Studying the City: How Three Schools Are Preparing Students for Urban Ministry

By Jennifer Johnson

Two years ago, the United Nations predicted that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population would live in urban areas and reported that in the United States 82 percent already do. As the global community continues to move into cities, it’s becoming crucial for today’s young people—regardless of their major or vocational plans—to understand how to serve, minister, live, and thrive in urban environments.

Several of the colleges and universities affiliated with our movement understand the need to reach their own cities while preparing students for an urban future. Here’s what three of them are doing.

Knoxville, Tennessee, & Kissimmee, Florida

Across the country, Johnson University has developed a variety of programs for its own students, for local high school and middle school students, and for the surrounding communities. In Knoxville, Kenny Woodhull leads the Urban Alliance, a Johnson initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development.

“A few years ago, a group of students approached our president, Dr. Gary Weedman, and requested a holistic urban studies program,” Woodhull says. “We’ve been working on it ever since.”

Urban Alliance is a Johnson University initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development. Jacqueline Jackson and Rebecca Schuster are two Urban Scholars from that initiative.
Urban Alliance is a Johnson University initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development. Jacqueline Jackson and Rebecca Schuster are two Urban Scholars from that initiative.

Today the Alliance includes the Urban Scholars program, a scholarship for promising urban high school students; Urban Plunge, an inner-city residential experience for Johnson University students; Royal Explorers, a two-week, field-based summer science camp for sixth-graders; Future of Hope, a six-month practical and theological exploration of issues facing Knoxville, designed for urban high school students; and ExtendEd Knoxville, a degree-granting and leadership development program for adults in partnership with Knoxville Interdenominational Bible Institute.

“The goal is to connect the needs and resources of Johnson with the needs and resources of Knoxville,” Woodhull says. “It’s a two-way street; we are diminished to the degree that we are not engaged with the city.” He views his work in terms of creating new programs where none exist, cultivating existing passions and programs that need to expand, and coordinating each initiative so they all complement each other and remain healthy.

A fourth key—collaboration—runs throughout the work.

“We’re delighted we’re having opportunities to come alongside existing organizations,” he says. “In overseas missions we’ve realized the future is indigenous leadership, and it’s true here, as well. God was at work in inner-city Knoxville way before we showed up, so we’re joining God in his mission and partnering with others who are already doing good work.”

The same spirit of innovation and interdependence marks the urban ministry work at Johnson’s Kissimmee, Florida, campus. In addition to an urban emphasis in their existing Intercultural Studies degree that requires significant time out of the classroom, Johnson Florida is developing Engage Orlando—a residential program for upper-class students similar to the Urban Plunge in Knoxville—as well as an Urban Ministry major and a degree in Global Community Health.

“For that degree, we’re working with urban developers and community development organizations who are already doing relief work and education,” says Kendi Howells Douglas, professor of intercultural studies. “Students will learn from these partnerships, and graduates will be equipped to help local communities with real health issues.

“For instance, someone with this degree could go into an inner-city school and talk about the Zika virus, which is a big concern right now because the lower-income areas of town have a lot of dirt and standing water, but don’t usually get sprayed for mosquitos.”

Johnson is also working on a TESOL—Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages—major and considering a certificate in Christian Ministries offered completely in Spanish for the many local pastors who have immigrated from Puerto Rico or Honduras and have no theological training. This will require not only coursework offered in Spanish, but also bilingual administrators, tutors, and support staff.

While this big initiative is still in the planning stages, Johnson is already building relationships with the Spanish-speakers near its campus. On October 15 the school held a Fall Fiesta, a huge family-friendly party with a Spanish speaker, rap group, and games and activities for kids. At the fiesta they also announced a new program called Mission Metropolis, a camp for 10th- through 12th-graders that includes a week learning about urban ministry and participating in projects off campus, followed by a week in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

“My dream is 10th-graders would begin learning about urban ministry and missions in Mission Metropolis, after three years they enroll at Johnson, they do their undergraduate degree with an urban concentration, and then do their master’s online!” Howells Douglas says. “I realize not every student will follow that path, but we have to dream and prepare at that level. The projections for urban growth are unbelievable—we must train the majority of our students, regardless of their major, to be engaging urban contexts.”

