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.

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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.