come to America.

Thirdly, and I shall hasten here, in America's urban centersGadsdenRemembered you have the opportunity to stand out, to be different, to be unique. I do not mean this as an invitation to those whose arrogance wants to be noticed so let me put it into context for you. I spent two summers traveling through the American South with an evangelist. It absolutely shocked me how many Baptist churches there were. I distinctly remember taking a phone book and counting them in Gadsden, Alabama in the summer of 1990. If memory serves me correctly I came up with more than fifty. Gadsden has a population of, what, maybe thirty thousand? If you want to stand out in Gadsden, Alabama go there and start a mosque; but if you want to stand out in Seattle go there and start an independent Baptist church.

This is even more true, of course, when we begin to factor in the fact that the typical independent Baptist church plant will be structured much more conservatively than any other kind of contemporary church plant. If you want to labor in a place where you will not feel like everybody else is doing the same thing just pick a big city near you, cut off a chunk of it, and go to town.

Is ministry in America's urban centers easy? Categorically, no. But that does not by any means imply that it is not worth the cost. There are advantages here, there are opportunities here that simply cannot be found in America's heartland. I am not against any man's ministry wherever God has called him. I am heartily glad all kinds of men labor in all kinds of places. But in this blog series I am here to plead for the cities.

Go, cry to the city. There are vast opportunities in them just waiting to be grasped.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Obstacles in the City

