Saturday, September 17, 2016

How Not to Reach the City

Urban Ministry 2

church100506 002
The corner where I live my life
There are some things only living here can teach you. Day after day, week after week, month after month, season after season, year after year my vineyard has been this city. I know the rhythms of city life. I know what side streets to take to avoid traffic. I know that a high temperature, a summer night, and a holiday weekend all tell me to keep my kids inside so they do not get shot. I know which hotdog stand in my neighborhood has the best Maxwell Street Polish, and which one has the best french fries. I know to do all my errands between 9 AM and noon. I know to put axle grease on top my shed periodically to keep young people from scrambling onto it via my alley garbage cans. I know where to find excellent pierogis within less than a mile. I know that when I call 911 I should leave anonymous tips. I know what it is like to lock and unlock the same door ten times in ten minutes because you have to keep going in and out but you dare not leave it unlocked. I know which streets around our church to send people to soul winning in the summer and which streets to save for the winter. Speaking of winter, I know what dibs is, and what time all my sidewalks have to be shoveled by in the morning. I know that the Loop and the Magnificent Mile (where you come when you visit here) are an entirely different Chicago than the one in which I live. I know not to give to drunks begging for change under the Kennedy expressway. I know not to leave the doors of our church unlocked after the service has started. I know how to make guacamole and Puerto Rican rice like a native. I know that most of the people in my neighborhood do not speak English at home, and many of them speak very little of it in public. I know to use the alderman as a resource for almost every request I have for the city. I know when to slow down for speed bumps that outsiders never see until it is too late. I know which libraries close to me are open in the morning and which are open in the afternoon. I know how to park in tiny spaces. I know where to find good baklava, what egg lemon soup tastes like, and that I am not supposed to ever put ketchup on a hot dog. I know which sirens to notice and which to ignore. I know what time at night I can call the police about my neighbor's loud party. I know that if I do not confront teenagers hanging out on my corner the gangs will eventually take ownership of this real estate. Iwe-wrote-down-the-unwritten-rules-of-parking-dibs know which graffiti in my neighborhood is new since yesterday. I know why anti-violence marches are a good thing. I know that thousands of people without Christ walk and drive past my church building seven days a week. I know that the vast majority of them have a worldview very different than the typical American in flyover country.

Along with all of that, through the years I have also learned a couple approaches that will not reach this city. Each of these approaches has much to recommend it. Each of them are performed diligently by sincere men and women who want to reach people for Christ. Each of them largely fail at reaching the men and women of this city.

First, you will not reach America's big cities by moving your church out of the city to the suburbs. In the 1970s a demographic shift and a crime wave pushed hundreds of independent Baptist churches all across America out of the city toward a better neighborhood in the suburbs. I understand it. I really do. The folks of that generation thought they could not continue to keep their churches afloat in neighborhoods that were no longer the same majority ethnicity as the church. Not to mention, of course, that it is difficult to get middle class white people to attend a church in a bad neighborhood.

Their chosen solution, however, left much to be desired. One of the scriptural definitions of a church is the body of Christ. Shortly after my arrival in Chicago I was feeling overwhelmed. I explained a bit about our church's situation to Clarence Sexton and asked for his advice. (He had previously pastored in an urban environment in New Jersey.) He looked at me and said simply, "Go be Jesus in your neighborhood." That statement has helped me numerous times. In this context I propose a question: would Jesus move out of a decaying inner city environment in order to be more comfortable? The answer surely is a resounding, "No." Then why do churches do it? See, the answer is not for a church to run for the closest city border; the answer is for the church to meet the shifting needs of the shifting neighborhood around it. Such a church will not stay predominantly white, but why should it? When neighborhoods change churches should not flee; if they instead focus on effective ministry they will find they will change to reflect the neighborhood around them.

