It is well known that many conservative churches have removed themselves from urban America over the past several decades. My hunch is that the civil unrest and racial tensions had much to do with it. But I do not think that is a primary factor among holiness people today. I believe there are two other reasons.
The first is cultural illiteracy. In other words, it seems that we have been so far removed from urban life that we simply do not know how to tackle the challenges of the multi-cultural neighborhoods, pluralistic mindsets, and alternate lifestyles that characterize much of urban America.
A second reason is that it is (metaphorically) a long way from the city street to the church pew. We need to think about church outside the building. I believe the common person on the streets needs several points of connection between the street and the pew. Perhaps we should think less in terms of when church starts and begin asking where church starts.
We have a heritage of urban evangelism among the poor from Methodism, the Salvation Army, and holiness-church planting in previous generations. So why did we begin avoiding the city?
It is foreign. Most of us did not grow up in cities, so we have a small-town or rural comfort zone. We don’t really know what lies behind graffiti, vandalism, food stamps, high- school dropout rates, and signs that say, “Will work for food.”
The city is where sin seems at its worst with crime, addictions, and prostitution. There humanity is found in its worst conditions of helplessness and hopelessness. The city has danger, all the more intimidating because it is unfamiliar and exaggerated.
Yet the kingdom of God can come in the city, and the grace of God can redeem it. After all, the ultimate destiny of the redeemed is not the Garden of Eden restored, but a city whose builder is God.
Street meeting scenes in Phoenix, AZ, when I was in Bible college:
-- Leaving our car in a parking lot, we examined a friend’s car after seeing someone snooping around it. The “someone” chased us from the lot, wielding a large knife;
-- During our singing on the street corner a fight broke out. One man struck another, knocking him over the accordion case where Mary Ann had been sitting;
-- John rented a cheap hotel room for a man who said he needed a sleeping place. The man returned to the hotel, canceled the reservation, and used John’s money to buy alcohol;
-- After street meeting one night we took three guys to a revival service in our church. The warmth in the building affected their alcohol-blighted minds and they disrupted the meeting. We later found a liquor bottle in the men’s rest room.
Do we let such things overcome our concern for lost humanity?
Our backgrounds: Very few in our circles have grown up living in cities; we are naturally fearful of what we don’t know. We see cities in general (the inner city in particular) as areas to be avoided rather than opportunities to be seized.
Our misconceptions: Most people’s only picture of city ministry is a bearded guy pushing a shopping cart, sleeping under a bridge. While that is one face of city ministry, it is not the only one. If we approached the city humbly as students, we might learn that much of reality doesn’t fit our prejudice. Also, we don’t see it as “real missions;” we think that only happens overseas.
Our fear: Someone commented recently, “I wish my GPS had an ‘avoid that part of town’ feature; I’d use it.” While rebellion against God is everywhere, it is concentrated in the city. The results of sin are evident here - rioting in the street, a gunshot victim. It is much simpler to ignore that reality than to reach out to it.
This is a very important question. I believe that most of our churches are “too white” and that we need to reach beyond our social, ethnic, and cultural walls. However, we tend to find our significance in being respectable, white, suburban-based, somewhat “middle-class,” traditional churches – that is our comfort zone. We like to stay in the comfort zone because: 1) We lack vision for the cities, thinking them too scary. 2) We lack commitment to the cities, for there is little pizzazz or positive excitement – it’s mostly hard ministry work. 3) We excuse ourselves from the biblical examples of reaching cities by embracing the rationale that, “Nobody wants to hear the gospel today.” 4) Ministry in cities requires an uncomfortable paradigm shift in thinking and strategy. 5) Materialism clutches our minds, attitudes, money, etc. 6) I say this kindly, but in too many cases we simply don’t care. In short, we’re apathetic.
Most financial supporters do not want to give to "mission fields" within the borders of their own country. They are romantic givers, loving the idea that their money is going around the world, but not truly understanding the desperate need immediately around them.
The North-American Christian is busy with materialistic treasure hunting and the idea of down-sizing and moving to the inner city for the sake of the gospel has never crossed his mind.
Effective inner-city ministries operate in a way that flies in the face of traditional church methodology. This scares many because it is different than what they are used to. It smacks of "compromise" to them when in reality it is simply authentic disciple-making as Jesus commanded.
Inner-city ministry is messy and demands getting down where druggies, prostitutes, winos, and the homeless really live. Too few professed Christ followers are willing to subject themselves or their families to that kind of reality.