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.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Change Your Mind

Urban Ministry 4

Change-Your-MindTo every task we bring our preconceptions. When I came to Chicago thirteen years ago I brought mine with me. Some were woven through me tightly, an essential part of who I was. Some were carried about me loosely, carelessly picked up here and there with little thought. Chicago challenged them all. Immediately. Ceaselessly. Remorselessly.

All men are ignorant about something. Most men are secure in that ignorance, denying that it is ignorance, and angry with you when you try to make them think. Every preacher, teacher, parent, and teenager reading this post understands this full well. Sometimes, however, it is not an individual that brings you cause to stop and actually think about something; sometimes it is an event, a circumstance, or a change in environment. I fall under the category of the latter.

What presses most in upon me in this context is the idea of ethnicity. I view it differently than I used to. And, believe it or not, this is not easy for me to communicate. Five times in the last two weeks I have sat down at this screen to write this post only to write, delete, re-write, and delete again. I do not want to be misunderstood, nor do I want to hurt my friends with carelessly formed thoughts. Bear with me, please, as I share my heart and my mind on this sensitive subject.

When I arrived on this corner at the age of 30 I was not a racist. I firmly believed that the Gospel should go to all men. God had created all of us in His image and so every human being is of equal value. Jesus had died on the cross for the entire world. No, I was not racist, but I was basically separatist and rather comfortist.

What do I mean by that? Let us take separatist first. My home church was mostly one ethnicity, but my training ground for the ministry took place in a big church. That church modeled a separated system for reaching various people groups. There was a Spanish church for Latino people. There were entire Sunday Schools devoted solely to black children from the projects. My specific bus route was not allowed to bring in more than 5% African Americans.

I have written in more detail about how this separatist concept arrived in fundamentalism in my book Schizophrenic and I am not going to re-hash it here. Suffice it to say that the result – a set of services for one class of people here and a different set of services for a different class of people there – was elitist at best and borderline racist. And it completely violates Paul's instructions to the church about race relations in Ephesians.

I did not understand that when I arrived here, and one of my first decisions was to move our (basically) all black bus route to a different arrival time on Sunday morning and give it its own Sunday School department. My intentions were good. I felt that they had different needs than the regular Sunday School, and that I could address those better on their own. At the same time I also feared that if I reached middle class people they would not want to put their children into a Sunday School crammed full of kids from the projects.

What I failed to understand is how that would make these people feel. I was sincerely trying to help them, but that sincerity on some level came across as patronizing. I had segregated them from the rest of the church as if they were not good enough for us. It was, in their view, nothing more than a well-intentioned insult.

Chicago's ethnic diversity is deep and wide. I read somewhere a statistic that if you choose two people at random off of any Chicago street there is a 68% chance they will not be the same ethnicity. The denizens of the inner city were used to living their lives around all kinds of ethnicities. I was not. And it was my approach that needed to change, not theirs.

This is where my badly coined term comfortist comes in. I was culturally comfortable when surrounded by white people. It is how I grew up. The people on my street, in the stores, in our church, in our school, and in my life were mostly white. I knew how they worked, and what our Midwestern white bread culture was supposed to be, for good and for ill.

my son's entire class; Jack is top left, back row
When I came here I was immediately uncomfortable for one very noticeable reason: for the first time in my life I was in the minority. I remember taking a walk around my neighborhood (I live right next door to the church I pastor) the first summer I was here. I had my then two year old son with me. One lady sitting on her stoop looked at my son and said, "Hey, little white man." Which is exactly what he was. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was the white baby on our street. That same son now has a black belt in taekwondo and at his dojoang (which is three blocks from our house) he is still the only white kid that is not a first generation émigré from Poland or the Ukraine. The stores I shop in routinely post signs in Spanish, English, and Polish. To be greeted by a clerk or waiter who does not speak much English is a regular occurrence in the mom and pop places in this neighborhood. The super majority of children in this zip code do not speak English as a first language in the home. In other words, my daily life is immersed in a culture that is most definitely not the same as the Midwestern white American culture in which I grew up.

I do not mean to be conflating ethnicity and culture, but there are certainly strong links between the two. And over time my constant immersion in this ethnically diverse, immigrant flavored, big city culture has changed my mind about how I view both ethnicity and culture.

