Making Disciples Where City Meets Country
Several years ago, my husband and I attended Pastors and Spouses retreat in rural Branson, Missouri. That first night we tossed and turned—it was so quiet and dark we couldn’t sleep. The next morning at breakfast, we joked with another couple about how it was so quiet we couldn’t sleep or think! They laughed as they shared about a recent trip to the city and how they couldn’t sleep or think because of all the noise, light, and chaos. We spent breakfast talking about how different our ministry settings were from each other—ours in the inner city on the edge of downtown, theirs on the edge of the district in rural Missouri.
How would the church ever grow if our people didn’t join with us in discipling our part of “the nations”?
Funny thing is that later in the day, we reconnected and continued sharing about our ministries. Very quickly we found real connecting points: addictions, broken families, social injustices, trends pushing families away from church connections. We mused over the influence of drugs, television, the internet, video games and cultural rejections of God. Even as we talked about our churches, we found that there were more similarities, especially regarding the difficulties of competing to get people to show up, check in, bring others, witness at work, be discipled, and actively disciple others. How would the church ever grow if our people didn’t join with us in discipling our part of “the nations”?
The conversation that day serves as a poignant reminder that the city pastor and the country pastor aren’t nearly as different as the location of their churches might suggest. With this premise of shared realities in mind, this article will draw from some of my favorite lessons from urban ministry training and experience to engage in a dialogue on making disciples in any setting—city, suburbs, or country. These discipleship lessons include: exegete the city, develop a diverse leadership team, commission and send missionaries.
If a pastor is to wisely lead a community-based ministry, then time and attention must be given to the critical analysis and understanding of the various expressions of life and relationships of the community.
EXEGETE THE CITY
If a pastor is to wisely lead a community-based ministry, then time and attention must be given to the critical analysis and understanding of the various expressions of life and relationships of the community. Whether you are new to the community or just need a fresh perspective on the neighborhood that God has called you to, the exercise of exegeting the community can be a valuable learning experience. Exegeting a city or a community encompasses three basic tasks: observing, listening, and praying.
Observing may be as simple as a fresh walk through the neighborhood, down through the business district, or even as basic as through the grocery store—all the while opening your eyes—looking for clues to your community.
Observe the grocery store. It is in the best interest of the grocery store to respond quickly to the changing needs of the community. A lesson we can learn from. Typically, changes in the neighborhood will be first reflected in changes at the grocery store. The business hours of the grocery store can tell you about the patterns of people. If you live in a community where people work shifts round the clock, your grocery store is almost certain to be open 24 hours a day. You might expect a city grocery store to be open 24 hours a day, but that is not always the case. Issues of security and safety take precedent. In our neighborhood, few people feel safe enough to be out late at night shopping. This too is reflected in the stores closing early, which can be an indication that late evening services may not be well attended.
Grocery stores often carry a variety of ethnic foods. However, an indication that your neighborhood has a new or rapidly growing people group can be the addition of new ethnic foods, or the movement of a product from the “multicultural food” aisle to an aisle of its own. By observing the location of food, the people in a store, and even to the extreme of new ethnic grocers in your neighborhood, you can begin to learn who the business people see moving into the neighborhood. By the way, the same principle works for other interest groups. In our neighborhood store, there are very few organic items. However, in another part of the city, there are entire stores dedicated to organic foods, and the grocers carry a wide variety of options for their clients in these neighborhoods. Understanding the choices your neighbors are making at the grocery store can help you better understand the interests of the people you are trying to reach, and help you tailor ministries to their interests and languages.
Continue to observe as you walk out of the grocery store and move down the street to other businesses that serve your neighborhood. What are the specializations? Who are the business owners? Employees? What do you see in the signs: languages, cultural icons, generational imagery—or even the choice of the color of the paint on the exterior of the buildings? What about the stores that utilize social media to the fullest extent and advertise using the web more extensively than others? All these pieces of information can help you understand more about your community and help you develop effective ministries.
My urban ministry training began in Los Angeles with an exercise that continues to challenge me to get to the heart of each neighborhood I serve. We were each given trash bags and told to walk through the community and pick up trash. Sounded like a nice community service project—except it wasn’t! Upon our return to the church, we entered the fellowship hall, where tables were set up for us to dump the contents of our bags. When asked what we saw, in unison, our response was, “TRASH.” Then we listened in awe, as the instructor told us what he saw and could learn about the neighborhood from what they discarded: a Korean newspaper, a racing form, and various kinds of ethnic food. He then went around the tables picking out significant information we would need in the coming days as we talked about developing ministries for that particular community.