Urban Ministry 7

        For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. (Luke 14.28-30)
          Jesus gave this advice in the context of calling His disciples to be willing to do the hard thing in His service. He wants us to do the hard thing sometimes. But if we do not understand ahead of time that this is a hard thing we are about to do the chances are we will give up when the going gets tough.
          That last paragraph applies perfectly to urban ministry. It is difficult and I know what I am talking about. In some sense, all ministry is difficult. In some sense, every field is constantly growing a new crop of stones that has to be dealt with. I do not mean to leave the impression that if you are not in urban ministry you have an easy life. I do not believe that. But I do believe urban ministry comes with its own set of unique challenges, and the purpose of today's post is to convey some of those. In a sense, then, I want to discourage you before you begin so that you may begin wisely and thus last for the long term. America's cities desperately need men committed to long term, patient, overcoming ministry. So here, in my judgment, is some of the cost.
          First and most obviously is the high cost of property. This negatively impacts absolutely everything.
If you are starting a church in an urban environment it typically means you are going to be renting for a very long time. Renting space for church over the long term is problematic for several reasons. It means you have to constantly set up and tear down. It means a large percentage of the public will view you with suspicion. It means you will pour serious money down the drain in rent that you could have used on a mortgage. It means much of how your church chooses to do ministry is limited by time and space. It means you are going to have to patiently sock money away so that you can eventually get enough for a down payment. That might take decades. Even then, your troubles are not over. You have to find a building for sale that is already zoned for religious use. If you cannot you may well have to jump through hoops for years trying to get it re-zoned. Big cities do not care about your church. Essentially, for practical (your church is too small to matter) and financial (they do not want to lose the property tax base) and cultural (big cities are generally anti-religious) they will put all sorts of roadblocks in your way. 
If you accept the pastorate of an established church that does not mean your troubles are over in that department at all. Yes, you already have a piece of property, but most likely it is badly placed. By that I mean it may well be on a side street without much visibility and with little to no access to parking. If you do not see why not having sufficient available parking is important you soon will. Your visitors that never return will tell you constantly. Your building is almost certainly old, and high maintenance and utility costs will eat you up. It almost certainly cannot be expanded for space and zoning reasons. Practically speaking, you are landlocked and building locked. And if you grow? Well, then it's just one constant, never-ending headache. How can I fit more people in here? How can I minister better and bigger inside the construct of this box? And if you want to move you face the same necessity for a massive down payment the start-up church does. If you want to build? Well, that is even worse because in addition to the costs you have zoning and permit and inspection issues that are more than intimidating.
Secondly, you will more than likely have to deal with a constant stream of people who move away. Why do they do that? Because they get tired of the crime, the grime, the traffic, and the high cost of living. They want a slice of the American dream and they cannot afford it in the inner city. Often you will lose these people just as they hit the most productive period of their church membership. I realize I am speaking a bit openly here but it just fact. They will tell you they are still going to drive in and attend your church. They mean it when they tell you that, and they will – for a while. But eventually the travel will become a greater and greater aggravation, and their participation rate will fall until they just bite the bullet and find a church closer to their recently purchased home in the suburbs. Even in a good church with a careful pastor and committed people your turnover rate will still be much higher than the equivalent rural congregation.
Third, crime. Sometimes the church has to deal with this directly. The first twelve months I pastored in Chicago was an eye-opening experience. In that time we had an entire Sunday offering stolen, PA equipment stolen, vans keyed, car batteries stolen, spare tires stolen, landscaping stolen, headlights shot out, gangs tagged our building with graffiti, air conditioners vandalized, and drunks who insisted on sleeping it off directly outside the front door. To some extent or other all of those are a constant problem. And if they are not an active problem they are still problematic. It is a hassle to lock every door every time you go in and out of one but you have no other choice. Where, when, and how late you send a youth group out or a group of people out witnessing all has to be balanced carefully.  Indirectly, the church has to deal with it because your people are always dealing with it. Their garages are broken into, someone on their block got shot last week, two doors down is a drug house, their car windows were smashed and their GPS stolen, someone mugged them while they were walking to church, their teenager is being hassled by the gangs in school, or dealing with the grief that comes when your peers becomes victims of violence, etc. In addition to all of this you will also have personal concerns for your family.
Some of you are muttering, "You aren't making this whole urban ministry thing sound very attractive to me."
Good. I do not want to make it sound attractive. I want you to count the cost.
Fourth, you may not ever like the place you live. Certain kinds of people love the city. They love the busyness of it, the fast pace of life, the never-ending variety, the wide availability of good food and interesting people and new jobs. They go to the country and get nervous because it gets dark at night and there is no 24 hour bus service. Everything is vanilla. Not to mention it is just so quiet they cannot rest. If you are one of those kinds of people then urban ministry will not be difficult for you in this respect. But if you are not a city person then you must carry that too. You will feel claustrophobic, hemmed in, and aggravated. You will long for peace and quiet. You will miss the slower pace of life, and the beauty of God's creation.  And that will wear on you.
Fifth, the culture. I have mentioned already in this series that a nation's culture flows from cities. The media and music and fashion that move our country come from New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Miami, and Phoenix. That is the very reason God sent prophets to cities and the very reason independent Baptists should be flocking to them. They are mission fields. But in this respect you must understand that big city culture is actively antagonistic to almost everything in biblical Christianity. Politics are liberal. The school systems are godless. The LGBT community will get all kinds of positive press and attention at City Hall, in the media, and even in the school system. Your local church community will not get anything from those three but grief. The Catholics will be a huge presence and they will hate you. The Muslims will be a growing presence and they will hate you. The sophisticated, intellectual atheists grouped around the universities will be influential and they will hate you. The contemporary evangelicals will sigh, shake their head, and wonder when you will ever learn to go along to get along. Immigrants will bring with them their superstitions and their paganism. The business community downtown will not even notice you exist. The Democratic Party will run everything, and the best you can hope for from them is that they will misunderstand you. They will bend over backwards to help the Buddhists get their own temple, but they will throttle your attempts at growth.  You will be the salmon swimming upstream. You will be the smallest of minorities with all the negative consequences that come from having no voice, or at least no voice anyone who is anybody will want to listen to. You will swim in a sea that is increasingly pagan, godless, and anti-Christian. This environment will flavor everything about your life.

Do you still want to come to my city? Do you still have a burden for Baltimore, for Austin, for Philadelphia, for Seattle, for Kansas City, for Detroit, for Minneapolis? Not anymore? Well, what did you expect?

Margaret Clarkson said it best:

So send I you to labour unrewarded.
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown.
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing.
So send I you to toil for Me alone.

