Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.
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Justice, kindness, humility: They go together

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

 

We don’t like to be called “mortal,” do we? That means we aren’t immortal – and God is. Many of us don’t like that thought.

Some of you reject the Bible and God for just that reason, don’t you?

Truth is truth, even if it’s inconvenient sometimes.

If something is “good,” then that means something else is “bad.” Good is a comparative term. This sentence says justice, kindness and humility are good, which means their opposites are bad.

Most of us would agree that justice is a good thing. I think justice means different things to different people, though.

Kindness is “good,” too.  A kinder world would be a better world. We might agree with this, but not enough of us do much about it.

Humility, especially with God? That’s a tougher one. But we can’t get along with each other, much less with God, unless we “walk humbly.”

These three concepts go together. We can talk about each separately, but we can’t have justice without kindness and humility, or kindness without justice and humility, or humility without justice and kindness.

Justice

1 Just behaviour or treatment.

‘a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people’

1.1 The quality of being fair and reasonable.

‘the justice of his case’

1.2 The administration of the law or authority in maintaining this.

‘a tragic miscarriage of justice’

2 A judge or magistrate, in particular a judge of the Supreme Court of a country or state.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/justice

 

Here’s another definition with a slightly different slant:

  1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.
  2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.
  3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
  4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.
  5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
  6. the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings: court of justice.
  7. judgment of persons or causes by judicial process: to administer justice in a community.
  8. a judicial officer; a judge or magistrate.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/justice

 

Justice has to do with law, but also with “moral rightness.” It includes being “fair and reasonable.”

Who gets to decide what is “fair,” “reasonable” or “morally right?”

Those who write the laws of the land make those decisions.

Those laws are not irrevocable, at least in this country. New leaders can change laws or write new ones if they decide that “moral rightness” is not happening.

It’s not an easy process, but it does happen. Women were given the right to vote, for example, in the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919; before then, they couldn’t.

Earlier, on Jan. 31, 1865, the 13th amendment became law, which abolished slavery. This law has been enforced unevenly since. “Justice” and “morally right” still clash on this issue far too often.

We can’t legislate respect, although these amendments tried.

Justice in the Bible adds a couple of layers to the nation’s definitions.

 

We cannot begin to understand God’s justice unless we first understand sin. Sin … embodies everything contrary to God’s holy nature. Thus, sin is a crime against God, and justice demands a penalty of death and separation from Him for it (Romans 1:18-322:53:23). But God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to pay that penalty for us (Romans 5:8-116:23) and made salvation available to all who believe in His name (John 1:123:15-1720:31).

(This is) not in spite of His justice, but because of it. He loved us so much that despite the fact that our sin demands our death, He sent His Son to be our substitute upon the cross, thus demonstrating that His justice was not violated, but instead satisfied (1 Thessalonians 1:105:9).

https://www.gotquestions.org/God-of-justice.html

 

The Bible also talks about “social justice.” The Bible interprets that term differently than the world does:

 

The Christian notion of social justice is different from the contemporary notion of social justice. The biblical exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal. In other words, each Christian is encouraged to do what he can to help the “least of these.” The basis for such biblical commands is found in the second of the greatest commandments — love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

Today’s notion of social justice replaces the individual with the government, which, through taxation and other means, redistributes wealth.

https://www.gotquestions.org/social-justice.html

 

If we want to have an intelligent, meaningful discussion on justice, we need to define the term and understand what we’re talking about. If you and I think differently about justice, we might have to work hard to understand each other.  Listening is essential to communication.

Kindness

Kindness is a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern and consideration for others. It is considered a virtue, and is recognized as a value in many cultures and religions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindness

 

An entire movement, “random acts of kindness,” encourages us to do nice things for each other. That started in a Sausalito, California, restaurant in 1982 when Anne Herbert scrawled the words “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a placemat. From there it spread to bumper stickers, quietly at first, but with all the powerful momentum of something important – calling us to lives of caring and compassion.

https://makeadiff.wordpress.com/2006/06/02/the-history-of-random-acts-of-kindness/

 

We need more caring and compassion in our country. It won’t happen by accident; whether as random acts or among friends and family, kindness is intentional. God recognized this centuries ago, and “requires” this of us (along with justice and humility).

“Walk humbly with your God”

I like this definition of humility:

 

True humility is to recognize your value and others’ value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourselves into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be.

To be humble is to serve others for their good as well as your own.

To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses.

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Humility

 

 

Humility is not thinking I am unworthy of anything. It’s recognizing my value, while acknowledging your value as well.

“Realistic” is a great word. You and I both have needs and desires, and I should serve you to improve your life in some way. That’s humility. I would receive a benefit too – the satisfaction of knowing I did something good.

