Tag Archives: Urban Ministry

The City and the Redemption of Creation

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From AdamL212 on Flickr

I try not to talk or write about politics very often as a normal course of my ministry.  My congregation is composed of people of all political stripes, and I strongly believe that no one political ideology has a corner on the Gospel.  However, something has been disturbing me as of late about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaigns. It appears that there is a new opposition in the race: the City of Milwaukee.  I have received mailings, at least twice a week, from the campaign of Governor Scott Walker.  I understand that politics is dirty business, and I understand that Mayor Tom Barrett (the mayor of Milwaukee) is the opposition candidate, and as such his record is up for criticism.  However, many of these mailings have criticized Barrett by criticizing Milwaukee.  Many of them have highlighted Milwaukee’s unemployment rate, Milwaukee’s school troubles, Milwaukee’s poverty rate.  In fact, in his primary victory speech, Walker said, “…we don’t want to be like Milwaukee, we want to be like Wisconsin…” (you can hear his speech here).  This anti-Milwaukee rhetoric is what bothers me most about the whole political climate in Wisconsin. Additionally, as an urban minister, this has served as a catalyst for my theological reflection on urban centers in general.

Right out of seminary, I was interested in urban ministry.  It was a pull that I cannot completely explain.  I grew up in a small town (no traffic lights, not even a blinking light), and a city was certainly not part of my upbringing.  It was a summer field practicum in an inner city ministry that I felt the internal urging to ministry in an urban setting.  I have found that among others, there is often a lot of fear about cities, particularly low income inner cities.  For some, it is the natural anxiety that accompanies the unknown; for others, they may have been taught that cities are dangerous places, bad places, even God-forsaken places.  I know the narratives that cities are riddled with crime, gangs, drugs, and debauchery of all sorts.

I am certainly not going to argue that cities are some kind of utopia, or a place where the Kingdom of God is more evident than in suburban or rural communities.  However, I grieve the fear and, at times, hostility to cities.  I do not feel called to urban ministry because cities are somehow more deserving or more important than other communities, but because I want to work against the history of churches moving out of urban communities into suburban communities which have tended (at least in the last fifty years) to be more homogenous and have a higher socio-economic level.

I believe that God is very present in cities, and that cities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in the church’s mission in the world.  Until recently cities have been the major centers for industry, business, living, and culture.  Every day as I walk the streets of Milwaukee, I see remnants of the thriving city that Milwaukee once was (and will hopefully become again).  Further, cities have been central to my denomination’s history.  It was in a city that our denomination was first established on this continent, and it is in cities that people continue to encounter Christ, and continue to be formed into disciples of Christ.  I think that there is something unique about a city and God’s work in cities.  In fact, in the vision of the redeemed and restored heaven and earth, we see the image of a city — the restoration of human relationships and the model of people living in harmony, peace, and wholeness together.

The cities that we know and experience are certainly no where near the ideal of people living together in peace and harmony, but this does not mean that they are completely lost.  Cities continue to hold great potential for the Gospel to be spread and for God’s redeeming work to be observed.  There is, to be sure, a great deal of suffering and brokenness in cities (as is the case everywhere), it just seems that in many ways, the brokenness of those in the inner-city is more visible.

This vivid description of a city, the ideal of what a city should be, in Revelation 21, tells us that God’s plan is not to abandon cities or to abolish cities, but God’s plan is to redeem cities.  I think this is something for us to learn from.  The church cannot abandon cities, the church cannot ignore cities, and the church cannot simply look the other way from cities and the challenges of cities.  As Christ’s body on earth, it is our job to follow God’s leading, and I think that, in part, God is calling us to work for the redemption of cities, to work for the restoration of cities, and to seek the peace and welfare of cities, because when our cities are thriving, we will thrive (Jeremiah 29:7).

Milwaukee is not the city of God, neither is any city here and now.  However, I still believe that in the new heaven and new earth, we will be living in a city, in the perfect city with perfect relationships.  Until that complete restoration happens, however, I will continue working in my neighborhood in my city, always looking toward the peace and harmony that we are created for.  If God’s work of redemption has already begun, then it stands to reason that we can see signs of it, even (or especially) in the midst of a big city.

Our Greatest Need? Hope


Photo by Pol Sifter on Flickr

Because of the nature of my ministry, and the fact that nearly all of our funding comes from outside sources, I find myself in contact with people from other churches in many different places and many different contexts.  There is a question that is asked by almost everyone is some variant of “what is the biggest need in your community?”  It is a great question, although it is a difficult one ton answer at times, because it is a complex question.

I used to answer with something like, “employment” or “accessibility to employment.”  While this is a great need, I do not think that it is actually the root of our challenges.  We do need jobs that people can be hired into off the street, and we need affordable reliable transit to get people there.  We also need adequate housing, and a deeper sense of community.  However, the greatest need that we have is something which is much more basic and central to humanity: Hope.

