At a time when our work within the city was in serious decline and when many of areas of the work had become stagnant and ineffective it was important for us to re-envision the work (Glasgow City Mission). We discovered that the vision which had initiated urban mission in our city and in many other cities around the world was not only good then but good now. We looked at aspects of that vision, e.g.
History is an endless source of models and wisdom for urban ministry. We take inspiration from the Bible, from our personal histories, the history of the church in the city, and from theological history. While God works in our personal history, he also works in spite of that history. Constructing simple group histories through story collecting can greatly enrich our communities. We need to be aware of the many ways that history can or should shape and direct our vision and our methods of urban ministry.
In the New Testament, it is clear that the gospel conquered the Roman world by penetrating its major cities. What Paul did on his missionary journeys in Acts was to go from city to city, finding culturally appropriate ways to introduce the Gospel in each city.
While the Bible begins in a garden, it ends in a city. History itself presses forward toward the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation.
Even this very brief overview suggests that the Bible has much to say about urban ministry. What are some specific biblical models and themes that can guide urban professionals in their work?
Nehemiah wrote the most contemporary practical urban handbook in scripture. He was a lay man who caught a vision for rebuilding his city and prayed for the right opportunity. When the time was right, he asked his boss (the King) for a leave of absence, a government grant and in-kind gifts; he mobilized a volunteer service project and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem in fifty two days. In a most radical and practical strategy, Nehemiah recruited people of faith from the suburbs to relocate into the city and reneighbor it. Almost every aspect of city ministry is included in this practical book: politics, safety, labor issues, financing, decision making, self-interest of the volunteers, the role of the church and scripture, commerce and trade issues, credit policies, and a host of other relevant issues familiar to urban practitioners.
Other Biblical characters model different urban leadership styles.
What are the odds that an ex-convict from an extremely dysfunctional family (ten half-bothers and multiple step mothers) will make it as an urban leader? Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery in Egypt where God gave him an ability to interpret dreams. That gift landed him a position as Secretary of Agriculture for the most powerful city-state on earth. Joseph models for us the values of persevering through years of isolation and using his official government status to benefit the multitudes.
Talk about long-term leadership training programs: Moses was classically educated in pharohic studies and then spent 40 years in the desert tending sheep in preparation for leading a nation. The son of a welfare mother, he was a partner in a bi-racial marriage and needed his father-in-law's advice on how best to manage his affairs. Moses also made the hard decision early in life to turn his back on the privilege of the court and to identify with his own people in slavery and poverty. His model is one of moral courage and long apprenticeship on the way to becoming an effective leader who practiced community development with poverty-level migrant immigrants.
Esther's leadership strategy was to enter a beauty contest for "Miss Ancient Persia" and marry the king. Raised by her uncle she used her influence with the king to change the unjust laws that were threatening the life of the Jewish settlement. Her courage and advocacy for the powerless spared many lives. Esther models working for good within an evil corrupt system.
Jesus, too, was homeless-first as a baby born in a borrowed stable and then as a refugee in Africa. As an adult he had no place to rest his head. The early Christians counted homelessness as part of the cost of their apostleship; the last book of the Bible was written by a man forcibly removed from his home.
Since homelessness is one of the most challenging problems in large cities today, the passages noted above help us to discover something of God's attitude to homelessness. In particular, we see that it is impossible to separate the theme of homelessness from the issues of justice, righteousness and mercy, all characteristics of God.
The theme of shalom helps us recognize the value of investing for the future of a given community - for the long haul. Building a house and planting a garden are not overnight endeavors; it takes time to prepare, to gather resources, to cultivate. These efforts also involve the larger community, including family. The notion of shalom is also holistic in the sense of addressing the man-made environment as well as nature. We do not have shalom unless all these aspects are addressed.
It is overwhelmingly clear from the Bible that one of God's primary concerns is for the poor and the oppressed. That is how Jesus defined His ministry during His time on earth: good news the to poor, bad news to the rich. Early Christians took all this very literally and shared their wealth with anyone in need. The New Testament characterizes this kind of practical action as pure and faultless religion in the eyes of God.
It is the same in the Old Testament. God judged Sodom because it neglected the poor. The legal system He established in Leviticus was designed to protect and support the weak and the outsider, especially immigrants, who were to be treated the same as the native born. When the poor complained to Nehemiah about how they were oppressed, Nehemiah confronted the oppressors and told them exactly what they were doing wrong. Speaking through the other prophets, God explained over and over to Israel just how He expected them to treat the poor: with righteousness, justice and compassion.
The above passages are only a few of the many scriptures that demonstrate God's concern for the helpless. However, they are sufficient to show that one primary focus of urban ministry must be to extend justice and compassion to the poor.
God calls Samuel and discovers in him someone He can trust to become the prophet for the nation. Samuel exercises spiritual authority over the whole nation, calling them to repent, gathering them. Seeing their devotion, God delivers them from the Philistines, and Samuel continues to serve the Lord all of his life.
Samuel's story reminds us that God's first step in doing a new work for his people is to raise up a leader.