This is a blog series on urban ministry. I do not want to lecture but I believe strongly that if I am going to effectively minister in this urban environment I must leave behind my preference for and comfort level in the mostly white and highly Americanized culture in which I grew up. In a very real sense, I have to become exactly like the missionaries we support. I must embrace (within reason) the world I now live in. I must become comfortable being in the minority. I must learn to value and enjoy the differences that surround me. I must drop the baggage of my mental insistence that my church and my ministry must be comfortable for me. I must bloom where I am planted, nurtured by the grace of God and the power of Holy Spirit, but rooted in this environment.

This changes so much, and is almost certainly beyond the scope of one blog post. It changes how I view America. It changes how I view immigration. It changes how I view the exclusively white independent Baptist churches I visit while I am on vacation. It even changes how I view Christianity itself.

20161008_002203 (1)
A random shot on my bus ride four days ago
If you are reading this in red-state America and muttering at how silly I am, or how I have been corrupted by my environment I understand. I am not calling you racist because you disagree with me, nor am I saying that God cannot and is not using you where you are. I am saying that if you come from there, and you want to be effective in urban ministry you are going to have to change your mind. Mental flexibility, including over a range of unconsciously (or consciously) and deeply held prejudices, will have to become part and parcel of who you are.

I suspect, if you last for the long term in urban ministry, it will.

Change your mind. It is the only way people will allow you into their lives to change them.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Black Fundamentalist’s Viewpoint

Urban Ministry 3

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. His perspective on urban ministry is worth your attention. 

And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth(Chicago; other urban areas)? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.  John 1:45

The Courtney Lewis Family
I was born and raised in the city of Chicago, and lived the majority of my childhood in one of the roughest housing projects in the city. About the only thing I know for certain about my father is his name.  If I saw him in Walmart tonight I would not recognize him. He met my mother while he worked as a security guard at the old Chicago Stadium where Michael Jordan made his NBA debut.  When I came along they were in the process of ending their relationship for good.  We had a phone number for him, but rarely did my mom use it.  She dialed the number for me on my 6th birthday, and when my father answered I told him who it was and that it was my birthday---click!  I was hung up on by my father. 

That occurrence grew into a deep seeded anger. I gained an unquenchable desire to grow up and kill the man that forsook me. Reader, I can promise you that was my plan.  Although he had apartment buildings all around the city, and was seen as he collected rent and drove very fancy cars, he did nothing to assist with my support. My mother took him to court and we had to take a blood test.  The courts discovered that day that Herman Johnson was my father.  For his day in court, my father purposely wore dirty, old, tattered clothes—convincing the authorities that he had nothing. The judge literally told my mom “if he ever wins the lottery, we will let you know." That was the last time I saw my father.

Hence, I understand the fatherless generation well.  For me, it is not a movie or sitcom, but reality. Fathers today in the inner-city are better escape artists than Harry Houdini ever was.  Statistics can be wearisome to the eye and ear, but nonetheless, 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes, 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes, 80% of rapes motivated by displaced anger come from fatherless homes, 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes, and 85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home. 

My father destroyed my future in a human sense. That should have been the end of my story right there. I didn’t ask to be born. I craved a father and without one I was becoming a monstrosity. The plight of paternal absenteeism is crippling, and Jesse Jackson did not come to my rescue. How many of our Bible hero’s have deadbeat dads?  Not too many great men in history had deadbeat dads.  Before I could walk, I was half an orphan.
The anger against my father fostered greatly. My mother determined to raise me to the best of her ability, but I seriously lacked the male influence that every child so desperately needs. As a direct result of this lacking, coupled with my own sinful heart, I found myself expelled from 5th grade at Hearst Elementary for fighting and disrespect to authority.  I was sent to Edwards School and expelled again for the same reasons.  I was sent to Mark Twain Elementary School and was soon expelled again. The school officials spoke to my mother and told her that I was suffering from a so called “behavior disorder.” I was then sent as a last resort to a special school for juvenile delinquents.

