The risky, messy, life-changing world of urban ministry

by Patti Miller

“I’ve been in urban ministry for over twenty years.”

It’s odd to hear a statement like that come out of my own mouth. I startle myself and wonder when I became that person, simultaneously aware that I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding what urban ministry is.

Patti Miller is our FT Interview for March/April.
Patti Miller is our FT Interview for March/April.

What I do know is this:

Urban ministry is different

Urban ministry is not just different as a single category, it is different within as well. Each city, each neighbourhood in each city, is different. The labels don’t work. You have to figure out the community in which God has placed you. And once you do, it will change.

I pastored in one city where the intersection that had a drug dealer and a prostitute on each corner 20 years ago is now home to trendy, artsy boutique places and festivals. It is well on its way in the process of gentrification. The crime moved and so did the poverty. It didn’t disappear—it just moved. It is still urban, but now it is an entirely different version.

Decades ago, the respectable people fled the cities for the suburbs. Now, they are coming back for all kinds of reasons, from all kinds of places.

When I walk 14 minutes from home to work every morning, I pass one high-end shop that is way outside the realm of my paycheque, as well as a crowded pawnshop. I pass people of every ethnicity and language. I pass luxury condos and people with no home at all sitting in front of them. I pass vomit, glamour, people handing out flyers. I pass terribly polite seniors who grew up in a different time; now they simply need a hand across the street or a little help figuring out how to use their debit card at the grocery store that has a security guard at the entrance. Always.

The church I pastor, sits at a major bus and subway stop where thousands of people pour in and out from all walks of life, all day long. Students from two universities and several colleges walk by our doors every single day. There are approximately 100,000 students living and learning within spitting distance of my office.

It is a vast sea of humanity, all rubbing shoulders together, all sharing sidewalk space. People Jesus loves. Urban ministry is different. It changes constantly. A church must change with it, even if it stays in the same location for a hundred years.

Urban ministry is messy

It is inefficient. People on the margins of life tend to congregate downtown. And there is a reason they are on the margins: mental illness, social rebellion, childhood (or adult) abuse, unemployment, new to Canada, or simply exploring life in a new context. There is any number of reasons.

I am often amazed at the resilience and fortitude of real people who face challenges I have never had to overcome. They need safe space, a little more time and endless second chances. They don’t fit mainstream programs, the forms, or the bureaucracy; if they did, they wouldn’t be on the margins. They don’t always need a program; they need a real person to tell them they matter. Sometimes they need advocacy. Sometimes they simply need to know they are valued, truly valued, as a full member of our human race.

Jesus told the parable of the 99 sheep and the one that was lost. Our world tells us that 99 is a net gain, a solid success; it’s efficient to work with the majority, the crowd and let the one go. Jesus said that wasn’t good enough. He left the 99 to go find the one. Urban churches are for the ones.

A whole crowd of ones; lost and wandering, who don’t fit with the 99. Realistically, they will probably wander away more than once. They need extra grace, extra love, extra accountability, extra advocacy and extra creativity. Sometimes they need to be carried, sometimes to be given tools, sometimes to be pushed a little. But always with the absolute knowledge that these are people deeply treasured by God.

Urban ministry is risky

Societal issues with which the Church must wrestle usually find traction in the cities first. Questions of sexuality, world religions, social justice, the environment, globalization, multiculturalism and more are passionately addressed in urban centres.

These issues demand that pastors have answers before other places have even asked the questions, before books with considered responses have even been published. Off-the-cuff answers determine your reputation quickly as hateful, tolerant, loving, authentic or irrelevant. There is no time to sit back and watch. If you are going to connect, you must engage—and the truth is you must pray desperately for the Holy Spirit to guide you as you do.

Urban ministry is world-changing

Because of its transitory nature, people come and go. If you wait too long to disciple and integrate them, they have often moved before they ever connected. But if you give them a spiritual home, a sense of value, a life-shaping understanding of God, while welcoming them into full participation in the Body of Christ as fast as possible, they will take that with them when they move, sometimes to the furthest parts of the world.

Urban ministry is international missions, all in one place, right on your own doorstep. Imagine it. Only heaven knows the worldwide impact of a single urban church.

I have been in urban ministry for over 20 years. I never expected to be that person. I am still learning what it means. But this I know: God loves cities. Jesus died for the people in them. The Holy Spirit is at work here, finding ones in the crowds. And the Church must, simply must, stay passionately present here, fully engaged, at any cost.

Patti Miller is the Lead Pastor at Evangel in Montreal, Quebec. Faith Today interviews Patti in the March/April issue. This article is used with permission by our friends at Sage magazine, a publication of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (an EFC affiliate denomination).

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