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.

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