In short, don't run; minister where you are. Stars shine constantly but we see them much better when the sky is dark. Your church has a chance to stand out, to be unique, to be what Jesus would be and to do what Jesus would do in your neighborhood. At the very least, if you feel you must move your church, keep your old building in the old neighborhood and immediately restart another independent Baptist church in it. Do not abandon the neighborhood because it has changed; such neighborhoods need Jesus more than ever.

church082105 036Secondly, you will not reach the great American cities with the bus ministry. I must stress here that I am not against the bus ministry; I am for it. I worked in it in one capacity or another for fifteen years. I have nothing but respect for those who put in long hours on Saturday visiting, and who faithfully pick children up every week. The churches that have bus ministries are warm churches, compassionate churches, dedicated to reaching people no one else wants.
All of this is good but one stubborn fact remains: you will not reach a large urban center with a bus ministry. I know; I live in the city that has had more church buses run in it than any other city in America. And it is not reached.

The fathers in our church singing on Father's Day
Here's why: a bus ministry does a wonderful job reaching children with the Gospel, but it does a lousy job reaching adults. And if you do not reach adults it is practically impossible to permanently and deeply change the culture of a family. I cannot count the number of adults I have talked to out soul winning – has to be hundreds and hundreds of them – that used to ride a bus to an independent Baptist church as a child. But as adults they will not go in any substantial numbers. Call it carnality, call it laziness, call it lack of dedication, call it ingratitude, call it whatever you want but at least recognize the facts. To reach a father and mother, and thus draw the entire family under the permanent influence of the Word of God takes a church in their neighborhood. A bus will not work in the long term. They desperately need a good church around the corner.

God's plan is always best, and God's plan for the evangelization and edification of humanity is the local church. Occasionally I hear of some church that takes a missions trip to some big city, spends a few days passing out thousands of tracts, and packs up and goes home. That is a good thing; I am glad they do it. But if they want to reach the city they need to partner with someone in planting a church there.

I know my city. I am grateful for every church who does any kind of temporary, short term evangelism in the city, especially on a regular basis. But such things leave no more long term effect than poking your finger into a glass of water and then pulling it out. If you were to send me fifty church planters into my city I could find a reasonable spot for each of them where they would not trip over each other. And you would do more good over the long term by this route than any other ministry you can contemplate.

Beloved, go cry to the city. But do not do it from the outside shouting in. Plant yourself inside, start a church, and grub out a work for God.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Go Cry to the City

Urban Ministry 1
Downtown_Chicago_Illinois_Nov05_img_2669The phrase that best sums up the book of Micah is the Lord's controversy. (Micah 6.2) God's people were deeply disobedient, and thus the Lord hath a controversy with his people. (Micah 6.2) But where was the center of that controversy? Every movement has an organizational and motivational center. Every movement has a heart. The great sin that caused the Lord's controversy with Israel was no different. Where was the center of the rebellion against God? Where was its heart? …in the large cities.

Micah 1:1 The word of the LORD that came to Micah the Morasthite in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

Micah 1:5 For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? is it not Samaria? and what are the high places of Judah? are they not Jerusalem?

Large urban centers are the primary influence in setting the direction of a society.

Scripture shows us this. Every Sunday School child has learned the story of the Tower of Babel. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower. (Genesis 11.4) That city and the culture which flowed from it so influenced society in the wrong direction that God had to break it up. God, who originally put man in a garden, had Israel build His Temple in the highest spot of the greatest city in the land. Why? …because influence flows from cities. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5.14) When Israel was re-founded as a country after the Babylonian Captivity where did they focus? Jerusalem. It was the center of re-settlement, of government, of religion, of security, and of revival.

Observation shows us this. Wars almost always target the enemy's chief population centers for conquest. A hundred and fifty years ago the American economy was driven by the family farm. It has long since transitioned to be driven by the manufacturing and consumption in urban areas. In our day the media which so influences our American culture is driven essentially by three major cities – New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D. C. The large urban centers of America almost entirely set the tone for our country. We are politically liberal because the cities are. (A quick glance at acountymaprb1024 map of the United States broken down by county vote shows the entire country is Republican. The cities are Democratic and the cities constantly win.) We are ethnically diverse because the cities are. We are culturally filthy because the cities are. Large cities set the tone for America just like they did in Bible times.

