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Reset: Becoming a Missionary in an Urban World
Something happened in the first decade of the 21st century that has never happened before. The population of our world for the first time in history is majority city-dwellers. From Babylon to Tenochtitlan, cities have always played an important part in world history; however, today it is the acceleration of worldwide urbanization that is reshaping the context for world missions. While pioneer missionaries navigating jungles or journeying to mountain top villages are still needed, many of today’s pioneers of mission are connecting to an unreached people via subway or relocating to a high rise rather than a remote village. For decades in conference halls and seminary programs “urban missions” has been classified as a specialization at best or marginalized at worst. Now if the church is going to make a genuine impact in a world of cities, urban mission is the new normal.
How do we begin preparing ourselves for stepping into urban contexts as a missionary? There is certainly much still to learn, but here are a few things to incorporate into one’s mindset when preparing to serve in an urban setting.
Pluralism. Often when individuals prepare for ministry, they have a certain cultural context in mind. Therefore, the skills they are learning focus on how to communicate with and serve that kind of people. However, in cities even a single concentrated people group may be undergoing change through interaction with other subcultures. Cities are diverse places. When I lived in New York City, a day-in-the-life may have involved meeting up with a Liberian at breakfast, having lunch in a Russian home at noon, Pizza with a Puerto Rican for dinner, and a bible study with a Mexican at night. That’s a normal day. But that’s just NYC, right? Well, previously when I lived in Houston any given day in my section of town would involve interactions with African-American, Central American, Mexican, or LGBTQ communities, and up the road from where I live now in Tampa is a Baptist church that has up to 60 nationalities walk through its doors for various programs and activities.
So how does one prepare to serve in such dizzying diversity? Is it possible to gain expertise in all these cultures at once? Well, of course not. In fact, in our ministry, Global City Mission Initiative, we actually encourage missionaries to identify a particular cultural group to serve. This is where they will experience the deepest learning and build those lessons into their ministry efforts. However, there is definitely a set of skills that is needed for such cultural pluralism. First of all, learn to listen. Learn to listen for cultural values, ways of communication, how decisions are made, etc. Listen to what is being said and for what is not being said. Secondly, learn to ask good questions – open-ended rather than yes or no questions.
Ethnography is a key pastoral skill for contemporary ministry. And third, dive in. Experience is the best teacher. With experience, you can learn to be adaptable.
Adaptability. Cities are always changing. Neighborhoods change. For 10 years I lived in a community where I watched the aging Jewish population fade as Albanian, Bangladeshi, Latin American, and Caribbean populations moved in and expanded their presence. One of the largest churches in The Bronx was planted in an Irish and Italian neighborhood, which later became a Latino and Caribbean community, but is now almost overwhelmingly Bangladeshi. In urban society, change is the norm. Not only does the feel of the city change, but so do its people. Cities generate change. Often contradictory trends are even taking place at the same time.
Subcultural theory teaches us that urban settings both intensify and create subcultures. Someone might be more Hindu than they were in India because they are now holding onto a religious and cultural identity as a minority, but someone else from the same part of the world may completely embrace a more secular worldview leaving behind consistent religious practices. Our team has shared the gospel with ex-Muslim Buddhists from the Middle East, ex-Catholic atheists from Europe, and ex-Catholic Muslims from Latin America – just to name a few of the mixes we find in individual spiritual journeys.
If we are still preparing as missionaries for a society that is traditional and static, we are not as prepared for an urban reality. Change is the constant in urban settings, and missionaries need to learn to be highly adaptable.
Personal wholeness. For years, I’ve been asked a classic question by bible college and seminary students. If you could recommend one book to a future urban missionary or church planter, what would it be? I’ve spent countless hours reading church growth, urban studies, or cultural anthropology. However, my consistent recommendation has been: The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. In this tiny little book he addresses the disciplines of silence, solitude, and prayer. Each are real challenges for urban missionaries and yet crucial to their ongoing sustainability. Missionaries are often plagued with self-imposed guilt, workaholism, or the need for validation. As director of a mission organization, I’m sometimes asked how we make sure missionaries are working hard, but it’s often the wrong question. Yes, there are sometimes those that find themselves paralyzed when it comes to engaging ministry or just simply lack a work ethic. It happens. However, in my experience it is much more common to see urban missionaries push themselves to their limit – or beyond – always feeling like there is more to do. I know the feeling. What makes it more complicated is, in a sense, they’re not wrong. Cities are places of great need. There is always more to do. When preparing for urban mission, the most important attribute to learn is how to function as a whole person – learning how to rest or recreate without guilt, learning to listen to the Spirit, learning to monitor their own body and mind, learning to build genuine friendships. One of the most important lessons for sustainability in urban mission is, learning to be whole when every distraction possible is shouting out the opposite through the cacophony of the city.
Apprenticeship. Urban mission in today’s global context is exhilarating. Working in the midst of
increasing cultural and religious pluralism is as stimulating as it is challenging. Urban ministry is anything but mundane or overly routine as the city is by definition a place of change. Urban missionaries often become adaptable creatures by nature. And the best way to describe hearing the heart of God above the city’s bombardment of noise and conflicting messages is simply profound. Still, how does one prepare for urban missions?
There is no greater teacher than experience. Cities are complex and fluid systems, and each city seems to have its own nature or personality. Theology, anthropology, and other academic skills taught to new missionaries in academic halls are helpful to be sure. These are important tools in the toolbox of themissionary. However, ministry in urban environments often needs to be learned experientially and intuitively. The most effective way to learn to thrive as a new urban missionary is to come alongside missionaries and serve with ministries who love their city. Bring the lessons learned in seminaries and bible colleges to the city. They can provide a foundation; however, the city is a classroom like no other. It’s often best to take your first steps with a guide who loves the people of the city in imitation of Christ.
Dr. Jared Looney
Global City Mission Initiative