By Tom Fodi
Toward the end of the school year in 1994, my fifth-grade teacher offered my classmates and me the opportunity to freely express our memories of the school year and dreams of the future in a self-published yearbook. She invited us to reflect on the year by answering short survey questions such as, “What is your favorite memory of this school year?” and “What are your plans for summer vacation?”
Reading the thoughts of those 11-year-olds today is an entertaining trip down memory lane. But that yearbook composed almost two decades ago gives clues to the dramatic changes that have occurred in Pittsburgh since then. That’s especially true with responses to a question that came near the end of the yearbook: “What will Pittsburgh be like in the future?”
Nearly every student wrote something like this: “In the future Pittsburgh will be completely overrun by drugs, crime, and gangs.” Almost every pair of 10- and 11-year-old eyes could see nothing but a dismal future for the “Steel City.”
After decades of the “good life” as an economic powerhouse fueled almost exclusively by a steel industry that built the nation, Pittsburgh entered an economic nosedive in the mid-1980s, when most of the steel mills ceased production. Having been born at the dawn of this collapse, my generation of Pittsburghers knew nothing but decline: neighborhood businesses closed up shop, jobs with livable wages were few and far between, poverty and crime steadily increased, and countless friends said good-bye as families relocated in search of greener pastures.
As one can imagine, as the jobs and people left Pittsburgh, the churches were not far behind. What was once a cradle of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Pittsburgh now has only a handful of viable, life-giving Christian churches, only three of which actually meet within the city limits. The decline of the economy, neighborhoods, and churches has defined the past couple of decades in Pittsburgh, so it is understandable why ministry in this region has been anything but groundbreaking. Barring few exceptions, ministry in the few remaining churches could be summarized as traditional at best.
At least until recently.
Thanks, in part, to the low cost of property, intentional citywide investment in a diversified economy, relative proximity to the larger, more expensive cities of the Eastern seaboard, and a passionate entrepreneurial spirit, Pittsburgh has been experiencing an unprecedented renaissance. Almost without notice, numerous large tech companies have entered the Pittsburgh marketplace. Pittsburgh now boasts some of world’s highest-rated medical facilities. In 2009, Pittsburgh reentered the world stage by hosting the G-20 summit. In 2007, 2011, and 2012 Places Rated Almanac, Forbes magazine, and The Economist, respectively, selected Pittsburgh as America’s “most livable city.” And just this past April, U-Haul reported Pittsburgh as its top destination in the nation for people renting its moving trucks to relocate.
People are moving to Pittsburgh from all over the world, and pride within the city is near an all-time high. Just by walking the once dilapidated streets of this old steel town, it’s hard to miss the buzz in the air these days. With the city’s population and economy on the rise, there’s never been a more important time to go beyond traditional ministry models to consider new and intentional methods of kingdom expansion in the Golden Triangle.
For Emmanuel Christian Church, a 120-plus-year-old congregation just shy of 100 members in the upper north side of Pittsburgh, intentionality has been the name of the game. The days of passive “they’ll join us if God so leads them” ministry are long gone. What began as a simple desire to get to know the people in our neighborhood has transformed into a passion for serving alongside, and loving the people of Pittsburgh in the name of Jesus.
As the leadership of Emmanuel Christian explored a new vision for how we might serve as missionaries in our city, we discerned three clear characteristics to Jesus’ methodology: through the incarnation of the divine and ceaseless love for the irreligious, Jesus drew people closer to God, close to one another, and closer to their respective communities as ones sent to bear the kingdom.
Recognizing the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry, we chose to pursue the same end in our own context. Rather than seeing any project or event as particularly evangelistic or outreach-focused, everything is done with a deep abiding love for those not currently enjoying life in the kingdom. Whether by large-scale events such as a community Memorial Day picnic and Northside Easter sunrise service, or small service partnerships with other community groups, the core mission of ECC is to draw the city we love close to God and his kingdom. Our hearts bleed for the people of Pittsburgh, and that is demonstrated in everything we do.
After we took this simple, yet profound, approach to ministry for just a few years, the local civic association recognized the church’s efforts by awarding the congregation its annual “Citizen of the Year” award in 2011. Emmanuel Christian Church may not be bursting at the seams with numerical growth, nor can we afford the most modern technology equipment or education materials, but we’ve drawn folks closer to the divine and one another simply by incarnating the love of Jesus for our city in all we do.
Yet, as the city continues to expand, far more needs to be done to effectively draw Pittsburgh closer to Jesus and his kingdom. Steps are being taken with organizations like Stadia and Orchard Group to see that new churches and ministries are started in Pittsburgh’s ever-expanding urban core.
There is no urban ministry program or methodology that can replace the sheer love and passion for the people of your city. Without a gut-wrenching love for the lost, without a heart to personally know them and invest in their lives so that they may draw closer to God and his people, the kingdom will never expand in the increasingly post-Christian cities of the U.S.
I know God loves Pittsburgh because he gave my church and me a passionate love for Pittsburgh. I pray you can say the same for your city and your church.
Tom Fodi serves as lead minister with Emmanuel Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised. He also serves as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and has been deployed to Iraq and Kuwait.