For us, to understand governmental power is to understand that it universally works against the poor. The role of the church, even when in partnership with the government, must always be one of godly skepticism. Inevitably, the power of the government - any power - will begin to corrupt the mission of justice and mercy to which we are called.
Jesus sees the city, not its splendor but the harassed and helpless: the outcasts, prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners. He teaches us how to see the city with a divine perspective.
Jesus weeps. We can only marvel at this divine passion for the city. It is not enough to analyze the needs of a city; we need to weep for its brokenness.
There are, of course, many more scriptural themes that could apply to urban ministry. The more we come to Scripture with minds sensitized to urban issues, the more urban wisdom we will find.
One urban professional says,
I am aware that my middle-class values and my European heritage bring a unique influence to my ministry. I like order, careful planning, organization, budgeting - things that serve me well in running an organization but do not enhance my ability to relate to people.
My personal history of having been thrown in with an active ministry reaching out to the spiritual, physical and social needs of non-Christians has formed me by shaping what my expectations of the Christian life are.
It has shown me that the Christian life is one where we can and should reach out to people, where we can expect God to reach out with and through us (we are not alone!), where we can more effectively reach out as we do so as a team rather than alone.
God is constantly working through the events of our lives and in the lives of those around us. Here is the story of how one IUA Associate's ministry has been shaped by his life experience.
My ministry included contact with a shoplifter who had a wife and five daughters. The shoplifter was taken to court where he risked the loss of his home and the opportunity of schooling for his daughters, as well as imprisonment. We discussed the situation at church one weekend.
Early in the following week a church leader met a man who asked for a lift to go into town. The elder had accidentally picked up the very man about whom they had discussions the week before. The man was going on trial. Church leaders decided to attend.
I went to court and asked for leniency, but because of his habitual crime the man was sentenced to 6 months' imprisonment. In South Africa short-term prisoners were sold to white farmers as indentured servants. Our desire was to see a benevolent White buy this man. In this way the church could carry on with his rehabilitation under more favorable conditions. Otherwise, he would be exposed to the deplorable conditions of South African prisons.
We made arrangements for the prisoner to be connected with such a white man, but when they met the white man exclaimed, "Oh, no, this is the guy who wiped me out." Just as in the case of Paul and Onesimus we were able to persuade the white man to take the prisoner. Paul says, "If I am your father in the faith then you should treat this slave as you would treat me."
The white man released the prisoner every night because he was connected to the church. The church was able to demonstrate compassion to the prisoner because of the compassion I learned from the model of my father.
The more I reflect on my life the more I am aware of how much of who I am and what I do has been shaped and built upon my life history. For me, this means observing my own father's many years of selfless devotion as a teacher to Soweto's poor, my personal experience of pain and marginalization as an ethnic minority in South Africa, my education and training, and my interpretation of Scripture.-Caesar Molabotsi, Soweto
What we learn from Caesar, and from the other two urban professionals who began this section, is that reflection on and awareness of our personal histories are vital steps in understanding who we are as urban leaders.
My personal history effects me greatly; it forms the prism through which I view life. On the other hand, it does not absolutely determine what I do because the sovereign God can and does break through graciously to reinterpret history and to add new history to my life. Sounds grand, doesn't it?! Well... it is rather grand.
My personal history in the southern United States has given me a deep feeling about the city and about the racial divisions of the city. Additionally, my exposure to people of faith who did not succumb to racism has given me a belief in the possibility of change...belief that histories do not necessarily determine our futures.
Whatever the history, God is sovereign. This truth is especially relevant in the many disturbed areas of the world where there is great suffering. However, it is also the way we ourselves respond to the bitter experiences of life that leads to either growth or despair. Again, Caesar Molabotsi, of Soweto, has much to say:
In our experience in South Africa we find that a lot of people are destroyed by their history. However, there is also a realization that one can walk back into history with Christ, realizing that this can be done with integrity because He was the same yesterday as he is today and will be tomorrow.
The example given to us by President Mandela is one such case in point. He could walk back into his particular history, encounter the people in that history all over again and do it with a heart that is full of forgiveness, which Christ makes possible for any one who asks. He has shown a remarkable ability to not only forgive, but also to never allow that history to serve any other purpose than to help guide him in a positive and reconciling way in the present and into the future. For him, history is a deposit of experiences that should make us wiser to the end that we be effective in building a better situation today. To take history otherwise, President Mandela would condemn the future with negative acts that try to right what can not righted because it does not exist in real time and can never be recaptured.
I have come to learn in life that when God allows you to go through a particular experience it is meant to make you an expert. Only when you have gone through some trial will you be able to empathize effectively with others who may be going through similar or related hardships. For example, the history of the black person in South Africa ought to prepare one to not only philosophically oppose any form of oppression, but also to give one the skills and tools to effectively intervene where there is any form of oppression. This, however, is not always the case. It is up to each individual to specifically recognize that despite what happens, history does not have to lead to tragedy but can rather improve and strengthen one's resolve to engage in positive and meaningful action on behalf of others who are thus affected-Caesar Molabotsi, Soweto.
