The End of Urban Ministry
Religion & Liberty Online

The End of Urban Ministry

mission logo 2Derick Scudder, senior pastor at Bethel Chapel Church, an evangelical congregation in the northern part of Philadelphia, recently completed a 4-part series explaining why he is “done with urban ministry.” Bethel Chapel is a “Bible-teaching church focused on the Good News that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We are a racially diverse, multi-generational group of people who want to know Jesus better.” As a pastor of a church deeply embedded in a challenging section of Philadelphia, Scudder has experienced the joys and pains of living in a neighborhood that many would simply avoid.

I’m raising my family and serving my church in the same low income neighborhood. My youth group is almost all un-churched kids. Our car has been stolen. I’ve been the victim of a violent crime, counseled drug addicts, and preached at quinceaneras. I’ve helped start and run a non-profit for our neighborhood that’s brought local businesses together and attracted some development to our area. But I’m done calling this urban ministry

What changed? Scudder explains why the label “urban ministry” may be no longer appropriate. Here’s what he says:

(1) Gentrification has muddied the urban ministry waters. In the last ten to twenty years, upper middle class white people suddenly realized that it was a pain in the butt to drive an hour and half to work every day in the city. Then their children realized that buying a house and fixing it up in a low income inner city neighborhood was only slightly more expensive than living in their parent’s basement. Plus they thought that bare brick walls and re-purposed factories looked really cool with their skinny jeans and flannel shirts. And so, gentrification began. Coffee shops, artist studios and sky rocketing real estate prices have come to the city. America has really fallen in love with gentrification–foodies get their restaurants, developers get their business and politicians get their tax dollars. The only people who don’t love gentrification are the poor people living in the neighborhood before gentrification starts.

Gentrification has changed what we imagine when we hear the word “urban.” There was a time in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and on so, where “urban” was a synonym for the black and/or Latino underclass. Those days are over. The truth is that gentrification is only going to increase over the next few decades. It is a part of the new era of urban planning. Gentrification is ultimately about the economics of social class. The National Housing Institute describes gentrification this way:

Although it is often equated with neighborhood improvement, in reality gentrification is a process of class transformation: it is the remaking of working-class space to serve the needs of middle- and upper-class people. Sometimes this does not displace people from their homes, but from their jobs (as when factories are converted to luxury housing); at other times upscale housing is developed on vacant land. In any case, when an established working-class residential area becomes attractive to investors, developers and middle-class households, the risk of displacement can become quite serious.

As such, “neighborhood improvement” is the wave of the future as new residents change the landscape of their communities. The future of “urban,” then, is one that will be dominated by the middle and upper classes. Scudder wonders if this is why evangelicals are suddenly excited about cities. “Upper middle class white people migrate back to the city and, lo and behold, suddenly the church has a burden for the city,” laments Scudder. “Isn’t it a little embarrassing for the evangelical church in America that we’re not burdened for a neighborhood until it gentrifies?

Scudder continues with his reasons:

(2) Urban ministry is a term for a people outside my ministry. For people living in the city, it’s not urban ministry it’s just ministry. This would all be just hair splitting if there wasn’t a whole model of “urban ministry” that does ministry in the city by bringing people in from the suburbs. It can be a tempting offer for a pastor in a low income neighborhood. It’s visible, instant success–a big group comes in, gets a lot of work done, and admires your ministry. But there’s pitfalls too–the pastor has taken valuable time away from discipling his people, and the people in the church have been taught that the only real hope, the only real exciting time is when the church can get help from teenagers in the suburbs.

Scudder highlights a practice that has been much of the norm in the urban/suburban binary used to clearly mark a class geography in America that no longer exists now that there are more poor people living in America’s suburbs than there are in cities.

Scudder wonders what the future role of “outsiders” will be and whether or not these categories are creating more divides which leads us to his third point.

(3) My identity doesn’t come from urban ministry. For a long time, whenever I met another Christian outside the city at a conference or bumped into an old college buddy, I loved bringing up my “urban ministry horror stories.” As soon as we met, I was looking for the chance to scare the willies out of my naive, simple suburban brothers with what ministry in the city was really like. Inevitably and quickly (with the proper amount of feigned humility of course), I would steer the conversation to let them know about a street fight that broke out after youth group or the time I needed stitches in my face after three guys attacked me after church one morning. I wanted them know that my church was racially diverse and in a rough neighborhood.

Scudder notes that many in urban ministry are vulnerable to the “humblebrag” whereby they see themselves doing “real ministry,” in the trenches, as if their work is more honorable than those working with those in higher economic classes. Low-income Urban, inner-city ministry is hardcore. Suburban and rural ministry is soft.

This brings us to Scudder’s last point about who should be with the poor and marginalized.

(4) Urban ministry overspecializes biblical ministry to the poor.
Here in America we love outsourcing. When it’s cheaper and easier to have someone else do it–well, let them do it. I’m worried that one reason some churches love urban ministry so much is that they feel like they’re outsourcing their ministry to the poor. It’s too easy to let foreign missions and urban missions become the outsourced call center of the church. “Don’t worry, we’re still involved. But we’ve found that it’s easier and cheaper to have someone else do most of it.”

Scudder worries here that many churches attempt to help the poor but they operate out a poor theology of poverty and a poor understanding of economics. This type of ignorance can put churches in positions where they are enabling poverty or, even worse, hurting those they intend to help. Scudder also worries that “pastors in the city can think they’re the only ones helping the poor.” Namely, “urban” ministry wrongly equates poverty with cities and leads churches to ignore poverty that exist in the suburbs and rural areas.

Because cities are currently in socio-economic transition Scudder’s post will likely generate a much needed conversation about how churches should even define the word “urban.” What is urban ministry will look like in the 21st century is question that has yet to be fully explored. Maybe “urban” in the future will refer more to a cultural demographic rather than a zip coded geography. To date, most urban ministry programs in Christian colleges and seminaries are preparing students for a geographic world that no longer exists. I’m not sure what all the answers are but perhaps the time has come for religious leaders to stop using the phrase “urban ministry” and simply refer to their work as “ministry” because we find hurting people as far as the curse is found.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.