Why be humble and serve others? Because God served us first, by creating us and then offering us salvation from our sins. This is not only God’s justice, but His mercy – giving us a gift we don’t deserve. It’s a small way we can say “Thank you” to God. This is where humility starts.

Micah offers a good formula for living. Justice, kindness and humility depend on each other. If I seek justice, I will seek your best interests as well as mine. If I seek kindness, I want you to be just as happy as I am (possibly more so). If I seek humility, I want to see your life get better.

All three concepts are not about me. They involve serving God. And serving you.

For our own survival, we must re-learn history

“Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” The people of Nineveh believed God. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.

Jonah 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10

 

The people of Nineveh knew they were doing bad things. Their lives were evil and violent, in the words of their own king.

When a prophet of God called them out on it, they – including the king – repented immediately.

I wish such a scenario could be repeated today in the United States.

It won’t.

For starters, if a prophet of God were to proclaim such a message today, he (or she) would be either ridiculed or ignored. We’d find ways to dilute such a prophet’s message, or refute it, or pretend we didn’t hear it.

Flaunting our evil

The lines between good and evil are often blurred today.

Even when the lines are straight and we know right from wrong, we often flaunt our sins.

  • Just yesterday I saw the driver of a pickup truck on the highway weaving in and out of traffic, going 10 to 15 mph faster than everyone else was driving. He cared nothing for traffic laws on the books or the welfare of anyone around him, including me. This is nearly an everyday occurrence in my world.
  • When was the last time a popular movie or TV show celebrated marriage and the marriage bed?
  • Violence makes the news every day in this country. In Chicago, for example, 409 people have been killed so far this year. That is 126 fewer than 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune. I saw a blurb the other day that said Chicago went 22 hours without a single shooting being reported. That’s what we’ve become: almost a whole day with no shootings is a moral victory.
  • Police officers, teachers and parents do not have the respect that they should. Some of that is their own fault. Some of it is not.
  • Politicians can’t decide right from wrong in any situation these days. No matter how they rule in the Judge Brett Kavanaugh case regarding his U.S. Supreme Court nomination, many of us will get angry. People on both sides are convinced they have the moral high ground. Politicians can’t get it right because we the people won’t let them. Because we the people no longer know what the moral high ground is.
  • Addictions have become an epidemic: opioids, illegal drugs, alcohol, pornography, social media, our jobs … many things. Choice or disease? We’d rather debate that than actually solve any addiction problems.

Experience vs. reason

Was life simpler back in Old Testament times?

The people of Nineveh dealt with the same temptations and evil things that we do. We have far more technology, of course, so we can disseminate evil much faster and more efficiently.

The people of Nineveh didn’t always follow the king’s lead; they responded to Jonah’s message first, then reported it to the king. To the king’s credit, he was paying attention to the pulse of his city.

I wish we had the listening skills that the Ninevites – the people and the king – did, and even more, the discernment to determine good and evil, as they did.

Instead, we justify ourselves.

Experience comes before reason.

In a previous chapter of my life, I was deeply involved in the United Methodist Church. A basic tenet of that denomination is the Wesley Quadrilateral, named for the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The quadrilateral is: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

In that order.

Except that some United Methodists prefer to flip the order, starting with experience, and using reason, tradition and Scripture to justify their experiences.

That debate now permeates our common culture.

If we can’t agree on the basic tenets of what our society should be, how can we possibly solve our moral dilemmas?

That’s what Nineveh had that we do not.

I did it my way

Unfortunately, there’s just enough truth in every modern viewpoint to muddy the waters. Women and immigrants are real people. Abortion is the death of a human being.

Laws should align with those tenets.

They frequently don’t.

Or if they do, we have to fight for them.

And because of our propensity to flaunt laws we don’t agree with, we are becoming an anarchy – refusing to accept authority. Rule by the individual. I have my rights and I’ll do what I want.

If it hurts you, I don’t care.

If I kill you on the road or abort my son or daughter, it doesn’t matter to me. If you don’t satisfy me as a lover, I’ll find one who does.

Never mind the collateral damage.

I did it my way, in the words popularized in 1969 – almost a half-century ago – by Frank Sinatra.

Many of us today have taken those lyrics to heart. We try to justify our actions. And we frequently get away with them.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me

Sackcloth and ashes. How archaic.

That attitude is too, isn’t it?

The people of Nineveh asked God to forgive them for their evil and violent ways. God listened, and forgave them.

As a secular – very secular – city.

Then, for a time at least, the people of Nineveh actually changed their ways. Until temptations lured them into evil and violence again.

Is this even possible in 2018 in our country?

It is possible, yes, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. That would require a willingness to admit that we are on the wrong track as a nation, as Nineveh did. We can’t point fingers at others and say, “You need to repent.”

No. The people of Nineveh got down on their own knees.