Hope is the basic need which helps us to continue on into the future.  It is the anticipation that things will be better, or at least the possibility that things can be better.  It is the expectation that there will be a tomorrow, and that tomorrow may very well be better than today.  It is the foundation of the human condition and it is the center of Christianity.

In my experience, many times folks look at those who are having children when they are young and unprepared, or look at people who sell drugs or other illegal goods, or look at people who abuse drugs or alcohol and assume that they have some sort of personal short-coming or deficiency, or blame their parents for not raising them properly.   This is, of course, a simplistic understanding that does not actually look at the issue at hand.  Hope, particularly lack of it, is the root of many of these challenges.

When we lack hope, we don’t know what the future holds, but it probably is not going to be any better than today, and in fact, it may be worse.  Sex makes us feel good, something which is rare and may not happen again.  We have opportunities to make a bunch of money pretty quickly, and we jump at the opportunity because that’s what I need right now.  We might sober up, but we’ll still be in the same crappy situation, just without our ability to escape.  Without hope, life does not have any purpose and does not have any future.  Without hope it is just me: fighting all alone.  Without hope, I have no reason to plan for the future, or work for anything better, because there is nothing better out there.

A lack of hope is something that even infects me.  I know that some of our people will spend the rest of their lives in cramped rooms in boarding houses without dressers, beds, couches or chairs, or curtains.  I know that others I know may likely never be able to secure gainful employment.  I know that our church will likely never become self-sustaining, and we will likely never transform our neighborhood into a place where people want to live and be.  The days in which I think like this are the most dangerous days for me, because as a pastor, I need to hold out hope, not just for me, but for those under my care.

The church, above all, needs to be an agent of hope for people who don’t have a lot of hope.  The Christian hope is not just that we look forward to a time in the new heaven and new earth when death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:4), but we also have hope that redemption and restoration are beginning now.  We have the hope that we can be changed, we have the hope that the world can be changed, we have hope that God has not abandoned the world, but that God is still very active in the world.  When we lack hope, we lose our ability to imagine a better future, and we lost our drive to work toward and to live into that better future.

Will things radically change in the future?  Probably not.  However, is it possible that things can change in the future?  Of course it is, this is the root of hope.  Hope can be difficult to hold on to when things rarely change for the better, but hope is indispensable.  Once we give up hope, we have given up on life.

The most important thing that our church can do is not to provide more clothing, or provide more food, the best thing that our church can do is to help provide people with hope.  Hope is in short supply in our neighborhood, and I pray every day that God will grant us a greater measure of hope so that we can truly live, which is more than simply existing.

On Being a Doubter-Sensitive Church

I had a conversation with someone the other day on the sidewalk in front of church.  I was picking up some trash that always blows into our bushes from the park across the street.  A person stopped and asked me some questions about our church, which I answered.  I told him about our Saturday morning breakfast ministry, and I also invited him to join us for a service on a Sunday morning.  He mentioned that he’ll probably show up on a Saturday morning rather than a Sunday morning, for now, because he didn’t want to have to pretend.

He took his leave and we exchanged pleasantries.  His comment about not wanting to pretend stayed with me for quite some time.  As is usually the case, after time of reflection, I came up with some good responses.  You don’t have to pretend, I thought, everyone is welcome.  You are welcome to come as you are, I thought.  You are welcome to journey along with us, regardless of where you are on your journey.  Of course, he was gone, and like many people I meet, I will likely not see him again to share these insights.  So at this point, the best that I can do is learn from it.

What was even more important than how I would have responded to this fellow is why he would felt as if he would have to pretend.  Perhaps he was referring to the more ecstatic utterances that some traditions emphasize.  Perhaps he was referring to singing songs and hymns of praise if he didn’t believe what he was singing.  The truth is, however, that I will never know what he meant, and what prompted him to say that.  However, what I am able to do is to reflect on what our church says not only to those who are members or adherents of our congregation, but also those who come in off the street.

Now first of all, our church is quite unique.  We are a church properly organized according to our denomination’s government.  However, in actuality, we function more as a mission.  We are placed in a community that has a lot of churches, but also a community where a high percentage of the population is not regularly involved in a church.  Therefore, our goal is first and foremost not teaching doctrine, but to introduce people to God in word and in deed.

I come from a subculture where the hot topics were debating the benefits and drawbacks of the Canons of the Synod of Dort and whether or not Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is based on sound biblical exegesis.  In my current context, however, those doctrinal discussions have turned into basic, “who is Jesus and why does he matter?” discussions.  Most of the people in my community don’t care about doctrine, they care about how God impacts their daily life.  This is not to put them down, it is simply a reality.  I have come to understand that debating and discussing the finer points of doctrine is an activity in which the privileged are able to engage.

