Saturday, September 17, 2016

How Not to Reach the City

Urban Ministry 2

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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.


  1. Thank you for sharing such an amazing and informative post. Really enjoyed reading it. :)nice articles...Please read more....

    Look to God for a Happy Marriage

  2. Someone tried to enter a long comment and it failed so they emailed it to me and asked me to put it up. It is thought-provoking. I encourage you to read it. It is long, and will take a couple of comments:

    Hi Pastor Brennan
    I attended Maplewood this past Sunday, and just discovered your blog after reading thru the literature I received.
    This topic about reaching urban communities for Christ, could not be more relevant, more compelling to me after what the Lord has led me to witness in the last two days, concerning my hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (I won't delay you with details of what life was like growing up in the Jim Crow south in the 1950 & 60's, except to say that whatever the social situation then, Black Americans in my generation, today must bear responsibility for the painful reality that we are a cohort of elders who appear to be the last generation of Black Americans to know what its like to grow up morally formed in a social environment marked by homes consisting of married fathers and mothers, along with the vast range of Judeo-Christian values. (Judges 2: 7-10)
    I do not overlook the fact that the above is rapidly becoming the case regardless of race. Which to me is evidence of how America's racial progress has been used by secularist, and anti-Christian progressives subversively, as a framework for elevating the lowest denominators of our common humanity as the central location for defining equality under the law.
    While my generation of Blacks growing up in 1950s and 60's Pine Bluff, knew colored & white water fountains in the downtown stores on Main street, that same framework was where we also saw our parents engaging in the blessing & the fruits of self-reliance, planning their own lives according to thrift & self-discipline...Simple things like paying for their children's school clothes on the lay- away plan.. thereby giving us living examples of delayed-gratification as key to self-determination. Whereas, children growing up in my hometown today, know a downtown comprised of courthouses and newly built jails... (Ezra 9: 1-15)
    You will see that the downtown area in my hometown has literally collapsed into a state of ruins on this video, and that for the last two years ago Main street has been blocked off. ( If the link does not work, it will come up easily by putting Pine Bluff, AR in the search engine on UTUBE).

  3. Pastor Brennan, I believe that only the Lord could've propitiated the circular set of circumstances in which I've come across your blog in such close proximity to my learning of conditions in my hometown, which is sadly replicated across this country, and Black communities in particular.
    I have said to the Lord that I do not know how to pray for this situation, frankly I'm basically numb, but I know I do not have that luxury. This is a case of sowing and reaping, my generation, those of us who name the NAME of Christ especially,have some reckoning to do. We left home as youthful idealists in the 1960s newly enfranchised by the Civil Rights laws, and as a generation, threw off our parent's teachings and embracing those other two cataclysms of youthful rebellion going on at the same time: Vietnam protests & the sexual revolution.
    Wherever we find ourselves today, there is no escaping the whirlwind, whether coming into our senior years, with the golden days of AARP leisure in view, or the other end of the spectrum, still working as I am, and thankful for the health to do so, we have some reckoning to do with GOD. ( Its not about blame, but accountability to Him with Whom we have to do... Isa 53:6)
    Frankly it couldn't be happening to a better generation than mine! This massive unwinding of all these progressive remedies that was our boast. . . (Prov 14:12) From female headed households, which alone fills three-quarters of this country's prison beds, to the scores of weekend body- bags we suffer to street gang warfare, to legalized abortion, which is destroying black unborn babies at genocidal levels, where our birth rate is already below population replacement levels according to population experts.
    I write this with much in common with the unjust steward in Luke 16, which pastor Heath mentioned in his sermon as a passage his father read everyday, and I've been doing likewise since Sunday... and convicted by it.
    Praying for repentance and revival, especially that the Lord would send a shaking on my generation, ( Haggai 1: 3-6) because until our children see their elders massively weeping in true repentance before the LORD, wholly renouncing our trust in government, politicians, academic training, and practicing religious forms in the name of Christ, 2Tim4:2-4 Jer 17: 5-7 & Rom 10:2-3), how can my generation claim any moral authority with the younger generations? Judges 21:25)
    ( Prov 30:12)