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."


  1. This enlightening post touched my heart. I relate to everything you have penned in it. What a blessing to have a like-minded friend that understands.

  2. Praise God for your faithfulness where He has called you. Thank you!

  3. I'm another participant in these experiences. Good thoughts. Brother Tom,

  4. Sept 9th wss 40 years ago I first stepped into Chicago to minister. I have seen many preachers and churches come and go. True very few count the cost and stay by the stuff. I would not be happy ministering anywhere else.

  5. Sept 9th wss 40 years ago I first stepped into Chicago to minister. I have seen many preachers and churches come and go. True very few count the cost and stay by the stuff. I would not be happy ministering anywhere else.