The gift of observation is one that can be constantly sharpened. Take time to learn about your community—not just the most obvious information, but the details that can become the key to setting the ministry you lead apart as community based, community impacting, community discipling!
Once you have spent time really observing your community (including what is happening while you are holding services), then you should have a lot of questions and information you may want to have an insider confirm for you. You can ask the people in your congregation, but often they have been in the church so long that they are not as connected to the unchurched population you really want to draw into the congregation. Be brave—seek out community leaders, business leaders, school leaders, and teachers. Find out what they know about the community that confirms or dispels your initial observations. These leaders can become important informants for you as you move forward. They also may be so impressed that you took time to ask and LISTEN that they will want to partner with you in creative ways.
You’ll walk around praying for God to change these people, and soon you’ll find you are changed.
The whole process of exegeting the community should be covered in prayer. One of the most meaningful ways to pray for a community you are learning to serve is to perform a prayer walk through it. Walking and intentionally praying for the people who live in the homes or own the businesses you pass can heighten your awareness and understanding of the people God has called you to disciple. The process is also a subtle notice to the community that you care. However, the greatest impact of prayer walking is on how God uses the steps and the prayers to knit the people of the community to the heart of His chosen leader. You’ll walk around praying for God to change these people, and soon you’ll find you are changed. You’ll find your sermons, teachings, and communications are more passionate and relevant to the community.
Exegeting the city starts with an attempt to learn about the community by observing, listening, and praying. It continues through the transformation of the leader, who is willing to invest in the process. If you invest in exegeting your community, you’ll be changed from the person God has called to the community to the servant led by a heart broken for your community, effectively equipping you to disciple the community.
DEVELOP A DIVERSE LEADERSHIP TEAM
Once the process of exegeting the community has been initiated, then some foundational strategic plans can be developed. The first of these is a plan for mentoring key leaders. Mentoring or discipling is a long-term investment, so take time to identify potential leaders. In some cases, it takes years of prayer before God brings the right person into the community. Allow the Holy Spirit to assist in strategically identifying key leaders to mentor.
The information gained from exegeting the community helps identify the key groups within the community. In our community, for example, there are numerous identifiable groups: most notable are the old traditional Anglo families from numerous European nations, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, new French-speaking African immigrants, Haitians, Buddhists, and Muslims from many nations, as well as a group of eclectic artists, social activists, and an emerging group of young urban professionals drawn by the old mansions and the location near the financial district. Try as we might, my husband and I could never effectively minister to all of these different people groups by ourselves—we don’t have the languages, cultures, networks, time, energy, or resources to reach deep into these segments of our community. So, do we just give up, reach who we can, and survive? Or is there a strategy that can move us into these people groups?
Our strategic approach has been to intentionally pray that God will bring us to a key person from each group, who could be discipled and developed.
Our strategic approach has been to intentionally pray that God will bring us to a key person from each group, who could be discipled and developed into what Harvey Conn and Manuel Ortiz in their book, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God, call “multiethnic leadership teams.” The vision is that the leadership team would be representative of the community, with leaders from each of the major language/culture groups, as well as any other specific groups identified as needing a targeted strategy and leader. However, instead of creating silo congregations which cater to the needs of individual culture/language groups, the team would strategically work to unite the groups to form a stronger, healthier, multi-cultural congregation.
It might be easier to simply start a new church for each group. However, our community is so mixed that in many cases the families are mixed. Certainly the relationships the children and teens develop at school are not limited to their family heritage or even the language they speak. How then can we pull them apart at church? Perhaps if the church can be a place where people really come together, it can also bring peace and unity to the neighborhood divided by culture, language, and fear. The eschatological reality is that these divisions will not be in heaven, so why not make it a present reality as an expression of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?
In this model, each leader would have pastoral responsibility for their language/culture group, but would also have responsibility for ministry strategy across the groups. For example, the French-speaking African immigrant pastor is a gifted and passionate evangelist. His role is to not only connect with French-speaking Africans and Haitians from the community, but also to help drive the strategy of evangelism for the entire congregation. While he is gifted and passionate at evangelism, he will have to collaborate with the other members of the leadership team to develop a comprehensive strategy that all the leaders and groups can support and participate in regularly. He then has the responsibility to keep the strategy before the congregation in ways that keep everyone engaged in discipling their neighbors.
