The Urban Challenge: Deciding the Difference Between Doing Ministry Right and Doing the Right Ministry. Eastern Seminary's Urban Ministry program is undergirded by a strong servanthood motif. Eastern sees itself as the servant of the church and views the church as the servant of the community. In order to demonstrate its servanthood calling to the urban church community, Eastern operates Project Access. The goal of the program is to assist the urban church in renewing and revitalizing its relationship with its immediate community. The goal reflects the need of many urban churches to honor a theology of place in serving those persons, members and non-members, who live in the community in which the church is housed. Many of these congregations are made up of persons who once lived in the community of the church, but now reside in other communities. There remains, however, a real caring for the immediate community and a calling to provide meaningful ministries. Unfortunately, many of these churches spend significant time and resources providing ministries which they decide are needed by the community without any consultation with the community. Additionally, churches generally do not include a process of evaluation in their service delivery system, and therefore are unable to determine, with reliability, the degree to which their services are making a significant impact on the quality of life of the community.
A major urban church approached Project Access for help in determining how it was viewed by the community. The pastor, a visionary, wanted to know how the community, if given the opportunity, would define its relationship to the church. It was the pastor's belief that the church was not serving the community as it should because it had not convinced the community of this objective. Using Seminary students, Project Access worked with members of the church to develop a community survey. The purpose of the survey was to provide an opportunity for face-to-face interaction with members of the community about their needs and the way in which the church might address those needs.
Following the design of the survey by a church planning group, a larger group of church members were given training for administering the survey. The next step in the survey process was to ask church members to participate in the survey in order to establish a church profile. Members of the church overwhelmingly stated that the most important needs of the community were employment and housing, primarily for adult members of the community. Next, church members administered the survey to community residents in a twenty block area surrounding the church. Community residents overwhelming stated that their number one concern had to do with programs and services for the youth of the community. Church members expressed genuine surprise that the survey response of the community revealed a priority need area that differed from their assessment. While services to youth were included in the ministry of the Church, they did not have the priority status recommended by the community.
The joy of this story is the sense of renewal, a type of "new beginning," created by the survey outcome. The church had found a way to look at itself and to admit to itself that its best intentions had not produced the best service for the community.
Immediately, church leaders began to talk about a change in its outreach ministries related to youth services. The concept of the survey introduced the possibility that perhaps other ministry areas of the church needed to be reviewed for its relevance to community stated needs.
Working as servants of the Seminary, students became engaged in a church assessment process which resulted in an expansion of the church's view of itself as servant to the community. Utilizing a theology of place, seminarians grew to better understand God's witness to the city as found in the heart of the urban church that wants to serve and in the hearts of the people who want to participate in shaping the quality of life of their community. Additionally, the church gained a more holistic view of the stewardship of its resources as it began to view distribution from the perspective of the community. The need to see the community as a partner opened the door to a renewed way of thinking in shaping ministry.
Also, what is important about this story is that everyone had to become a learner in order for the outcome to be achieved. The church had to admit that it did not have all the answers and needed the help of the community. The community had to first hear the church's concern in order to respond. The seminarians had to acknowledge that their role as servants had to be accompanied by a willingness to be partners with the church and the community and not to assume a position of knowledge base authority. Because everyone involved accepted the role of learner at the appropriate time in the change process, receptivity to each person's resourcefulness, when needed, was enhanced.
Several clear utcomesemerge:
The urban church can have a heart for its immediate community that aids in the bonding of church and community;
The ability to work as partners in the change process requires mutual respect for all participants as both learner and resource person;
The presence of a theology of place mandates a sacred regard for the unique factors of faith expression, tradition, history, and culture that shape and determine the fit between what is needed and what is achieved; the seminary's ability to see itself as servant can expose its students to a learning environment in which that which is theory and that which is praxis becomes one.