#GospelChallenge, Part 3

#GospelChallenge, Part 3

Over my last two posts, I’ve described what I see as a huge obstacle to discipleship in urban areas. That obstacle is racial strife.

In the first post of this series, I described racial strife as a past and present struggle which makes it very difficult for people of different ethnic and “ racial” backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. I contended that the gospel message often runs into a wall because the Church in America refuses to confront its racist legacy. In the second post of this series, I described the image problem that the Church has and challenged us to begin to re-imagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas.

In this third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting the road that has brought me to this place of understanding.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insight from my experiences that may prove helpful as we journey forward together.

Check it out and share your thoughts…


While I love the city and my ministry here, I am first and foremost a country boy.  I grew up in a small community in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. My family was a part of a small church there, maxing out at about 100 people on Sundays like Easter and Christmas. We had a “larger than life” pastor and no other staff. I have very fond memories of our pastor placing the youth of the church on the front row for Bible study and teaching us the Scriptures there, alongside the adults. It was there, in my childhood, that I developed a love for the Scriptures and a love for the Church. Even while I struggled with my faith during my college years, that love persevered.

My wife and I moved to Minneapolis in 2005 and after a year, I took a position as a youth pastor at a large Baptist church on the Northside of the city.  North Minneapolis was often described as the stereotypical urban area:

    • high crime (often violent crime), high rate of family breakdown, high in nearly all the societal negatives
    • low-income, low property values, low performing schools, etc.

Even so, or perhaps because of those things, North Minneapolis was the community that I felt called to. I wanted to serve that community faithfully. I cared deeply for the people, and my heart broke over and over again to see the plight of the people there, especially, young black and brown children.  Despite its reputation, I knew that God was at work there, and I wanted to be a part of what God was doing!

In January of 2007, after serving that church for 3 months, I entered a master’s program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  It was a truly  transformational time!  A few questions were my constant companions throughout seminary, as I served and studied:

    1. What does it look like for a disciple-making church to take root and flourish in an urban area, specifically North Minneapolis?
    2. How does racial strife and segregated churches contribute to what we see happening in these communities?

I wrestled with these questions for 4 long years.  Even today, I’m wrestling with these kinds of questions.  After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 2011, I took a position at a large, urban, intentionally multiethnic church in the same community. I moved out of a sense of calling but also because my wrestling with these kinds of questions had grown more intense.  Today, I’m a part of the pastoral team at that church, and I’m still wrestling with similar questions.

While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ve observed a number of things in both study and practice that I’d like to offer up to you,  not as an expert but as a co-laborer in Christ:

Urban churches and ministries need a more balanced view of discipleship. 

Due to the sheer nature of urban life, discipleship can quickly lose its place of priority in the urban ministry.  In urban ministry, the needs are often glaring and overwhelming.  Mission drift happens easily and effortlessly.  As a result, I’ve seen urban churches and ministries drift into one of three categories:

  1. Group One churches turn their attention and resources upward, towards purely “spiritual things.” Their strategy is to become increasingly heavenly minded as a way of dealing with the dire situations around them. These churches become experts of great choirs, prayer meetings, and pastor’s anniversaries but little else.
  2. Group Two churches turn inward in response to the conditions that exist in the community.  They become a proverbial oasis in the city, a country club in the midst of vast poverty.  What matters to these churches is what happens within the walls of the church. The people who matter most to them are the ones who call this church their home.
  3. Group Three churches make the decision to fix their attention and resources outward, focusing entirely upon meeting the social needs of the community around them. These churches move from project to project, from this drive to the next, while neglecting spiritual or communal things entirely.  These churches often have a revolving door of socially conscious people who come and go because of burnout and a lack of meaningful relationships.

I believe that each of those churches can teach us something, but that each has failed to be balanced in their view of discipleship, therefore producing one-sided believers. An unbalanced church is an ineffective church.

The folks at 3DM paint a much different picture of discipleship, one built on rhythms of:

  • Time with God (Up)
  • Time with other believers (In)
  • Time in the world on mission (Out).