So send I you to bind the bruised and broken,
Over wandering souls to work, to weep, to wake,
To bear the burdens of a world a-weary.
So send I you to suffer for My sake.

So send I you to loneliness and longing
With hart a-hungering for the loved and known;
Forsaking kin and kindred, friend and dear one.
So send I you to know My love alone.

So send I you to leave your life's ambition,
To die to dear desire, self-will resign;
To labour long, and love where men revile you;
So send I you to lose your life in Mine.

So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred,
To eyes made blind because they will not see;
To spend, though it be blood to spend and spare not.
So send I you to taste of Calvary.

"As the Father hath sent me, so send I you."

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Build a Multi-ethnic Church: Here’s How

Urban Ministry 6

all_are_precious_in_his_sight_by_nessie905-d7ywhw1-640x522Last week we discussed the foundational importance in urban ministry of building a multi-ethnic church. In the Bible understanding is why, wisdom is how, and knowledge is what. Having briefly helped you last week to understand why urban ministries should be multi-ethnic I want to build on that by giving you some knowledge and wisdom. In other words, I want to give you some ideas about what you should and should not do in order to accomplish this. Our church has grown into an average sized church with significantly above average ethnic diversity. How did it get that way?

Negatively, I learned early on the cost of telling ethnic jokes. Let me give you a perfectly awful example of something I said from the pulpit in my first few months as pastor here. Back then I was still asking visitors to introduce themselves during a service. We had one complete Hispanic family and they had brought some visitors that were also Hispanic. As our members introduced their friends to the church I thought it would be a great time to tell the one good Hispanic joke I knew. I said, "Hey, Bro. __________, do you know why the Mexicans never win anything in the Olympics? Because all the ones that can run, swim, or jump have already crossed the border into the United States."

Yes. I really said that. From the pulpit. During a service. While greeting Hispanic visitors. I look back on that now with utter and complete horror. Needless to say that visiting couple never returned, and we soon lost the couple that were already members. It was a painful way to learn a lesson but learn it I did. It is foolish to directly exploit ethnicity in an insulting manner for a cheap laugh. Because I am white it screams, "We white people think that we are better than you!" Do I believe that? No. Did I believe that then? Also no. But that is how it came across. Honestly, just lose all the ethnic jokes, permanently.

More importantly on the negative side, do not segregate classes or ministries by ethnicity. I spoke of my mistakes in that regard earlier in this series. Yes, we currently have a Spanish language adult Sunday School class, but we also have Hispanic adults that attend our other adult classes, and we still bring all the adults together in each of our three weekly preaching services. It is not uncommon at all in our services to hear someone softly whispering in Ukrainian or Tagalog or Spanish while I preach. Not only is it not uncommon it does not bother me in the least. I welcome and encourage it.

Before I discuss the the specific steps we have taken that1084972970be5d09a3f0a81cc792f8bf have helped us in a positive way let me take a moment to establish a governing philosophy in your mind. It is not enough for me as the pastor not to be racist. Certainly I must start there but it is not enough. Why? Because I can be sincerely color blind in my approach but that does not mean the various minorities that visit here sense that. In other words, our church can be ethnically neutral in our approach and still fail to be welcoming to those of a minority ethnicity who visit here. We are not good at hospitality when we think we are; we are welcoming and hospitable when those who visit here think we are. Minorities are often very conscious that they are minorities. They do not want to assume racism but they often cannot help how they feel. I must find a way to lead our church to immediately and constantly reassure them that they are welcomed.

For example, if a black family walks into our church for the first time and every face they see is white how will they feel? They will almost certainly feel uncomfortable. What I have to do as a pastor is to somehow find a way to lead my church to understand this, and then to structure it in such a way so that is not the case.

