Paradigms for Urban Ministry

///Paradigms for Urban Ministry

Paradigms for Urban Ministry

I like to ask myself what assumptions lie behind the way I think about ministry. In May of 2007, I was asked to write a preliminary, background assessment as Campus Crusade for Christ began rethinking its approach to cities. I won’t reproduce that work here, but it resulted in a short list of four items which represent the assumptions underlying our planning. They are:

  • The pursuit of closure in reaching everyone.
  • The recovery of a holistic theology.
  • Radical organizational paradigm shifts in a global economy.
  • The urbanization of the world’s population.

I would like to focus on a single aspect of the fourth one, the urbanization of the world’s population. Before I begin, let me make some observations. With over half the world’s population living in cities (in some areas of the industrialized world such as the US and the UK, over 80%) and the trend continuing, it represents a unifying, global characteristic of 21st century societies. If this is the most salient demographic trend of our time, shouldn’t it play a primary role in the way we think about and plan missions? This trend also affects the 10/40 window and unreached peoples. They are not only migrating to cities close to their homes (i.e. in the 10/40 window, like Beijing or Mumbai) but also to cities far from home. Many of these are outside the 10/40 window—places like London, Paris, New York, Mexico City or Sao Paulo. Urban strategies are a more all-encompassing approach to everyone everywhere, including the 10/40 window and unreached people groups, and so are on their way to the top of the missions strategy list. This is the reality of global demographics.

Urban ministry strategy is a broad, complex topic. There are volumes being written on it, but much of what is written addresses the question of what we should do and how we should go about it. Though most of that is very helpful, I would like to take an entirely different tack. Let’s focus on the person doing ministry rather than on the activities of urban ministry. What characterizes a person who can help reach a city? I’d like to select three significant characteristics of the person who can be effective in urban ministry.

  • This person is intimately connected with Jesus.
  • He or she is probably not called to vocational Christian service.
  • This person has a deep understanding of how his or her work contributes to the kingdom of God on multiple levels.

I have observed that though these characteristics are compatible with the four assumptions mentioned above, they only partially overlap common assumptions among many of my colleagues. Let me address these characteristics in reverse order.

The person who can be effective in urban ministry has a deep understanding of the value of his or her work to the Kingdom of God at multiple levels.

There is a diagram that displays a spectrum of paradigms that show how a Christian individual can relate his faith to his work. They are all valid paradigms, the point being that the deeper a Christian gets in this spectrum, the richer the relationship is between his faith and his work. At the top is the simplest engagement: one gives of the produce of one’s labor. Next comes the idea of work providing a platform for ministry. Then comes business as mission. While Christians are adopting the term business as mission, it could just as easily be sports, education, or entertainment as mission. The fourth stage represents an inherent commitment to reflect God’s glory through one’s work and work ethic.

This goes far beyond mere “presence evangelism.” Institutions matter, and when they work well, society functions; when they don’t, everyone suffers. I hear stories all the time about churches which cannot be distinguished from their liberal context in divorce rates, or whole countries that have the highest crime rates in their history, even though there are more Christian than ever. The contrary is also true. A deeply seated biblical world view simply makes society work better. In 1971, Professor J. Millendorfer, an economic systems analyst in Vienna, published the first of his works on economic efficiency. His work was based on a comparison of resources used against economic output. He was amazed that he created a religious map of the world with Protestant countries as the most efficient, followed by the Catholic and Orthodox areas of Europe and the Mediterranean, and followed by three other groupings in descending order with clear connections to religion and underlying worldview.

This is simple evidence that when the work/faith connection is taken seriously, the society benefits by common grace. Most of us observed another perfect example of this in our lifetime. Both East and West Germany grew out of the same Reformation culture. In East Germany there was a Marxist-atheistic planned economy. Though it was the strongest of the Eastern Block, it ultimately didn’t function. I remember hearing the essence of the issue espoused by an East German student while I was working with the Lutheran Church in Saxony. He claimed that the real “problem” with the West was the performance work ethic. The advantage of the East, he claimed, was that everyone was guaranteed a job. I asked why, if there was such a big problem with our work ethic, that West Germany produced BMW and Mercedes while in the East they produced Trabant and Wartburg? Darrow Miller, in his work, Discipling a Nation, makes a similar point: a responsible approach to this world is based in a worldview that reflects the reality of God and values our work in His world. So the person called to secular work has a role that includes good performance at his job as part of the cultural mandate of Genesis. Both individual and corporate excellence have the ripple effect of increasing credibility for the Gospel. However, the reverse is also true. One of the challenges at the moment in parts of Africa is that another major religion, not known for its humanitarian concerns, is building roads, schools, hospitals, and other public facilities while the local Christians are simply sharing their faith. Which religion appears more relevant?

An assessment of what Americans really think about their work.