I believe that urban communities would see great transformation when urban churches and ministries call them towards passionate spirituality, radical community, and missional zeal!

Racially homogenous churches & ministries are at a severe disadvantage and will struggle to overcome their own cultural preferences. 

There is a common occurrence in urban ministry that seems to be on the upswing as urban ministry becomes “the flavor of the day”.  Regularly, I witness the entrance and growth of large, well-meaning Christian ministries. They are well-resourced organizations with lots of paid staff, plush buildings, name recognition, and much more.  None of this is troubling on its own.  The inherent problem is that many, if not all of these organizations, have a staff that is 100% white in areas that are mostly non-white. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these young, white staffers come from colleges and backgrounds where they have never had to wrestle with issues of privilege and whiteness.  In many cases, they enter urban areas and do serious damage because of a lack of cultural intelligence and self-awareness.

I contend that racially homogenous churches and ministries must become a thing of the past.  I agree with the writers of United by Faith when they argue that, “The best antidote to national & evangelical struggles over racial & ethnic issues is to build multiracial congregations (organizations) whenever possible.” This point feeds into my next point.

You will not reach and disciple an increasingly multiethnic world by holding onto to mono-ethnic preferences. 

Even today, in the eyes of many people, to be a Christian is to be white.  This is not to say that to become a Christian a Black or Brown person must change their skin color, but many believe that Christian culture is largely synonymous with suburban, white culture.  In other words, too much of what we pass off as Christian, is really what is comfortable for white people.  Consider our worship styles.  Consider the milestones that we celebrate. Consider the way that we view things like time, honor, conflict, even aging.  From where do many urban churches/ministries adopt their values?

Before the gospel is able to really take root in urban areas, we need to have some open, honest conversations about how we exist as the people of God.  How much of our current existence as the people of God is tainted by Eurocentric bias? How much of what we do and believe come from cultural biases? It’s a challenging conversation, but I see the church as a worthy “crucible” where we can work out some of these issues of race, ethnicity, and other “isms” in a grace-filled way.

Us vs. Them is a self-perpetuating impasse. You need indigenous leaders in meaningful positions within your organization

I’ll say this succinctly. The greatest testimony that you can have as a ministry in an urban area is the track record of raising up indigenous leaders and handing off meaningful leadership responsibilities to them. How quickly can your organization move from a place of “us” and “them” to a place of “we?”

Finally, I remember 4 steps from Miroslav Volf’s excellent text, Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf argues that, “The church has been involved in oppression and exclusion. We have become so absorbed in our own cultures that we are blind to the evil of exclusion.” Volf offers up four steps that I feel must become second nature to all people who would be reconciled, especially in light of racial or religious strife.  He says that both the oppressor and oppressed are called by Jesus to:

  1. Repentance
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Making Space for Others
  4. Healing of Memory

These are not one and done steps.  On the contrary, I do not see us overcoming this great #GospelChallenge unless we are daily entering into this process.  Repentance. Forgiveness. Making Space for Others. Healing of Memory. Repeat!

May the God of Peace grant us daily the grace to be reconciled…to God and to one another!

4 comments

  1. Edrin, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Interesting challenge facing the Christian community. We as believer of Christ have neglected the opportunity to make sustainable change be not facing the issues that plague many of our churches. The enemy is pleased by our regression…thank you for your suggestions to move us towards pleasing the true and living God.

  2. Laramie White

    Great article that need to be shared with others. Really makes you thinks about what being a Christian means as how other view you outside your race. Why do most inner city churches struggle with the actual mission of their church when it comes to how the members perceive it’s work within the community. It can be a struggle to discuss with other your feelings about your belief system, with those outside your racial group.

    I met one person years ago that I could really be open with and frank in my discussions concerning race and my beliefs. He was also very open and since we worked together he was able to see / understand the bias that people would throw my way. We were able to build our relationship on being believers in the Gospel of Christ and trusting each other to be able to discuss anything that was on our minds together.

    Thanks for sharing this with me.

  3. arthurcameron

    This is awesome! So awesome I don’t have a response yet!

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