By Michael Bowling
I have a confession. I have served two inner-city congregations for a total of 35 years, yet I am no fan of urban ministry. Here’s why. The greatest challenges to healthy church communities that are dynamic witnesses to the redemptive way of Jesus have little to do with urban-specific techniques or new resources.
Our challenges in urban, suburban, and rural contexts are the same: faithfulness to biblical discipleship, a theology of the church (ecclesiology) informed by the New Testament pattern, and a God-sized view of salvation. An overemphasis on new and innovative practices of “urban ministry” is a type of “fool’s gold” compared with the real gold of the good news of God’s present and emerging kingdom.
Such a focus on urban ministry could be like putting up an irresistible highway billboard that distracts drivers and causes crashes. The legal world refers to it as an “attractive nuisance.” The greatest gifts of encouragement we can offer urban churches are those God has already given in the wisdom of Scripture.
“Revitalize” is a new initiative of the Center for Church Leadership designed to organize a national network of Christian churches and churches of Christ that endeavor to join Christ in the redemption of urban places and peoples. We urgently need urban churches that are filled with radical disciples of Jesus. We need healthy churches that vividly display an imagination for the way of Jesus. Look through the window of what our world is becoming and you will see urgency and opportunity walking hand-in-hand.
Our Urgency, Opportunity, and Challenge
As of 2017, there were 47 megacities in the world, and that number increases every year. Megacities are urban or metropolitan areas with populations of at least 10 million. One in nine persons on the planet (which has a total population of 7.7 billion) live in a megacity. The United Nations estimates that 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that number is projected to swell to 68 percent by 2050. Could there be a more urgent mission than revitalizing existing urban churches or planting healthy new ones throughout the world?
Consider these three realities:
Restoration Movement churches have not done well in urban areas, especially in economically challenged and racially/ethnically diverse inner-city communities. The complex reasons for this are outside the scope of this article, but some of them are at the very heart of how we steer a course forward in an urban world.
As a fellowship of churches, we have always voiced a high regard for sacred Scripture. Many of us who labor in urban churches believe revitalized and healthy churches must faithfully follow the wisdom found in the Bible’s narratives. God’s wisdom gleaned through Scripture is good for all time zones and zip codes . . . urban, suburban, or rural!
We serve a God who has promised to provide all we need to be faithful churches wherever we are planted. If we believe this promise, our tasks include understanding our particular context, mapping both congregational and neighborhood assets, and engaging with our neighborhoods as expressions of God’s salt, light, and leaven.
I serve Englewood Christian Church, located on the near eastside of urban Indianapolis since 1895. Our spunky congregation of about 200 Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members and their families has witnessed dramatic expressions of God’s provision. Over the last couple of decades, God has allowed us to establish an early-learning daycare of 200 children that has received statewide acclaim (including a visit from then Governor Mike Pence to sign Indiana’s first funding bill for prekindergarten, low-income children).
During the same time frame, God supplied us with the resources and imagination for establishing a community development corporation which owns and manages nearly 200 units of affordable housing, produces the internationally known Englewood Review of Books,and currently is leading a $30 million development that includes space for the 1,000 students of Purdue Polytechnic High School and Paramount School of Excellence Middle School. Involvement with our neighborhood, city, and state has also resulted in not so usual projects like solar panel arrays on rooftops and a 25,000-square-foot indoor hydroponic farm.
Fleming Garden Christian Church is a 97-year-old congregation in an urban/inner-city area on the west side of Indianapolis. That church’s first 50 years were filled with growth and vitality as a “suburban” church, but as the economic condition of the neighborhood worsened and became more ethnically diverse, the church suffered precipitous decline. This story is all too common as more and more suburban communities are swallowed up as cities grow.
Don Thomas, FGCC’s minister over the last 15 years, says the church operated in “survival mode” for many years, but that is no longer the case. A series of bold decisions over the last few years have resulted in renewed vitality. The church began to aggressively involve itself in the life of the community. FGCC opened their building for a variety of activities benefiting neighbors. They started a neighborhood Crime Watch program. They share their facilities with a Hispanic congregation. They have purchased and rehabbed nearby houses to provide safe and affordable rental housing for vulnerable neighbors.
City government has noticed this work and offered FGCC the opportunity to be a designated site for a summer lunch program. The light of Jesus is shining brightly at Fleming Garden, and the future looks even brighter.
Similar stories are being told about revitalized urban churches in the United States and throughout the world. Hopefully, we will hear many such stories at the 2019 International Conference on Missions, which meets November 14-17 in Kansas City, Missouri. This year’s ICOM carries the theme, “Mind the Gap: Embracing the City.”
The Revitalize Initiative
Stories of discouraged churches and discouraged church leadership abound among Restoration Movement congregations and across many different Christian traditions. When the Lilly Endowment Inc., an Indianapolis-based, private philanthropic foundation, approached Cincinnati Christian University to become a partner in addressing this crisis, the end result was creation of the Center for Church Leadership. CCL exists as a subsidiary of the CCU Foundation. The Revitalize initiative emerged from the collective wisdom of CCL staff (led by director Tim Wallingford) and church leaders from urban Indianapolis and urban Cincinnati.
The Center for Church Leadership is building a network of urban churches, urban church leaders, and urban strategists to encourage and equip fellow churches and leaders for deeper and more effective witness to the way of Jesus in urban contexts. The Revitalize initiative has begun building a network of churches and offering workshops and other resources that include coaching/consulting options, a regularly updated annotated resource list, and detailed sermon outlines and monthly blogs. Three workshops have been developed:
• “Exegete—Learning the Church and Community” offers a rationale, some practices, and a sampling of helpful tools for assessing congregational and neighborhood readiness for God’s transformation. Assessment (exegesis) is an essential first step for a congregation’s strategic planning process. Churches are encouraged to be “assets based” in identifying God’s gifts to them, and to dive deeply into the specific makeup of their neighborhood and city.
• “Engage—the Church as Salt, Light, and Leaven” seeks to equip churches with the critical theology and necessary tools to help them become places of influence in neighborhoods and cities. Strategies and tools are shared through interactive instruction. Participants will leave better prepared to invite their neighborhood into church life and to be more fully present in the life of their neighborhood and city.
• “Evangelize—the Church and Comprehensive Salvation” provides a hopeful vision for what can and must happen in today’s cities. Biblical “good news” announces God’s kingdom come in Jesus . . . a comprehensive salvation. Neighborhoods in cities throughout the world longingly await an experience of God’s shalom, the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21, New American Standard Bible), “the summing up of all things” (Ephesians 1:10, NASB) and the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20). For churches to offer their neighborhoods an imagination for the fullness of God’s salvation, we must learn to integrate personal evangelism, economic development, and community building as the full expression of our life together in community and in radical discipleship. This is especially important in urban communities where life is a visible struggle.
Learn more about Revitalize resources at www.myccl.org.
All three of the workshops mentioned above will be offered in a one-day format at an ICOM 2019 preconference event from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. November 13 in Kansas City. Urban church leaders are encouraged to register early at the CCL website (space is limited). ICOM’s usual quality offerings of workshops related to urban work will again be organized by Dr. Kendi Howells Douglas of Johnson University Florida. The third Revitalize workshop (“Evangelize”) will be offered at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. December 3. Go to www.myccl.org to register for this event and future training opportunities.
The opportunity to reach people with the saving good news of Jesus has never been greater. God’s “eternal purpose” is to make “known through the church” his power and wisdom to transform communities of despair into communities of hope (Ephesians 3:9-11, NASB). Let us focus the superabundant resources with which God has blessed our churches and strategically apply them where the fight is most furious and the need most immediate . . . the urban places around the world.
Michael Bowling has served as minister with Englewood Christian Church for 26 years. He lives with his wife of 43 years, Lisa, and in the same neighborhood as their four sons, three daughters-in-law, and 13 grandchildren, all on the near eastside of Indianapolis.
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For more information about the work of Englewood Christian Church, see articles by ECC member Chris Smith, including, “The Rise of Conversational Churches” in Christianity Today (April 17, 2019; online only) and “Becoming a Neighborhood Church” in The Christian Century (May 2, 2019). Smith is also the author of several books, including Slow Church and How the Body of Christ Talks. He also edits the Englewood Review of Books.