This thought leads me to the overarching principle that drives our approach: we work incredibly hard at putting all kinds of ethnicities in front of our people. When you arrive for your first time visit to our church for the main Sunday morning service you will be met outside the door by a group of very young children. They stand on the sidewalk and wave at the cars passing by. That group of children contains Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian children. You will probably pull up while our church van is unloading those who park in our unattached parking lot. On the side of that van is a graphic about four feet high that contains a picture of a Hispanic adult male and female, an African American adult female, an Asian male, and young Caucasian girl all of whom are actually from our church. When you walk in the front door you will be greeted by the cheerful adult lady who staffs our Welcome Center. That job is rotated amongst a group of ladies that is majority minority. In other words, there are more African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians on that staff than there are Caucasians. Once you have been warmly welcomed there, given a visitor's packet, and had your questions answered, you will be directed to our auditorium up the stairs to the right. As you climb the stairs you will pass flags that represent the nations in which our missionaries minister. You will find well known flags from each continent of the world. At the top of the stairs you will be met by an usher wearing a green suit jacket emblazoned with our church name and logo. He may be white but he probably will not be because our usher corps is staffed similarly to our Welcome Center. He will smile, shake your hand, open the door, and direct you to an available seat. As the service begins I open in prayer, but then I do not return to the pulpit until I preach. A Hispanic man leads a song. A majority minority choir led by an Asian woman sings from the platform. An Asian man leads a song. The Hispanic man comes back for three more songs. A different Asian man leads us in corporate Scripture reading and prayer. I preach. Two ushers, one of whom is Caucasian and one of whom is almost always not, lead in prayer and receive the offering. A different Asian man leads us in the closing chorus and we are done.

Children_(multi-ethnic)Do you get the picture? No matter what color you are you see someone in front of you at some point who looks like you and sounds like you. That person clearly has an important role to play at our church. What do these things quietly shout to our minority visitor? You, too, can be at home here like they are.

Some reading this will scoff, call it a religious brand of affirmative action, and declare it manipulative. Stuff and nonsense. It is not affirmative action for the qualifications for each of these positions are exactly the same no matter your color. And it is not manipulative to ensure that various ethnicities feel the welcome that genuinely exists in our hearts. It is knowledge and wisdom applied because we understand how people feel.

This works. It really works. Just last Wednesday I was unable to preach because I was sick. Our newest deacon, a mid-thirties Filipino man preached in my place. Unbeknownst to me he told the story of his first impression of our church. He and his brand new wife had moved to Chicago in 2007 and were looking for a Baptist church. He pulled up our website, and when he saw Filipino faces smiling at him in pictures he decided to visit. Nine years later he is an integral part of our church.

Of course, our inclusive (and do not hate that word because of how it is improperly applied in our day) approach is not limited to the people our visitors see in front of them when they attend on Sunday morning. It bleeds out into so many different areas of our church. Three of our four deacons are Asian men. Seven of our nine Sunday School classes are taught by minority teachers. I regularly preach against racism in my sermons because I find it taught in so many places in the Word of God. I do not have to unnaturally force it on the text; I find so often that it is already there. Ten different laymen share the pulpit when I am occasionally absent; seven of them are of an ethnic minority. We will often celebrate some aspect of a certain culture or ethnicity such as having a group of Filipinos sing together in English and Tagalog for our Christmas Party every year. At our International Dinner during Missions Week we encourage each person to bring a food that is unique to their culture. We stock tracts in a large variety of languages. I could go on and on and on. It has literally become the way we operate on so many levels.

Did we have all this when I started? Truthfully, my predecessor had already taken some steps in this direction before I arrived. I made a few mistakes, learned some tough lessons, and built on what he had done with what I have learned. Now then, whatever color or age or gender or class you are you will find someone like you in front of you when you visit, smiling broadly, greeting you warmly, and making you feel the welcome that genuinely exists in our hearts for all of the human race.

And the reason for this is not pragmatic; it is scriptural.

James 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.

The Saviour welcomes sinners. All kinds of them. And His church should reflect His heart in this as in all other things.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Build a Multi-Ethnic Church: Here’s Why

Urban Ministry 5

Practically speaking, one of the single most important things I can communicate with you in this series is the importance of building a multi-ethnic church. Next week I will discuss how to do that, but today I want to briefly establish for you why. Why's are always more important than how's in my book for if I teach you how but do not explain why chances are you will not continue to do it for the long term. So – why?