I have found that the mindset in which I prepare sermons must change.  I can no longer prepare my sermons with the assumption of faith, but I must always prepare my sermons with the intent of inviting people to faith.  There are some that argue that “reaching the lost” is not the purpose of Sunday morning, however, I disagree.  Even those of us who identify as Christian, or who identify as disciples of Jesus are still lost, in one way or another.

I believe that faith is a gift from God, but I do not think that faith and doubt are necessarily opposed to one another.  There are many days where I’m not even sure if I have faith!  After all, I think that in some way, we are all crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  Even for those of us who have faith, it is only natural for us to have times of doubt.  Sunday services are then, not simply a time of expressing faith, but also a time for creating and renewing faith.

The church, then, should be the best place for us doubters.  Those who have iron faith should be hermit monks in the desert to whom others can visit on pilgrimage.  The church is the place where we can go when we have seeds of faith, and the church is the place we can go when we are sure that we don’t have any faith. Our church is certainly not “seeker-sensitive.”  However, I don’t think that our church operates on the presumption of faith either. The best thing that our church can be is “doubter-sensitive.” A place where no one has to pretend, but where folks want to have faith, regardless of whether or not they feel like they do at the time.  After all, faith is a journey not a destination.

In all of our hearts, there is a voice, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  I love it when people passionately express some variant of this.  When it comes down to it, I am no different; I am just another pilgrim on the journey to restoration and redemption.

Why a Reformed Presence is Important in the City

I am a Reformed minister through-and-through, and I feel very strongly about the Reformed theology.  I do not think Reformed theology is the only way of being a Christian, I simply think that it is a good way.  I think that is Biblically sound, and I think that it speaks to our world in a way that other traditions do not.  Some people tell me that theology doesn’t really matter in the inner-city, particularly when educational attainment is not incredibly high.  This is, of course, something that I vehemently disagree with.

First, I think that it is wrong to assume that educational attainment alone dictates someone’s capacity for understanding is short sighted.  I have known many wise people that had a 9th grade education, and I have known many dull people with master’s degrees.  Secondly, it downplays what Reformed theology has to offer the world.

I don’t use the words sovereignty, providence, election, irresistable grace, or atonement in the regular course of my preaching and teaching.  These are all terms that are near and dear to Reformed theology.  However, I talk about them all the time.  These doctrines are prevalent in my preaching and teaching, they are what I stand on, and they are the avenues through which I communicate the faith.  Reformed theology is not important so that we can use big terms like this or be able to understand the finer points of the differentiation between orthodox Reformed theology and Arminianism.  Reformed theology is important because it stands on the bedrock of God and God’s grace.

Rather than starting with humans, the Reformed start with God.  The idea of starting with ourselves makes sense when we feel as though we can depend on ourselves, on our abilities, on our capacities.  However, if we feel (or better, when we finally realize) that we cannot depend on ourselves, suddenly relying upon a theology that begins with us is not as comforting and stabalizing.  We understand that it is a foundation which is not solid and will shift around a lot, causing the building of faith to fall.

When we feel as through we’re empowered and that we largely direct our own destiny, the idea of the sovereignty of God can offend our individualistic sensibilities.  When we feel as though we can provide for ourselves through employment, the providence of God doesn’t seem to be that relevant.  When we feel as though we are able to make the decisions for our lives and that our lives are under our own control, irresistable grace and election seem to contradict the respect for our own agency.

It is true that no one really cares about soverginty, providence, irresistable grace, election, etc… but people do care about the fact that God is in control and nothing is out of God’s reach, people do care that God provides for us, people do care that God pursues us even before we begin pursuing God, that graciously chooses us for God’s own. These are all benefits of a distinctively Reformed witness in the city.

In the midst of a community where people are told that they must speak in tounges, that they must be careful not to lose their salvation, that if they do something wrong God will leave them, that if they sin, they must turn back to God on their own…I am proud to be a witness that stands upon, first and foremost God’s action and then secondarily our response, and a witness that is founded upon God and God’s grace.  This is why I think and believe very strongly that a Reformed presence in the city is so very important.

Stewardship in the Inner City

At our church, we have a board inside the narthex that has the register of attendance and offerings.  This board has numbers on it: our attendance the previous week and the attendance to the corresponding week last year, it includes our weekly giving goal, and our offering from last week.  This is, of course, not to serve as a comprehensive evaluation of the health of our church, but it is certainly a dynamic of it.  While I think that at times our denomination (the Reformed Church in America) can focus too much on numbers and statistical measures of growth, we cannot deny the importance of attendance and offering numbers as a component to our health.

