Who we are as persons and as urban practitioners is shaped foremost by the many experiences of our lives. The people we meet and the crises we endure shape us and give our lives meaning and form. Since personal experience is such a powerful teacher, it is important to consider if it is possible to create or structure such experiences, rather than waiting for them to happen. At the same time, we need to be aware of the many factors that may influence our interpretation of the events we experience.Here is how one urban practitioner and his ministry have been changed by the experiences of his life.
I would like to recall two experiences that have highly influenced my Christian ministry. My first experience happened in a Christian community in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1972-73. Overall, I spent two years with this community of 25 to 45 individuals. I lived in several houses; sharing in community meals and dormitory style sleeping. The purpose of my visit was to evangelize and disciple the traveling, drug using, eastern religion-oriented Westerners journeying through Afghanistan on their way to India and Nepal.
In this setting I learned the power of both the Holy Spirit and the Christian community to effectuate transformed lives.
I saw the Holy Spirit totally transforming the lives of many ex-drug users and hopeless hippies by replacing confusion, aimlessness, and self-destruction with the desire to serve God and their fellow man.
I can recall Geoff from England, who wandered into our coffee-bar in downtown Kabul, then stayed with us in the community house. Geoff turned his life over to Christ, and then-some two years later-went on to Nepal to share his faith with great effect amongst the Tibetan-Buddhist farmers. He then went on to India to lead big healing-preaching crusades in stadiums in Northern India. Northern India has very few Christians.
Through Geoff, I learned the difference between the power of personality and the power of the Holy Spirit, I learned that we must never limit what we think God can do through an individual; never trust that we can see anyone's true gifts. Geoff was basically a quiet and shy person. When I first heard that he was preaching to great crowds in northern India I could scarcely believe it. "Geoff?!" was my incredulous reply. I learned that we must never limit what we think God can do through an individual; never trust that we can see anyone's true gifts. In fact, we are often blinded by focusing on their observable personality.
The second set of life-transforming experiences came during my involvement in Christian outreach in Nottingham, England. The two cities were very different from each other. Nottingham, unlike Kabul, did not have droves of drifting transients consciously looking for alternatives. The people in Kabul were cut off from their home roots and had loads of extra time on their hands. Consequently, what our visitors in Kabul found attractive was a Christian community, with relaxed meals, that featured conversational-style Bible studies around the table after the meal. This held no attraction to the people of Nottingham. In Nottingham, if you invite a relative stranger back for a meal, they would immediately have their suspicions raised: "What does this guy want?" So I had to ask God to show me a different approach. I was desperate to discover ways to break through in communicating the gospel. I tried several approaches, even door-to-door evangelism, which floundered when I ended up sitting down and watching an exciting European Cup Match (soccer) with my (willing?) new hosts.
Then one day I walked by an old-fashioned street preacher thinking, "Now there is something that I would never do." Can you guess the story? Not long after that I found myself on the streets with my wife and a friend feeling like a fool and attempting to proclaim the gospel to the passers-by. None stopped. So I said to the Lord, "If you really want me to do this then you have got to stop somebody because I am certainly not doing this for my own sake." Well, several people stopped and I began a continuous eight year adventure in street preaching. While some opposed this street preaching, and many were indifferent, there were also those who listened and eventually became Christians, like Richard whom we met in Leicester Square in London. We eventually brought him back to our community some miles away (so Christian community was still important). He turned his life over to Christ. But when we started to go out on the streets a few days later (this was a regular part of our ministry outreach which we expected all in our community to join, even very young Christians) Richard told me, "Oh, I'll just stay back and pray; I don't do this sort of ministry." Well, he joined us after some gentle prodding and today he leads that ministry in London. He is not a street preacher but heads up ministries to the homeless and lost on the streets of London, to AIDS victims and to homosexuals. Paul Miller - Seattle WA
What this post-Kabul experience taught me was:
Are our personal experiences unplanned events, or can we structure them? Is it possible to create opportunities for our own development and to prepare others for urban mission?
To a certain extent, ministering to others does require one to produce creatable experiences. Here we think of Jesus who created experiences for His disciples by taking them around with Him as He ministered. Watching Him, they learned to minister. So, today, with their leadership gifts and roles, urban leaders can create situations where others have an opportunity to share in ministry. The learning situations include evangelizing unbelievers, teaching a church body, spending time with community residents, leading a small group for mutual encouragement, and meeting social needs through street level outreach.
All these ministry opportunities lead people into experiences which enhance different areas needing development: skills, understanding, character. They enhance our learning of ministry skills, including: praying for and listening to people, listening to God, sharing from the scriptures and leading meetings. These opportunities also help to develop our understanding of what makes people tick and what is necessary for more effective ministry. Finally, these opportunities provide valuable experiences through which to deepen our character . It is impossible to deepen character without experience (i.e., Jesus learned obedience through His sufferings and not through His study). Character is formed by the responses of obedience through the small and big experiences of life in which we have to go God's way or our way. Character is who we are and not just what we know - so, by definition, "character" is not mainly a question of developing our mind through study (though study is important to inform us of God's view of the world and to give us a pointer on what responses to life experiences we should be nurturing).