We commissioned the Barna Group in the context of their Omnipoll last July to research for us what Americans think about their work and its value to God. In part, we wanted:

  • to determine the number of adults who think their work is important to God.
  • to discover if adults in the workforce believe that God has called them to their current career.
  • to examine whether or not adults have a desire to reflect Jesus in everything they do, if they know how to reflect Jesus in their everyday lives, and if they spend time helping others reflect Jesus.

I will simply reproduce the analysis for these points below. It will take a little effort to digest, but the implications for any of us developing Christian leaders is that there is plenty of room to strengthen our views on the value of work.

A majority of Americans are convinced that their work is important to God (59% agree strongly). However, among those who are currently employed, just one-third strongly contends that God has called them into their current career.

When it comes to the importance of work to God, 90% of evangelicals, 70% of other born again Christians, and 57% of notionals (nominal Christians) believe that their work matters to God. This is a point of significant departure between those aligning themselves with the Christian faith and other faiths (38%) and particularly with skeptics—i.e. atheists and agnostics (15%).

When it comes to the belief that God specifically had a role in pointing them to their current profession, the only group in which a majority agreed was evangelicals (57%).

[author’s note: isn’t this surprisingly low?] Slightly less than half of non-evangelical born-agains (47%) and just one-quarter of notionals (25%) agreed strongly. None of the employed skeptics agreed while 18% of other-faith adults agreed.

When given the metaphor of a mirror to describe the notion of “reflecting Jesus,” about half of Americans (55%) agreed strongly that they “want to reflect Jesus to others in everything they do.” Among evangelicals, the response was unanimous (100% of the respondents in this segment agreed firmly). Among non-evangelical born-again Christians, 71% agreed strongly, while among notional Christians the level was 47%. Interestingly, 30% of other faith adults and 6% of skeptics strongly endorsed this statement of wanting to reflect Jesus.

Among those who expressed a desire to reflect Christ, two follow-up questions were asked. The first asked whether people know how to reflect Jesus in most of what they do. Only half of respondents agreed strongly (51%). The second queried whether or not people “spend time each week helping others to reflect Jesus until they are able to help others do the same.” In all, the survey found that 29% of respondents who want to reflect Christ agree strongly that they actually spend time weekly helping others. Again, keep in mind that these data reflect respondents’ self-perceptions. Evangelicals were the most likely of the faith segments to say they both know how to reflect Christ (74%) and are currently engaged in helping others do the same (47%).

(Spiritual Views Survey, 2009 conducted by the Barna Group © 2009 Campus Crusade for Christ International ®)

Note: the definitions of evangelical, born again, and notional Christians were tightly defined in the survey. These statistics reflect all American adults over eighteen and compare them with evangelicals, born again Christians, and nominal Christians. According to Barna-defined segments, evangelicals represent 7% of the total adult population over eighteen, non-evangelical, born again Christians comprise 38%, and notional Christians account for 40%. Only 1% of the adults claimed to be Christian workers. The fact that only 57% of evangelicals felt called to their work, and only 74% thought they knew how to reflect Jesus is interesting when we consider the next characteristic.

The person who can be effective in urban ministry is probably not called to vocational Christian service.

This may be shocking to some, but that is a pure statistical probability. God help us, we need pastors and missionaries, but how many of us do we need? Robert Frasier has suggested that 3% of the body of Christ should be in vocational Christian service. He includes administrators, pastors, professors, secretaries, and teachers—anyone who is paid full-time. That leaves about 97% of the body of Christ in some other kind of vocation. Please note that I did not say that we don’t need any more pastors or missionaries. There are probably something on the order of six million vocational Christian workers globally (of which 500,000 are foreign missionaries) and 2.2 billion Christians, broadly defined. That means that currently less than .5% of the Christians are in “full-time Christian service” (1% in the US, see above). Arguably, we need more pastors and missionaries. My point is that even if we had ten times the number of pastors and missionaries, vocational Christian workers would still be a very small minority. The Christian work force for urban ministry is not going to be full-time workers, but people in the marketplace. This does not mean that the full-time worker has no role. Quite the contrary; the role of the full-time worker will be critical, they just won’t be numerous.

If we really believe God is in control, it means that the 90-some percent of the body of Christ that is in the workforce is placed there by God. Increasingly this work force is located in urban areas. Does all this secular work have any value to God? Are the workers called by God to this work? The diagram above provides a spectrum of paradigms that help explain the roles of Christians called to secular service.

