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.

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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.