Here leaders need to be careful. We must steer between two extremes: academic teaching which only develops a cognitive grasp of the intellectual world; and experiential teaching which so manipulates students that we risk blocking the real work of the Holy Spirit. Some consciously created character forming experiences are valid, e.g., learning to be a servant by doing practical chores (rather than only engaging in preaching/teaching assignments) and learning patience by being thrown into hard situations. It would seem that one way for leadership to avoid the temptation to overtake the Holy Spirit's role in character-building is by assuming that these character-building experiences will take place in the course of practical ministry. In other words, character building becomes a natural by-product of ministering to others rather than vice versa. The focus should be on serving others; we can then trust God to teach the necessary character lessons on the way.
Learning through community is a powerful and relatively unexplored learning tool among urban professionals. During the writing of this book we have experienced a series of new tools that create settings in which synergy can be achieved. (See Introduction and Chapter 9 for a description of these tools.) Through collaborative writing, our ideas, feelings and insights have been enriched. Tremendous amounts of wisdom can be collected in a very simple but dynamic way. It has been a creative way to share ideas without worry about offending those who have brought ideas to the table.
The community itself offers opportunities to structure own our learning experiences. Begin by deliberately visiting other urban ministries in your city and out of town. See what they have seen in the city and ask how they understand their response. Visit churches and listen to what pastors say are the issues in their community; compare those to the feelings of other community members. Visit police stations, schools, and city maintenance workers and listen to what they believe to be the issues in the community and compare these with the views of bankers, business owners and shop keepers.
Begin to put together a big picture of all the issues in the community, both the needs that are visible, and the untapped latent skills of the individuals and the system. Invite a cross section of people to come together for discussion, sharing, observations, mutual understanding and encouragement. The urban worker must develop a desire to know others, understand their observations and responses, and seek ways to take advantage of their gifts. This is crucial since problems have many levels and each level must be addressed if cities and their people are to be restored.
How do we find the time to do all of this when the demands of our own work keep us very busy? First, communicate to your co-workers and board that your understanding of effective urban ministry includes visiting and networking times. Secure their support and enthusiasm. Second, be intentional. Look at your monthly schedule and assess priorities; schedule the time for visits. Take family, co-workers, and/or board members with you to maximize time. Third, call ahead to set appointments and secure written information as background material. Finally, adopt the long-term perspective with an understanding that this is a process, not an end.
As urban professionals it is possible to structure many creative personal learning experiences for ourselves and for those who will be the next generation of urban leadership.
As we consider the very real value of our personal experience, we do well to remember that all the events of our daily lives are necessarily viewed through the lens of our own culture. Our natural tendency to read meaning into events through these lenses may actually filter out some greater or lesser level of objective truth. What are some of these cultural lenses?
Chief among the lenses that shape and alter our view of the world and that give form to our urban ministry style and structures are our cultural histories. These are the rituals, values and notions about life that stretch back in history far beyond our own personal life experiences.
Our cultural history can be a powerful tool as well as a powerful set of blinders. A variety of cultural factors shape who we are, how we understand theology and how we view our work in the city. Usually these factors are invisible to us. The strands of culture and the strands of our personalities are so interwoven that we cannot recognize them as separate. Our challenge is to intentionally look at how our theology and our world views have already been shaped.
The strands of our culture are interwoven in many ways:
From birth, stories and music create meaning for the world around us. Our simplest entertainment may teach us that God is distant, that bad children will be destroyed, that good children never question authority or that Jesus was white.
Secular rituals play a powerful role in shaping our view of the world. The celebration of Christmas, for instance, can unintentionally reinforce a materialistic view of the world that equates good behavior with wealth. National holidays reinforce certain values. In America, the Fourth of July tends to underscore a view of the world created to serve the needs of one mighty nation sanctioned by God.
The cultural icons whose portraits and statues surround us exist to shape what we believe and to control our allegiance to our society. Military heroes are elevated and the wars they fought honored, even when those wars may have been fought to preserve slavery or to take the homes of the innocent.
From the color of the baby blanket to the roles we adopt while at childhood play, it is made clear what our standing ought to be in society, who will have power over whom and how we will exercise that power.
These and other cultural lenses shape us all. Our notion of God, our reading of scripture and decisions about how we work in the city are formed before we are even aware of the forces that shape them.
How do we consciously become aware of and expand our cultural point of view?
1. Get feedback from those in other cultures. Dialogue with those who do not share your culture. Dialoguing with those who may not even share our faith, may be especially helpful in allowing us to see ourselves through the lens of another culture.
2 Travel and observe. It is important that we experience the culture of others, whether traveling outside our countries or through immersion in other cultures within our own country. Such experiences tend to highlight differences, that is, in what ways we are unique.
3 Read and study. For many, getting in touch with the forces that have given form to their lives can come from research and study.
4 Get feedback from others of your own faith. Even our most closely held beliefs about God and theology are colored by culture. We need fellow believers in Christ of other cultures to critique our theology. How have we been blinded? What truths have we overlooked or discounted? Our theological blinders are perhaps the most crucial determinants of the success or failure of the work we do.
As we become more aware of our own personal and cultural biases, we can move into other cultures with greater integrity. In the next chapter, we will look at some practical ways of actually entering into other cultures.