In the end, it would appear that it is we ourselves who determine the effects history will have in our lives.
This is especially important, because as global urbanization accelerates, the largest cities of the world are acquiring status and influence that extend well beyond their national borders. These powerful mega-cities are known as World Class Cities. These cities influence the way the world thinks about freedom. These cities influence the way the world thinks about money. These cities influence the way the world thinks about God. Yet it is in these very cities that we can see the past and current history of God at work.
One such mega-city is New York City. If we look at New York from two very different moments in time, we see a series of common crises. In l857, 30,000 men were idle in the streets of New York. Drunkenness was rampant and the nation was divided by slavery.
Since l987, New York City has suffered the loss of 500,000 jobs. A quarter of all men between the ages of 18 and 24 have contracted the HIV virus. The nation is still divided over the issue of race.
Going back to l857, God raised up a praying businessman, Jeremiah Lanphier, who began a noontime prayer meeting on September 23rd on Fulton Street. The first meeting attracted six people. The next week there were fourteen and the next week twenty-three. Within a matter of weeks thousands were gathering in daily prayer. There were so many conversions that the New York daily paper stopped running the obituary column and began running columns of all those who had been converted the night before. The revival spread southward to Philadelphia, and westward to Cleveland.
This businessmen's revival also became the galvanizing force of the anti-slavery sentiment in the north. Eight years later, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Over the next thirty-five years more African Americans became Christians than any other ethnic group in the history of North America.
Returning to the present, since l987, 30,000 people from 800 churches in Metro New York have been meeting in concerts of prayer. Leadership from InterVarsity and Campus Crusade mobilized pastors and churches to come together. The prayer movement has brought believers together from every ethnic and denominational background. The prayer movement has addressed the great spiritual, moral, and racial problems of the city.
In l990, Korean businessmen sent forty Black pastors to Korea on a cultural exchange as a result of a pastor's prayer gathering. In l991, Billy Graham spoke to 250,000 people in Central Park. In l992 1,000 believers prayed in the Javitz Center against the teen AIDS crisis. That same evening 3,000 teens pledged themselves to a life-style of abstinence before marriage.
In New York City today, we see the fulfillment, in part, of the Old Testament promise in Isaiah 62:6-7, to bless the world through an intercessory people. On our very doorstep God is fulfilling, in part, the New Testament prophesy of Revelation 5, of intercessors from every tribe and tongue.
Cities are the vortex of history, drawing into their centers both the past and the future alike.
The important question is how to acknowledge the presence of errors and lies in any particular historical motif in order not to contribute to foundational weaknesses that will undermine our approach to urban ministry.
With this question in mind, the history of Christian theology in the western world offers some interesting perspectives on why many western or western-based churches appear to have failed to develop a sustainable and clear vision for urban ministry today. Historically, the church had such a vision, and took an active and effective role in ministry to the poor. In the modern western world, that vision and ministry have fragmented and weakened. What happened? Why is it that instead of focusing on ministry to the poor and vulnerable, the church in our day and culture has shifted its attention to sociological issues like urbanization, social mobility, technological change, secularization and the breakdown of modern society?
While these phenomena are undoubtedly important for understanding large cities today, some would argue that a major paradigm shift in modern theology (conservative and liberal alike) has also contributed substantially to the western church's current lack of concern for the poor.
To understand this paradigm shift, we need to be aware that for most its history, the Christian church embraced a God-centered theology. However, in the modern western world (19-20th centuries), this classical or God-centered theology fell out of favor, and was replaced by a human-centered or sociological theology, more in keeping with the 19th century philosophical turn to Self. The hope of the transitional theologians was that with this new orientation the church could better address what they thought of as the changing human condition, especially the condition of the poorest and most vulnerable. In other words, the thinking was: transform the human condition with human-centered theology.
The great irony is that "fighting fire with fire," (human centered theology for the human condition) has not served the poor. Unlike many indigenous theologies today in Africa and Latin America, human-centered theology grounds Justice (the foundation for social ministry) in human ideology and political power rather than grounding Justice in the very character of God, where it forms the basis for community life and ministry.
Social ministry was in fact the most accepted, most effective, and most creative in periods of history when transcendent theology (e.g., the tradition of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Reformation era Protestants) dominated the thinking of the western church. In our day of human-centered theology, the church in the west is the least effective, least motivated and in the greatest conflict about its social responsibility.
In the absence of a transcendently grounded idea of Justice, much of social ministry in and by the west is today guided by political and economic ideologies. This can be seen in the ongoing battles between church-growth capitalists and community development socialists. But this is political ideology masking itself as theology, not transcendent, biblical theology being lived out as ministry. Most western church-goers today would not be able to make this distinction as they tend to know more about their political convictions than they do about either the bible or theology. One legitimate way for the western church to recover its concern for the poor and vulnerable, is to reconnect its contemporary theological reflection to its historical roots in the transcendence of God. Another possible approach might be to step outside the western theological context altogether and consider what is being said by liberation and indigenous theologians in the Third World.
Here are a few simple guidelines for constructing local community histories