The question begs a definition of “real missions” and “a missionary.” Why is there confusion concerning the meaning of Christian mission? Maybe it’s because we have a category of people called “missionaries” that we distinguish from other ministers. Consequently, we have created an assumption that their work must be markedly different from other Christian ministers. In my understanding, our category of “missionary” is somewhere between what the Bible calls an evangelist (Eph 4:11), a proclaimer of the Gospel, and a missionary in the sense of Matthew 28:18-20, that is, a disciple-maker. So my preferred definition of a missionary is one who makes disciples. Real Christian mission is the process of making disciples. So, yes, inner-city missions is “real missions.” I am concerned (not so surprised) that we even have to ask the question.
When we think of missions, we tend to assume distance. We may also assume a foreign language, a different race, and lack of conveniences that we take for granted in “normal” life.
The inner city is close and does not take us out of reach of McDonald’s and Walmart. It does have a variety of languages and races, and you could spend a lifetime ministering to the Chinese in New York City or the Arabs in Detroit.
Along with such foreign cultures, the inner city has a distinct culture that is challenging to learn. It is a way of life, a code of ethics and morality, and creation of an environment. If a Christian attempts to respond to a case of poverty or immoral behavior without understanding the cultural context, he may be confused and frustrated by the results.
Like any other mission field, the inner city calls for commitment and understanding.
Yes. It responds to the Great Commission and to Acts 1:8, where Jesus sent His disciples to witness in cities (Jerusalem and Samaria).
Inner-city ministry also lines up well with the “E-scale” of evangelism. E-0 (zero) means working with people who are part of Christian families and culture. There are no significant cultural barriers. E-1 represents witnessing to non-believers within one’s own culture, but outside the church. The “stained-glass barrier” is the only obstacle. E-2 evangelism reaches out to people of another culture or world view, though it may be similar. There may also be language or lifestyle differences. Crossing such barriers is where “real missions” begins. E-3 evangelism goes to a very different, often hostile, culture, usually involves very different languages and lifestyles, and frequently includes geographical distance.
Inner-city ministry is either E-2 or E-3, depending on circumstances. The gospel bearer crosses two or more significant barriers. He does missions!
If “real missions” must include a plane trip and a passport, then no, city ministry does not qualify. If “real missions” means “reaching people who are not currently being reached,” then the answer is yes. The inner cities of the U.S. include many of the same challenges of third-world settings: crime, poverty, and lack of education. The church buildings in these neighborhoods are populated primarily with people who drive in from other locations. It is a forgotten place with forgotten people. When Ferguson or Baltimore explode and the despair of the inner city is put on display, people notice, but mostly people just try to avoid and ignore “that part of town.” Loving people to Christ and making disciples is what “real missions” is all about, and there is no needier mission field than the inner cities of the United States.
In the sense of a metropolitan context with multi-ethnicity saturating the neighborhoods, then yes; the cross-cultural barriers and even linguistic hurdles qualify the inner city as “real missions.” Here in America, almost any inner city provides “real mission work” opportunities. However, a special mindset is needed to effectively minister to the people. The mindset required is the same one “foreign missionaries” must possess. Without it, limitations hamper the effectiveness. Truly understanding culture is a key component of that mindset. One needs to know how to work with people of other cultures. Keep in mind that inner-city mission work is not as glamorous as flying to Nepal, Nicaragua, or Nigeria. Even though you have no passport to get stamped, inner-city missions are still extremely necessary. We have neglected the inner cities far too long. May the vision and passion of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, be embraced!
"Real missions" is coming to the urban centers of America. Cities are teeming with people of almost every nationality and ethnicity. There are "China towns," "Indian towns," "Little Italys," "Little Havanas," and many other cultural representations in the inner cities of North America. As Eric Himelick says, "The mission field has come home." "Real missions" has come to us! No longer does involving one's self in "real missions" necessarily mean crossing an ocean or international boundary.
It is nothing less than the hand of divine Providence that has brought millions of unreached souls representing thousands of people groups to sit within our national borders and under the shadow of our steeples.
Is it possible that God, observing our churches' lethargic response to Christ's great commission has, in His love and faithfulness, brought the lost to us? Dare we fail Him a second time when "real missions" has been brought to our doorstep?