A Christian in secular work has an opportunity to engage God in that work. Daniel is a perfect model in the Bible. One of the most essential characteristics of Daniel was that his trip to Babylon removed him from any attachment to existing programs and any possibility of simply restarting them in his new location. He had to figure out how to serve God where he was planted. Does our emphasis on programs enable those we are developing the same kind of flexibility? Or do we sometimes contribute to believers missing real opportunities? When I was a young naval architect managing the Quality Assurance division of a nuclear submarine repair facility, I had 25 technicians verifying quality on all kinds of critical systems from the reactor plant to the pressure hull. Those aren’t very spiritual items. I was unsuccessful in getting the technicians to join a Bible study. It occurred to me one day to use the work list as a prayer list and I invited (to their great amazement) everyone to my office for a morning prayer meeting over our work list. A few of them came to watch. Interestingly enough, it was God’s foot in the door. Even the skeptics stopped making fun because they noticed it made a difference in how things went. Pretty soon it was division personnel needs, and then personal and family needs as well, and x-rays on pressure hull fittings, spectrographic analysis of castings, and so on. Then people started becoming Christians because they saw God at work first hand. We engaged God in the workplace in a manner that fit the context. That is not a place where one could send in a full-time Christian worker. There were 26 of us, and each one of us had the choice to serve God or not. In the end, a number of us did. It not only resulted in ministry (platform) but it reflected some of Jesus’ concern for the world because God’s impact on the work was plain for all to see.

The person who can be effective in urban ministry is intimately connected to Jesus.

A kingdom leader in a city is first and foremost personally connected with Jesus. While that should be obvious, it is all too easy to look at the people we work with as either 1) the people who do the work we want done, or 2) the people who will be sure that the work gets done (also known superficially as leaders). Let’s just be brutally honest. Too often we limit our thinking to what we can control in our own organization, and that limits the way we develop the thinking of those we engage in our programs. Often I was simply training someone to play a role I wanted them to do far more than developing them as people who God could use for anything He might want them to do. The reality of urban centers is that the opportunity for ministry stretches way beyond the limits of any program a church or mission agency can offer, no matter how good it is.

Our vision statement in Campus Crusade is “Movements everywhere so that everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus.” Even a simple grammatical analysis of that statement reveals that the goal of the process is producing people who truly follow Jesus. The discipleship process is a means to that end, rather than the end itself. I heard someone ask Bill Bright once what he thought his most essential message was. It was his message from Revelation 2 on not losing your first love for Jesus, and in the same breath he added, how to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. Point taken. Our relationship with Jesus comes first at all times and it should be the same for all whom we lead.

All of our churches and agencies have trademark emphases. In our case, one of the things Campus Crusade has become known for is an emphasis on “How to’s.” Though they have proven very helpful, “how to’s” were never intended to be reduced to a program in which a person enlisted armies of willing workers to grind out results in a “ministry mill.” The “how to’s” were only ever intended as the first step, an interesting and successful initiation into a life-long process (aka discipleship) in which a person learned how to hear God’s voice and do His will. “All beginnings are difficult,” is a favorite German idiom. The “how to’s” simply made it easier to start.

When a person connects with God, their horizons become unlimited, their spiritual gifts kick in, and their influence grows. Though I may have the privilege of working with such people, God occasionally calls them to something that is no longer part of my program. But that is the point, they go where I wouldn’t or can’t go. The great American mathematician and navigator Nathaniel Bowditch published his magnum opus on celestial navigation in 1802. Though common seamen were traditionally limited to the backbreaking, dangerous work of sailing, during his years as an officer and sea captain, Bowditch advanced multitudes of common seaman to officer rank by training them how to handle a ship and navigate at sea. Of course, they went on to other ships, but he had much less difficulty replacing seamen than many other ship captains. 170 years later, the updated version of his book was still the standard text on navigation at MIT when I was there in Navy ROTC in the early ‘70’s. 200 years later, Bowditch’s book is still a standard text in nautical science at the US Coast Guard Academy. That philosophy can have a long legacy.

The point is that the person who can help reach a city needs to know how to walk with God. My role is not to give them a chart and compass; that implies that I either know where they are going or that I wish to limit them to charted waters. My role is to give them the principles of navigation, then they can sail anywhere God calls. Urban ministry is full of uncharted waters. Bowditch sailed wooden ships driven by sails; he never imagined that his text would still be teaching officers of nuclear powered submarines, taking sightings through a periscope how to verify their position after breaking the ice at the North Pole. We can’t begin to imagine all the places God may call the people we are privileged to develop. If we want them to be able to sail uncharted waters, we need to teach them to connect with Jesus and make the most of the opportunities they have—wherever they might be working.

By | 2016-10-12T11:01:23+00:00 December 5th, 2012|Theology|

About the Author:

Drew Gentile

Drew works in the Office of the President for Campus Crusade for Christ as a global strategy consultant and Chief of Staff to the Global Director for Leader-led Movements.

He has an S.B. in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from MIT and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and did further graduate level studies at the Uni Heidelberg in practical theology.

Prior to assuming his current role, he and his wife Jennifer spent over 21 years in Germany, the last 10 of which were at the Western European Office. Drew served as Western European Training Coordinator for three years and then for seven as Chief of Staff to the Western European Director.

He also served on the board of Black Forest Academy, as an elder in the German speaking Paulus Gemeinde in Freiburg, and as Chairman of the Board of Black Forest Christian Fellowship.

Drew and Jennifer have four children and two grandchildren.