There are practical and scriptural answers to that question. Briefly, lets address the practical first. You should build a multi-ethnic church because otherwise you will have to leave out large chunks of the population in your urban community. I do not mind that my church draws from a wide radius. The average independent Baptist church does so because our belief system is relatively unique. But I do not want my church to draw all of its people from somewhere other than my own neighborhood. Such would indicate we were completely failing to influence our community. I do not see the sense in driving past thousands of homes to target one particular demographic three miles away. I want to target everybody, and especially those who are already in our church's neighborhood.

Additionally, there is mathematically statistical certainty that white people will become a minority in the United States of America, and the date is not as far away as you might think. If independent Baptist churches do not change to reflect these facts they will eventually die.

One of my friends who does it right; Pastor Justin Soto and the
River City Baptist Church in Sacramento, California.

Scripturally, however, the reasons to build a multi-ethnic ministry must begin with the example and words of Jesus Christ.

The Jews of Jesus' day were among the most ethnically prejudiced groups I have ever encountered in history. This was largely driven by the Pharisees massive misapplication of the Torah's emphasis on being clean. I blogged about this extensively in my series on the life of Christ. For example, the rabbis taught that if you touched something that had been previously touched by a Gentile you must immediately return home and bathe completely. One particular rabbi of Jesus' era boasted that he never walked down the same side of the street as a Gentile. Another refused to purchase anything on a particular street where a Gentile lived. The Sadducees loved to skewer the ridiculousness of the Pharisees, and they used to mock them by saying that soon the Pharisees would need to wash the rays of the sun since it also shone on Gentiles.

Jesus fought against this prejudice vehemently. Just after His birth Simeon prophesied that He would be a light to the Gentiles. (Luke 2.32) This in itself simply echoed the prophets of the the Old Testament who regularly stated that the Messiah would reach out to the Gentiles. (Isaiah 11.10, 42.1, 42.6, 49.6) All of these speak of His first coming; the prophecies in relation to the Gentiles coming to Christ at the Second Coming are even more numerous. Early in His earthly career He took the time to heal a Roman centurion's servant. (Matthew 8.5) He then took advantage of that act to explicitly teach those around Him that the Jewish patriarchs themselves would mingle with Gentiles in the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 8.11) He gladly led the Samaritan woman to Himself (John 4), healed a Caananitish woman's daughter (Matthew 15), and ministered to the Greeks that came across His path (John 12.20-22). His final admonition that rings through the ages as the Great Commission tells us to go to the entire world. (Matthew 28.19-20)

Christ's teachings and example in relation to reaching the Gentiles was a difficult thing for the early church to swallow, but swallow it they did. Eventually. They had to for God made it crystal clear that the church was not an ethnically pure religious based institution but an ethnically neutral religious based institution. (Acts 10.45, 11.18, 14.27) Indeed, Paul and Peter nearly had a falling out over this very point, and much of the interplay of the book of Acts is the church learning to come to grips with this.

In the epistles to come, as the Lord used the Apostles to be the earthly foundation of the church, Paul dealt with this repeatedly and at length. His writings overflow with admonitions for the mainly Jewish early church to embrace the Gentiles on an equal base throughout the entire Roman Empire. (Romans 2.10, 3.29, 15.11-18, I Corinthians 12.13, Galatians 3.14, Ephesians 3, Colossians 1, I Timothy 2, I Timothy 3).

Perhaps the clearest passage in Scripture on this is Paul's almost rant in Ephesians 2:

11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:
17 And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.
18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:
22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

It is accurate to say that ethnic prejudice has no place in the church, but it is not enough. The tenor of Jesus' life and commands as well as clear New Testament apostolic admonition is that the church is to be composed of all kinds of people, and that all those people meet together before the Lord on an equal footing. If you are in an urban area, and your church is almost exclusively one ethnicity you need to rethink your approach. I urge you to make a conscious effort to reach all of the ethnicities that are within range of your church's influence.

Next week I am going to give you some pointers on how to do that.

Stay tuned.