Joplin, Missouri

At first glance, Ozark seems an unlikely place to study urban ministry.

“Most of our students come from small-to-medium-size towns,” says Mike Ackerman, professor of church planting and New Testament. “Some of them have never even been to a large city. But we need to care about cities because the world is moving to cities.”

Previous study opportunities included a partnership with the Orchard Group, a New York City-based organization that plants Christian churches in major cities in the United States and around the world. For several years, Ozark students and faculty participated in the Orchard Institute, which held classes in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Today Ozark’s Exegeting the City course regularly focuses on New York, and this fall students in the class will visit Los Angeles and attend the Exponential Conference in Southern California.

“Although the class is open to everyone, most of the students who take it are pursuing majors in Biblical Justice or Church Planting,” Ackerman says. “It’s required for the church planting emphasis.”

However, because so many of Ozark’s students come from a more rural background, the class is valuable experientially as well as educationally.

“Some knee-jerk reactions are predictable,” Ackerman says. “They can’t comprehend spending $2,000 a month for an apartment, or they don’t think the people are friendly. Others fall in love with the environment and decide they want to do an internship or go on staff with an urban church. Either way, it’s a great opportunity to gain a larger perspective.”

In fact, the exposure to the city can even challenge the students’ theology.

“They have to grapple with empathy,” Ackerman says. “It’s easy to stereotype city dwellers, especially when the culture of the city is so foreign to you. Gordon Venturella [vice president of university advancement at Lincoln Christian University] always said that we tend to have a broken heart for the ‘down and outers,’ but not the ‘up and outers.’ This experience challenges students to feel empathy for all lost people, even those they might be intimidated by.”

Fullerton, California

The U.S. Census Bureau defines an urban area as “comprising one or more central places, and the adjacent densely-settled surrounding territory, that together have a minimum of 50,000 people.” So while cities like New York and Chicago certainly qualify as urban, so do urban sprawl areas like Anaheim, California.

“Anaheim is home to 350,000 people,” says Kip Lines, professor of intercultural studies at Hope International University in nearby Fullerton. “It’s one of the 10 biggest cities in California, and it has the highest population of any city in Orange County. It’s also home to many immigrants, to a large number of homeless people, and to a lot of gang activity and crime.”

This context provides a laboratory for students who want to study and prepare for ministry in a number of different areas.

“This fall we started a new initiative especially designed for students focusing on urban ministry and intercultural studies,” Lines says. “City Semester takes us off the Hope campus to work with and learn from My Safe Harbor, a nonprofit in Anaheim.”

My Safe Harbor, launched in 2008 out of Anaheim First Christian Church, creates programs and pathways for women in Anaheim—many of them single moms and many of them undocumented and unable to speak English—to develop life skills, discover their potential, set goals for the future, and do the hard work of changing their lives in a supportive community.

“I’ll teach the class one day a week, and a variety of guest lecturers from the community will teach the other day,” Lines says. “My Safe Harbor works collaboratively with a variety of community agencies, so our students will hear firsthand from the chief of police and his leadership team, the person in charge of local youth services, the gang reduction program coordinator, and the school district superintendent. Students will go to a city council meeting and they’ll meet the mayor.

“They will learn not only about what Anaheim First Christian and My Safe Harbor are doing, but also how they partner with others. So when we talk about homelessness, for example, they’re going to learn about the issue and about possible solutions from a variety of different perspectives.”

Half of the students in this fall’s cohort are ministry majors, while the rest are studying social sciences, psychology, and business, and many of the students have also registered for internship units or plan to volunteer.

“The ongoing goal is to incorporate cultural diversity into every degree,” Lines says. “We want students to understand cultural differences no matter what your educational program.” Because of Hope’s merger with Nebraska Christian College, students from Nebraska will also be able to come to Anaheim and participate in the City Semester.

Jennifer Johnson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *