Our September 2019 issue focuses on urban ministry, which is something Steve Carr wrote about in this article from 11 years ago. At that time, a few dozen urban ministers came together for an “Urban Conversation” to discuss the situation and consider solutions. Some things have changed over the last decade, but many of the elements of their conversation are still important today. (This article originally appeared online in August 2008.)
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By Steve Carr
By sometime this summer half of the world’s population will live in cities.1 For Restoration Movement churches in America this fact is problematic because our presence in cities is anemic.
While independent Christian churches/churches of Christ have flourished in both rural and suburban areas, we have struggled to make inroads in urban locations. Part of this can be attributed to history and the ground lost when our movement went from one stream to three. From the early days of the Restoration Movement, the plea flourished in cities. But the 1906 split with the a cappella churches of Christ meant the subtraction of numerous urban churches in the South. Over the next 60 years, the schism with the Disciples of Christ incited the surrender of many city congregations in the North.
Another reason for the dearth of urban Christian churches is the phenomena referred to as “white flight.” In the mid-20th century, the rise of the automobile and interstate roadways made American society increasingly mobile. Many middle-to-upper-class whites left urban areas, relocating to the suburbs. And many of our churches moved with them. Regardless of the reason, our movement has lost its presence in the city.
This was the fact that sparked a February gathering of urban ministers in our movement. About 40 of us convened on the campus of Dallas (Texas) Christian College, with the school graciously supplying many of our needs, including some meals and ground transportation. Representatives from Portland, Chicago, New York City, and places in between came to dialogue about the nuances of doing ministry in the city. To our knowledge, it was the first meeting of its kind in our brotherhood.
The gathering, labeled “The Urban Conversation,” was the brainchild of Cody Moore, who ministered with The Pearl church in Denver, and Mike Bowling of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. In designing the meeting, Moore and Bowling steered away from normal convention activities, neither inviting keynote speakers nor scheduling seminars. Their vision was merely to connect interested parties, get them talking, and see what happened as a result.
The Course of “The Conversation”
Over the course of three days, our conversation centered on issues we all face as urban ministers. Among them:
Ministerial Isolation. The urban setting can be a lonely place for ministers. One of the great benefits of our gathering was the opportunity to connect with other Restoration Movement laborers who deal with similar issues.
Usually for such encouragement and counsel, an urban minister must develop friendships across denominational lines. Our “Conversation” reaffirmed we are definitely not alone in our ministry.
Contextual Differences. A reason our movement has struggled to embrace urban ministry is it doesn’t fit neatly within our pre-established paradigms of church growth. While the suburban model has proven to be reproducible in many areas of the country, there is no dominant urban model for success.
In fact, we discovered in Dallas that virtually none of our contexts is similar. Scott Jewell’s ministry among the urban poor in inner-city St. Louis is nothing like Steve Denney’s ministry with City Walk Christian Church in a gentrified area of San Diego. Since our mission fields are dramatically different, attendees were afforded the chance to “look under the hood” of other urban churches to see where they are having success.
Financial Burdens. Obviously, church-funding problems are not exclusive to urban ministries—but money is a huge barrier. The cost of living is usually considerably higher in urban areas, and most of the city congregations are smaller in size; so resources can be low. And if an urban church operates as a mission, it faces even more roadblocks, such as dealing with prejudices that some suburban and rural Christians have toward cities as well as competing with international mission opportunities.
Ministering to the Poor. One key issue urban churches grapple with is dealing with the under-resourced. Each person who attended “The Urban Conversation” had a unique story about an interaction with poverty.
Some of the churches represented in Dallas are transforming their cities by establishing community development corporations (CDC). These CDCs are nonprofit organizations that create businesses and housing opportunities rooted in their neighborhood in an effort to eradicate poverty. Other churches are actively participating with preexisting parachurch organizations already combating the issue.
Despite the dichotomy in dealing with poverty, all agreed that fulfilling physical needs is only part of the equation. It is important to recognize that the poor are valued as human beings. As J.P. Glenn, who ministers with Hope Inner City in Cincinnati, said, “Everything we do is relationship-based. We don’t give stuff away. We walk beside people the whole way through the process of having needs met.”
The Appeal of “The Conversation”
While some of the issues would be irrelevant outside of the urban context, some topics we discussed are applicable to both suburban and rural congregations.
First Suburbs. For example, we discussed the recent phenomenon of “first suburbs,” which are “neither fully urban nor completely suburban”; they are “America’s older, inner-ring” communities mostly founded after World War II.2 As young professionals and empty-nesters continue to repopulate urban areas and sprawl continues to pull people toward formerly rural areas, the space between is beginning to suffer. While the number of high-poverty areas is decreasing in city centers, it is increasing steadily in first suburbs.3
Multiculturalism. Another topic was America’s transitional ethnic diversity. While cities have long been centers of multiculturalism, the United States as a whole is catching up and finally becoming a true melting pot. According to the Pew Research Center, whites will become a minority group in America by 2050.4 The proliferation of multiculturalism will become difficult to chart as second- and third-generation immigrant kids tend to both assimilate into mainstream American culture and retain parts of their own.
An example of both these phenomena is the ministry of Ismael Garcia, known affectionately as “Smiley,” a Latino minister who serves with Iglesia de Cristo in Denver. The congregation was started in 1977 by Paul Crist, a farmer from Missouri who spoke no Spanish. In the 1980s, the church moved to a first suburb on Denver’s west side. Smiley is the church’s third Spanish-speaking minister.
The church reaches recent Mexican immigrants as well as established Latino Denverites. While most of the worship service is conducted in Spanish, most of the children and teens speak fluent English. Now that Denver’s population is more than 50 percent Latino,5 the ministry of Iglesia de Cristo is as important as ever.
Perhaps we should all take note of Smiley’s ministry. In the near future, his church might no longer be the exception in our brotherhood, but the norm.
“The Conversation” Continues
The people who attended “The Urban Conversation” believe it is imperative we make urban ministry part of our future. The plan is to meet again next February to keep “The Conversation” going. If you would like to attend, or would like to be included in our correspondence, e-mail Mike Bowling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During our time in Dallas, Smiley shared a message he continually tells his mostly foreign-born congregation: “I remind my people that their citizenship is in Heaven.”
It’s indeed a good reminder that, while cities are the mission field we love, we’re working for something more. As the Scriptures proclaim, “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
1Celia W. Dugger, “Half the World Soon to Be in Cities,” The New York Times, 27 June 2007.
2Robert Puentes and David Warren, “One Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs,” The Brookings Institution, February 2006.
3Robert Puentes, “Caught in a Policy Blindspot: America’s First Suburbs in Transition,” The Brookings Insitution, April 2006.
4“U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050” Pew Research Center, 11 February 2008.
5Bruce Finley, “Minorities a Majority in Denver,” The Denver Post, 9 August 2007.
Steve Carr is teaching minister at Echo Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. His blog is found at houseofcarr.com.