by E.C. Cunningham
Mandate: Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Whether you are a Trekkie or not, you probably have heard some of this statement describing the voyage and mission of the Starship Enterprise spaceship. The infamous Captain Kurt and Mr. Spock journeying beyond the borders of planet Earth looking for new worlds and people. Well, when I read Acts 1:8 Jesus states that the mission of the Church, empowered by the authority of the Holy Spirit, is to witness on His behalf in, “…Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria, and the utmost parts of the world.” This is the mission; the statement that describes the voyage of the church into the homes, communities, cities, and world in which the gospel needs to be preached. This mission causes us to leave the four walls and reach those who may never come into our church. Now with the new dynamics of multi-sites and multi-campuses and cultural blending, our churches are experiencing great opportunity to reach and minister to several different ethnicities more than ever in the life of the modern local church.
I have been asked by churches, schools, communities businesses/organizations and even hospitals about how to reach kids in these communities. They want to get them connected to the resources and, in the case of the church, the gospel when there seems to be an apathy or disinterest from families in seeking help or education especially in the urban and rural areas. And, this is where URBAN OUTREACH becomes a Fertile Frontier. The opportunity is there, but how do you reach them? Well, the approach should be a different outreach dynamic.
What the church often does in a new area and community is go in offering what the church thinks is important. That ends up being THEOLOGY or APOLOGETICS. But when it comes to urban and rural communities, ministry must reach the stomach before it reaches the head or the heart.
I am reminded of Jesus in John chapter 6. After healing a man at the pool of Bethesda and teaching concerning His position as equal with God the Father; He decides to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. With His popularity growing, He seeks shelter and quiet. But people had heard so much about His healing and miracles from the market place and throughout the inner cities they followed Him even into the mountains where He often sought rest and quiet. On this particular occasion, seeing them coming He knew these people were drawn to the excitement and the goodies of what He had to offer. Two of the things I have come to realize that draws the most attention in urban areas are food and free, especially if you put them together. When Jesus looked at this crowd He did not think Sunday School class or that this was a great opportunity for camp meeting, tent revival or vacation bible school. Jesus thought BBQ…He saw physical needs.
Ministry in Urban areas should always begin with seeking and seeing the need of the community. You cannot go into poor, economically challenged areas or cities and begin with eternal security classes. People in those areas have real NEEDS. So you start with meeting the external need first. What are the household, streets, community, and city’s needs first? But even greater than what, is the question of why. Why is this community hurting? Why is this community in need? Answering this question often reveals what the needs are and how to meet them. In my church community there is a high unemployment rate and school dropout rate. Therefore, we do job fairs and tutoring for young kids. We offer GED classes for high school students and adults. Does the community lack good health care? Our Children’s Ministry partnered with State Farm and a local Health Center to host a safety and health fair. Schools with the lack of after-school programs or extra curricular for the children caused us to start a Boys and Girls Club right in our church administration building. When you answer the why questions the vision will start to take shape. Go to some of the local businesses, if there are any. Go to the local school council meetings. See what the conditions of the schools are in the neighborhood. Why are the people hurting? Real urban ministry involves the condition of the whole community. Jesus saw that the people where hungry initially so He sought to feed their stomachs.
As the people in John 6 sat down and were being feed He realized from conversation that they had internal needs as well. They seemed to have an identity complex. Self esteem and low self-image was a real problem. They did not understand nor grasp the truth behind Jesus’ miracles because they had to be convinced that Jesus was really who He said He was by signs and wonders. They were the show me type.
Faith in others and hope for the plight of their community is often difficult for people who have never experienced certain luxuries. They don’t trust others and even if they have external things like cars and clothing (if they have access to them) these things cannot replace a broken and dysfunctional family structure or community climate. After physical needs are met you may find out that there are patterns of behavior that perpetuate the lack of resources. This results in the need for counseling or even legal advice. Often financial planning and work training programs are necessary to help parents in these communities. Children who lack fathers in their homes will need Boy and Girl Scout troops and other mentorship programs to help them develop life skills, personal discipline, and structure. Partnering with local schools and businesses for space and safe environments will be the biggest challenge. It is necessary to create healthy community environments for kids to play and learn. The goal for meeting these internal needs is to spark faith and hope as Jesus had to do with the crowd of people He encountered.Â Â
Finally, now that you have developed the relationships and God has granted you open door for this type of needs based community development and ministry, the final step is to meet the eternal needs. Jesus, in John 6:66-69, asked the disciples and those who chose to follow Jesus if they would give up and go back to their normal, dismal way of life. Those who stayed with Jesus realized that the reason why they were hurting was actually due to the lack of understanding of greater purpose and spiritual depth. They realized that their life was in need of eternal connection with Christ.
After you have convinced those kids in the urban community that you care because God cares, you will see a radical response and change in the life and lifestyles of those kids and families. Programs like AWANA and Sidewalk Sunday schools will help develop and sustain the spiritual life of a once desperate and hungry community.
Is it the job of the local church to build a broken community? Is it the responsibility of the church to change the climate of a hopeless community? Go to the inner city basketball courts or local youth center. Follow the nightly news stories of the sad happenings among urban cities children and youth in broken communities and ask yourself if this is my responsibility? Look into the eyes of an 11 year old child, like in my church, who has autism but can’t afford to be placed in a better school or who has bad grades and has been suspended 4 or 5 times in several months because they need glasses and cannot afford them. He becomes a distraction in the classroom because they cannot connect to the work in an overcrowded public school classroom. The teacher cannot give this child one-on-one attention, so his grades are struggling. What about the boy who is helping raise his little brother or the little girl who dresses her little sister because mom is at work or to strung out to care. Ask yourself if this is what Jesus was saying when He said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Now, this is your new mandate: Urban Community the Fertile Frontier.
These are the challenges for the biblical Kingdom. Its lifetime mission: to explore & evangelize strange new kids, communities, & worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations with the gospel; to boldly go where your church has NOT gone before.
EC Cunningham has been a national speaker for youth and children conferences and workshops for 9 years. He has recently been a presenter at the Children’s Pastors’ Conference. In Chicago, he leads over 75 volunteers and 800 children at Salem Baptist Church as a children’s pastor.