Some people who visit our church in Milwaukee from elsewhere are sometimes surprised that in our inner-city church in a largely low-income neighborhood, we display these numbers for all to see.  However, I think that highlighting such numbers is important regardless of whether you are in a high-income church or a low-income church.  Giving is not just about the amount, it is a spiritual discipline.

I sometimes hear people talk about how churches are all about money, that they focus too much on money.  Sometimes I hear people refer to the offering as the “admission”, usually tounge-in-cheek, but I think that there is often a hint of seriousness to it.  Unfortunately, I think that there are many instances when these observations and critiques are accurate.

There is a fine line between appearing like we worship money (which it can seem like, everyone stands and we sing the Doxology), and placing such a low importance on giving that it is not even in our worship services (at one church I visited one time, they had “joy boxes” on the back wall, and they encouraged you to put money in there if you would like).  The danger of focusing too much on money is that those of limited means can feel left out or even excluded.

The purpose of the church is not to exclude, but to include; not to cause divisions, but to create unity; not to make a hierarchy between “useful” people and “unuseful people”, but to help everyone to understand that they have a purpose, and to help everyone to participate in the greater mission.  Regardless of how wealthy one is, everyone needs to feel as though they have some ownership in their church, as though they have a stake in their church, as though they can contribute.  This is the real point of an offering.

It is true that a church, as an organization, needs money to function, but the offering is so much more than a fundraiser.  We often talk about the offering as the time in which we “give back to God”, which technically is correct, but it is a bit abstract.  It also carries the undertone that money is the only way that we can do this, and those that cannot offer much money may feel as though they don’t have something to give to God.  This is why it is important to understand the offering as both material and symbolic.  Money is one way that we can, and need to, give of ourselves.  But for those of us of limited means, those of us who cannot offer much other than a few coins, the offering is also symbolic of giving of ourselves to God.

I don’t make judgements or conclusions about our church, our people, or our stewardship solely by the numbers on the board.  I don’t even talk about it that much.  I allow the numbers to just be.  Some weeks we get closer to our giving goal, other weeks we are way under our goal.  It is important for us to be aware of it, but we need not stake our whole existance on it.  We need to encourage giving and stewardship, also being aware that we have many with limited financial resources and fixed incomes, and we invite these folks to give what they are able.

No where in the Bible (that I am aware of, at least), is stewardship limited to wealthy folks.  No where are we told that only a certain portion of the people need to be stewards of what they have.  Stewardship is universal, and even when we may not have much money to offer, we can offer what we are able.  The point is not that we must offer ten percent, or that we must give a certain amount, the point is that we give of ourselves what we are able.  More than anything giving is a spiritual discipline, and this is why we keep having the numbers on the board.

Walking the Neighborhood

Each week, usually on a Wednesday afternoon, I go for a walk around the neighborhood.  I do it for several reasons.  The first of which is that it helps me to toss around the scripture text for Sunday’s sermon in my mind, and allows me to get some fresh air in the process.  Secondly, it helps me to get to know the neighborhood, and the neighbors.  I love it when I see one of my parishioners on my walks.  Thirdly, it allows me a chance to pray not only with my mind, but also with my body, as I pray for our neighborhood while I walk it.

Each week, I am overcome with the same incredibly overwhelming feeling of despair mixed with hope.  I despair because I see so many homes boarded up and posted as unfit for human habitation.  I despair because I see people who are desperately trying to scrape by, sometimes being able to do it, other times falling short.  I despair because I see the fallenness of our world.  I am so thankful, though, that despair is not my only feeling.

I also feel hope.  I feel hope because I believe that God can restore our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that God can transform our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that there is so much more going on than I can see with my eyes.

It is a very strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, mix of feelings.  It is the feeling of being at the middle of a cross road and not knowing exactly where it will take you.  I wish that I knew for sure that our neighborhood would be transformed and rejuvinated.  I wish I knew for certain when said transformation was going to happen.  But I don’t.

While I hope, I don’t know for certain that something miraculous is going to happen, and I don’t know when.  I suppose that is what hope is, as Paul writes in Romans “…we hope for what we do not see…”  This mixture of feelings is unsettling, and it burdens my heart.  However, I think that this mixture of feelings is something that we all experience in one way or another.

For me, I think that it is the feeling of despair that helps me live in the real world, and understand our need for redemption and restoration.  It is the feeling of despair that opens me up to something more, it is the feeling of despair that tills the soil of my heart to prepare it for new growth.  Moreover, it is hope that allows me to continue on: to continue preaching, to continue praying, to continue walking with people.  I do not think that true hope can exist without some feeling of despair, and despair without hope is, quite literally, hell.

This mixture of feelings, of despair and hope, I think, is the tention that we live in, the already but not yet, to use a well-worn phrase.  This is a tension that pushes us to live and pray earnestly, “Come, Lord Jesus.”