Of course it is an over-simplification, but sometimes those are helpful. Here it goes:
Good urban ministry must be churches in the city, made up of residents of the city, proclaiming the gospel to the city, for the glory of God.
The above statement sounds simple enough, but it has a lot packed into it. Over the last couple of years, as I have been researching urban ministry, that statement has become my summary for good ministry in a city. Each phrase means something, and if you remove any one phrase, it stops being effective gospel ministry.
Together, they make up a full-orbed approach to fulfilling the Great Commission in the urban environment. You may feel it is missing something. For instance, where is any mention of loving the city? Where is the concern for mercy and justice and welfare? It is in there, if you understand proclaiming the gospel correctly as bearing witness with both word and deed. We do not fulfill the Great Commission if we are not doing the Great Commandment.
Churches in the city, made up of residents of the city
Unfortunately, I believe these first two phrases are often overlooked in many contemporary approaches to urban ministry. A great majority of evangelical churches actually exist in suburban or rural areas. These churches are a distance from the urban setting, and this tends to cause one of two major mistakes: parachurch ministries and parachute ministries.
Parachurch ministries are any number of organizations, like relief centers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc. that provide some kind of service. Let me be clear, I am not saying these are bad. In fact, they can be important to a good city strategy. However, they are insufficient. Cities need more than relief organizations. They need real, living, breathing churches scattered throughout their neighborhoods that give a preview of the world to come. Supporting parachurch work is good to round out your ministry to the city. We just cannot let it take the place of having actual churches in the city.
Parachute ministries are more subtle, and a lot of suburban churches think this is the only way they can be involved in the city. A parachute ministry tries to minister from outside. In other words, when a church in the suburbs decides it wants to minister to the city and sends a van load of people in to do some kind of project, or hold a VBS, or any other number of tasks. At best, parachute ministry will be programmed and periodic. City neighborhoods need the long-term, residential presence that a local church provides. Going in once a week to play with kids or paint a house is not a bad thing, but it is also insufficient.
Relying on parachurch and parachute ministry alone leads to an “urban mission” that is not urban on one hand (parachute) and not wholly missions on the other (parachurch). Instead, we need to do what the Great Commission tells us and make disciples of residents of the city that become churches in the city. Ideally, this is accomplished from the harvest in the city, not just bussing a lot of people in from the suburbs to start a church. Should we move people in? Yes. Should we be planting churches through the conversion and discipleship of lost residents? Even more so.
Proclaiming the gospel to the city
The proclamation of the gospel is the central component to the mission of the church, but we need to unpack this idea. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells us to go and make disciples. This is done through proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, as Jesus himself did. However, his commission to the church continues with “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Discipleship is more than cognitive, it is affective, changing the way people live.
Proclaiming the gospel in the city should result in new churches in the city made up of people with a new ethic toward their city. They will, as Scripture commands, love their neighbor as themselves. They will, as Scripture commands, bear one another’s burdens. They will, as Scripture commands, live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Planting churches with this kind of word and deed testimony will result in the verbal message of the gospel spreading throughout neighborhoods with the backing of real-life verification in the form of the church community.
For the glory of God
And we must not forget our motives. The ultimate purpose behind our mission is the glory of God. As Piper famously states, “Missions exists because worship does not.” With the obvious need in cities (both in poverty and in great prosperity), it is easy to get sidetracked on why churches do what they do.
If a local church misses the motivation, they tend to fall into one of two ditches. The first is self-aggrandizement. Some churches are more concerned about their reputation than that of their Father in heaven. So much ministry is done out a desire for people to see you as “good,” “right,” or “successful.” Church ministries are no exception. The other error is to think urban missions is all about city renewal. This one is admittedly more subtle. We should love our city. We should work for its betterment, and gains may be made for the betterment of city and society, but they will always be temporary. We must balance our desire for that with the realization that we are citizens of another kingdom and this one is coming to an end. Our mission is testimonial not transformational. In other words, we work ultimately for God’s glory, not the city’s glory. Missing the testimonial nature of our ethic allows us to drift away from the real mission. And if we are more concerned with transformation than testimony, clear gospel proclamation gets shifted to the back if it ever comes in conflict with the other. We can do a lot of good things, but we must remember the central tenant of our commission as the body of Christ.