Ministry in the New Urban Context

By Kevin Schaub, Assistant Pastor

I’ve never been to Detroit, so I don’t know for sure whether the comparisons I’m about to make will be able to stand. Since this isn’t a post about Detroit, but instead one about local ministry in the urban context, it’s probably not necessary that I be nuanced on Detroit. So if you’re reading from Detroit, please bear with me.

1. Durham’s Urban History

Detroit is a city with a complicated history. It’s a city once built on the shoulders of the auto industry, now reinvented as an entertainment hub. It’s an important American city, but it has its well-documented problems: crime, social tensions, urban decay, and bankruptcy.

In a similar way, Durham is a city with a complicated history. It’s a city once built on the shoulders of the tobacco industry, now reinvented as a city of research and medicine (which, I think we’ll all admit, is kind of ironic when you think about it). Durham is mostly a liberal city, and one which is haunted by its Southern, sometimes racial past. Of course, Durham is smaller (and less influential) than Detroit will ever be (at least I should think so). But like Detroit, Durham’s once vibrant urban center decayed once the tobacco industry left the city. Durham’s suburban areas flourished, however, north, west, and south of the city center. Those without financial mobility to move with the (mostly white) suburban middle class remained in the urban center, while many of the once-urban jobs left the city to follow the money. The sad result was the city’s lower class (mostly urban, poor African Americans) was left behind, in many ways without hope.

2. The New Urban Context

There is yet another comparison to be made with Detroit. Motown’s present-day reputation isn’t flattering. Outsiders hear of the city’s crime rates, distressed urban districts, and the city’s inability to pay its bills, and many conclude the city is too messed up to turn around.  Marchland and Meffre’s “Ruins of Detroit” photo-art has immortalized Detroit as a city lost to decay, but if you ask Detroiters, they will tell you those images don’t tell Detroit’s whole story. Detroit’s downtown, midtown, and New Center areas have all been revitalized, so the money and middle class of Detroit don’t necessarily live just in the suburbs anymore.

Durham’s Revitalized American Tobacco Campus

Similarly, Durham’s present-day reputation, at least according to outsiders, isn’t always flattering. They hear Durham is crime-ridden, scary, racial, too messed up to be turned around. However, Durham residents know better. Just as “Ruins of Detroit” doesn’t tell Detroit’s whole story, neither does the “Welcome to Durham, USA” documentary tell Durham’s whole story. Revitalization has come to Durham’s downtown and nearby tobacco districts. Once near empty of businesses, downtown Durham is now vibrant and full of life. It’s trendy, it’s cool. The food is delicious; the entertainment is top-notch. With the downtown revitalization has come its money and community, which makes it all sustainable.

In other words, the urban landscape isn’t the same in Durham as it was in the 70’s. Ministry in the urban context—at least in a broader sense—isn’t just ministry in poor, distressed neighborhoods. With the revitalization of downtown Durham has come its people: middle class, mostly white, liberal, entrepreneurial, independent, mostly unreached people who love Durham, who love this city—at least in their own way.

However, still across the street from revitalization in Durham—sometimes literally—are the low-income apartment communities and homes, where life is hard, sometimes hopeless, often crime-ridden, where real people created in God’s image live day in and day out, just as much in need of the gospel as the new downtowners. The urban poor have been here through it all.

3. Ministry in the New Urban Context

Ministry in the new urban context isn’t monolithic, if one could say it ever was.

FBC Durham stayed in downtown Durham; we never left. Most of our members live in suburban areas, and commute in for services and local ministry. I don’t know all the reasons why our church became a commuter church, but it’s safe to conclude there have been family, social, financial, and cultural reasons for it. I live about 15 minutes from downtown Durham, so in Durham terms, I technically live in the suburbs. I’m a northwest Texas transplant to the area, so I’ve never been urban. Suffice it to say that I don’t want non-urban Christians to feel bad over where they live.

With that said, for churches in urban areas, it is vital to their Christian witness to have a heart for ministry in the urban context, and therefore essential that those churches be careful to pray for, and train for cross-cultural ministry. Urban cultures aren’t the same as rural, suburban cultures. White, middle class, urban culture isn’t the same as African American, urban poor culture.

In my mind, though, an urban church should have a missional heart toward all of its urban communities. This is what it means for a church to be a good steward of its geography (where its members meet), not for the sake of its historic property, but for the sake of the community that walks passed and lives near that historic property, and hears stories about the people who meet there.

In recent years, the hearts of the church members of FBC Durham have been moved afresh toward a love for Durham’s urban communities. Because it’s not monolithic ministry, because it’s often cross-cultural ministry, and because it’s hard ministry, ministry in the urban context needs to be a whole-church ministry. In other words, it can’t just be for a few. There are many ways in which a whole church can join in urban ministry, and it’s not all rocket science. For example, an urban church’s services should feel safe, not socially uncomfortable for visitors from the urban community. This doesn’t just happen. Church members have to work on it, and be intentional about it. Training is necessary.

As I conclude my thoughts, let me say this: cross-cultural ministry is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Left to our own resources and skills, it would be impossible. However, we as Christians shouldn’t rely on our own resources anyway. Instead, we should rely on our sovereign God, who is able to accomplish all he purposes to come to pass. It is our confidence in God and the gospel of Jesus Christ and obedience to his commands that should lead us into faithful and sustained ministry in the new urban context. After all, only the gospel addresses the greatest needs of all of the people of the world, no matter their culture or social background.


Image credits: Durham’s Revitalized American Tobacco Campus


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