Each leader on the team would have similar responsibilities, with leaders taking responsibility for worship, outreach and assimilation, discipling, children, youth, small groups, and so on.
By the way, if I were back in my hometown where there isn’t a lot of ethnic diversity, I would get creative about finding key leaders in the various segments of that community: someone from the fi re or police department, a worker from Walmart, a cowboy or rancher, an educator, a banker, a senior adult who regularly hangs out at the Senior Center —you get the idea. It doesn’t matter if you have language barriers to navigate, there are plenty of obstacles in any community that can be overcome by employing a leader whose network reaches deeply into a target population.
We consistently pray that God will relocate Christian leaders from other parts of the world to come work with us, and in some cases, God has done exactly that!
We consistently pray that God will relocate Christian leaders from other parts of the world to come work with us, and in some cases, God has done exactly that! We are praying that God will bring us, or someone in our congregation, into relationship with someone who will come to know the Lord personally and can then lead the way in reaching into a particular part of the community. God is doing that too. In most cases, we must simply continue to pray and watch for the one God will bring forward to share in the responsibility and joy of leading the church and discipling followers.
Sending missionaries has been central to the mission of the church from its earliest days. Scripture is filled with stories of leaders being sent to new lands to spread the word about God. However, somewhere in our great heritage, many local churches have lost sight of the need to be sending organizations. In many cases, we have left it up to the denomination. However, there remains a tremendous need for local churches to be actively commissioning and sending missionaries, both into formal full-time, professional missionary assignments, and into creative tent-making ministries that are part of their regular lives.
Mobility is a common theme in the lives of most people in today’s world. Once it was the norm to be born, work, and die within the same, small area. Now, families relocate on a regular basis. While these trends create many difficulties for ministry, they also create great opportunities. But the possibilities can only be seen by choosing a different perspective to the reality. Instead of being frustrated by the loss of another great family that you have worked so hard to train and get established as disciples, thank God for missionaries, who can be sent from your congregation to another. Perhaps they will go to a church that needs trained disciples, or perhaps God will relocate them to a community that is unreached with the living gospel.
In addition to the people who are moving from the congregation, take time to commission those who are in the congregation. Train, empower, and pray over your people, as you send them out as missionaries to minister to their families, the people in their work places, and their unique neighborhoods. Help them see their role in discipling the nations by officially anointing them as missionaries.
The lesson of commissioning missionaries first came to me while working with the Russian-speaking congregation in San Francisco. One summer, a number of our people began telling me about their travel plans to visit family in other parts of the country. In many cases, they were nervous about being Christian in front of their non-Christian family. We surrounded them and prayed. Somewhere in the process, I realized they were not only visiting, but also writing letters to family, many in villages throughout the former Soviet Union, telling them the good news of what Christ was doing in their lives. These people were reaching into places we may never be able to send missionaries. They were our missionaries! It was amazing to see the transformation as we anointed them and prayed over them as missionaries sent from our congregation to their family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors literally around the globe.
We transferred this practice to our current location, where there was some frustration with the reality that seminary students always leave! By transforming the perspective of the congregation from one of abandonment to one of being a continuing part of the ministry of those who have been sent out as our missionaries, God was able to heal the pain of the past.
Discipling and then commissioning missionaries from the congregation, whether they are going to work at a job they have held for decades, or they are going to live on another continent, can have a positive impact of empowering people, healing the pain of transitions, and extending the ministry of the Church. Let your missionaries take the ministry into new relationships which are currently beyond the reach of your leadership.
If your church is like ours, you don’t need another fanciful formula, 40-day program, or ministry template that had amazing results in some other community but falls fl at in your neighborhood. Principles transfer, but programs usually don’t. Our church library is filled with failed programs. Before we invest in any other program, it is essential that fundamental principles are taken care of, that we truly know the community we are charged with discipling!
City Pastor or Country Pastor, you share the passion for caring for your people, building the kingdom of God and making Christlike disciples of the nations. However, the next time you find yourself spending a sleepless night in a strange environment outside your comfort zone, pray and reflect on what would happen to the discipling efforts of the ministry you lead if you took time to exegete the city, develop a diverse leadership team, and commission disciples as missionaries—at home and abroad.
TAMMY CONDON current serves with the International Board of Education for the Church of the Nazarene