This is why there is a clear and continuous pattern in Scripture emphasizing preaching in cities. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Zechariah essentially address God's people by addressing their chief cities. God sent Jonah explicitly to a large city. Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1.2) Have you ever studied the geography of Paul's missionary journeys? All of the places he went were then major cities. Even Paul's epistles, other than Galatians and those to individuals, were all written to churches in major cities: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and I and II Thessalonians. John's letters to specific churches in Revelation? Yep, all to what were then major cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

Failing to understand this, sound Christianity has increasingly abandoned large American cities and consequently is struggling.

I think this jumps out at me especially because my perspective is relatively unique. I grew up in a small Midwestern village of 4,000 people. For nearly seven years I pastored my first church in an even smaller town of 1,200 people. Now for almost thirteen years I have labored smack dab in the heart of one of America's great cities, Chicago. The difference in worldview, parenting, education, entertainment, crime, leisure, and religion is startling.

fundamentals-cover-vol-2This difference, however, was not so startling at the turn of the twentieth century. Back then, as fundamentalism was birthed, it was noticeably led almost entirely by strong men who led strong ministries in big cities. R. A. Torrey led the Bible Institute of Los Angeles after years serving at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. James M. Gray pastored Moody Church here in Chicago. A. C. Dixon had pastored in Chicago, Boston, London, and Baltimore. A. T. Pierson pastored Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. W. B. Riley led Minneapolis' grand First Baptist Church. J. Frank Norris pastored just outside of Dallas. T. T. Shields pastored Toronto's Jarvis Street Baptist Church. T. Dewitt Talmage preached at Brooklyn's Central Presbyterian Church. Lewis Sperry Chafer taught at Dallas Theological Seminary. The foundational meetings around which the American fundamental movement was born were held in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., New York City, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Now, just over a century later, the largest fundamentalist meetings take place in country towns in North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan perhaps, and in mid-size cities such as Lancaster, Lexington, Elgin, Powell, and Hammond. There are no more influential fundamentalist Presbyterian churches or leaders, and with a couple exceptions (Oklahoma City, San Jose) the influential independent Baptist ones are not in major cities. In my city alone – formerly the home of D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, James M. Gray, Paul Rader, Billy Sunday, Harry Ironside, and A. W. Tozer – the largest fundamental church runs maybe 200 in Sunday School. To the best of my knowledge there are no more than five good independent Baptist churches left in Chicago, one for every 540,000 people, and only two of these are growing churches. No, we are not the only ones preaching the Gospel in this city or in yours, but our doctrinal understanding and practice goes much deeper than the surface religion that represents so much of contemporary American Christianity. We are independent, fundamental Baptists for very good reasons. You can swing a dead cat and hit a dozen such churches in Greenville, South Carolina (population 61,000) but you will search high and low to find them in the inner cities of Houston, New Orleans, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, Washington, D. C., or St. Louis.

I am not at all sure I have all the answers, but I do know my perspective has changed in the thirteen years I have pastored in an inner city. Perhaps I should say I have received an education that I neither sought nor wanted but was crammed down my throat. For the next couple of months on this blog I am going to discuss urban ministry, the need for it, how and how not to do it, what you need to change your mind about to do it effectively, and what its obstacles and opportunities are.

Scripture and observation tell us that a nation is influenced through its large cities. We routinely cry and moan about the condition of America these days but if we actually want to change it we must return in large numbers to the cities. We must motivate, finance, educate, promote, and pray young men into the inner cities to plant churches. We cannot change America in any real way absent this.

Micah was specifically sent with his message to the major cities of his day because that is where the decision for national repentance had to be made. It is the same in our day. We must bring our great message back to the urban centers if the country at large is to hear and heed it. If we are going to fix what is wrong it will not be done by tinkering around the edges; we must go to the center and attack there. We must go and cry to the city.

The Lord's voice crieth unto the city. (Micah 6.9)