The mercy of God followed me as I in ignorance followed my sin. It was there at St. Joseph’s Corondelet Child Center that I rode the "short yellow bus" with a student who was a Christian and happened to belong to a Bible-believing Independent Baptist church.  The student was persistent in inviting me to attend his church. I was equally persistent in saying "no". He invited us all to his house for a birthday party, and the bus driver just dropped the entire route off at his house. After the cake and ice cream, the boy’s mother got us all together and said, “Our church is having VBS, and you are all welcome to come; call your parents and get permission.” My teacher during that Vacation Bible School was the assistant pastor of Garfield Ridge Baptist Church in Chicago, and a Fairhaven Baptist College graduate. I even managed to get tossed out of class on my first visit to the Vacation Bible School! Pastor Gary Zdziarski literally invested thousands of hours of his time into my life as I rode the bus to church each week.

In 1993 I had been attending church there for 2 1/2 years, only missing one Sunday, and although it was good to be in church, I was not yet in Christ.  What I wanted was assurance that if I were to die, I would be in Heaven. On April 22, 1993, I settled all my doubts and received Jesus Christ as my own personal Savior. On that day, I literally felt the burden of my sin lifted off my chest, and I've known no other peace like the peace I knew that day. 

I soon followed the Lord in Believer’s baptism.  God began to work on my heart about preaching.  It was nothing short of a Divine call to the ministry. My mother Lois was the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers and came to Chicago during the great migration. My mother loved me. She read me Bible stories, sang to me the songs of the south, and tried to take up the slack.  Because I was her baby boy she defended me too much. I saw her faults, but she allowed me to ride the bus every Sunday with a white man to a white church where I got saved!  Who cares what color the people are if they can keep you out of hell and off the streets!  My mother supported my desire to go to a Christian school. For this endeavor she paid $75 a month and I sold candy bars for the rest. 

My junior year in high school she developed cancer.  At the end of my senior year she died. Still a minor at age 17, I was now full-fledged orphan. The closest bonds of earthly authority were removed.  Three months later, I graduated from Southside Baptist School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and moved that very night into the dorm at Fairhaven Baptist College to prepare for my freshman year of training. Praise God for an urban church that ran a bus to pick me up in the projects!!! This was not a church in the suburbs sending a bus into the city to give me a hot dog, baptize me without my mother's permission, brag on numbers, and disappear for 12 months until the next big promotion.  This was a city church reaching rejects like me.

I graduated four years later and decided to stay for the Master’s program offered by Fairhaven.  My wife Portia was also a bus kid from Oceanside, California.  We met there at Fairhaven and were married in 2004. 

2015-06-17 CornerStone 2-00071
Cornerstone Baptist Church, Chicago
God called me to go back to Chicago to start a church!  I am thrilled because I can say with full assurance that God called us to start an independent Baptist church on the south side of the city.  During my early days of Bible college God made it crystal clear to me that I should serve Him full-time in inner city work.   He led me to start in an area known as the Kenwood/Hyde Park neighborhood.  The vicinity is filled with blue collar workers who live just north of the University of Chicago. 

We started the church in March, 2008. The faithful financial support from other independent Baptist churches has allowed us to plant a growing church for Christ in one of the nation’s most troubled cities and in what is, perhaps, its hardest neighborhood.

After much prayer, we have come to the place where we feel it is God’s timing for Cornerstone Baptist Church to become financially independent.  This transition from missionary support to salaried pastor will begin in February 2017.  We are not busting at the seams as a church.  Currently, we are averaging 120 on Sunday mornings.  As you can imagine, this is a huge step for a young inner-city work, but God has blessed us with a good group of members that agree with this monumental decision. The church plans to give me a considerable raise equal to the amount of support we currently receive. This is a step of faith, and we ask you to pray that God would provide what is needed for us to continue ministering in Chicago.

Friend, we must not neglect the cities in our church planting endeavors.  There are others like me in the "hood" that need a gospel preaching church.  Where would I be if not for a church in the city?  I read in a periodical that every day IN AMERICA 11 Baptist church close their doors permanently, 3 Baptist preachers quit the ministry, 6 teens commit suicide, and over 1,100 girls have an abortion. If we don’t start churches here, who will we have to send to Africa, China?  Actually, the Free Presbyterians (once led by Ian Paisley) are sending missionaries to reach America! 

While I do not claim to be an expert, I do have a burden to see new Independent, fundamental, Baptist, separated, soul winning churches started in America, particularly in urban  areas.  If your church has this interest and vision, I would be honored to share some methods and experiences.