Sunday, September 28, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Overseas missions vs. urban ministry

Another question from Elizabeth: "On pg. 179, you say, "many suburban churches give more to overseas missions than they do to support local ministries in nearby urban centers." Why do you think this is? Is it because churches have individual callings and some are not called to urban centers? Or is it lack of knowing about the needs? Or some other form of neglect? Thanks for doing this - I've enjoyed interacting on the blog."

Thanks, Elizabeth - it's been fun for me too!

I think that historically, evangelicals have championed overseas missions in a way that has not been true with domestic urban ministry. We've romanticized the heroic overseas missionary, going to the far corners of the world. At the same time we've had something of an anti-city bias. Evangelicals have tended to view cities and urban centers as dens of iniquity and evil. And part of this has been affected by America's racial history and dynamics; even though both suburbs and cities are far more diverse today, there's still a cultural narrative that says that white folks live in the suburbs and other folks live in the cities, and thus suburban white churches have been nervous about urban connections/ministries because of their "otherness."

So when young people say they want to become overseas missionaries, their suburban home churches are likely to laud the decision and support them as their sending churches. It bolsters our sense of identity to reach out in such noble ways, to those "poor natives." But if our young people say that they want to move into a local urban neighborhood or get involved with a ministry in the city, that's not as glamorous or sexy. That makes people nervous. That might be perceived as outside our turf or sphere of responsibility - those city churches can minister to their own.

(The cynical side of me would say that for some predominantly white suburban churches, it's fine to minister to different-looking people on the other side of the world, but not people with different skin color in the same metropolitan area. Somehow the local cross-cultural dynamic is scarier than the exotic overseas journey. I saw something recently about a study showing that multiracial churches tend to work only until kids get to high school age. Then white parents bail out because they don't want their daughters dating black guys.)

Also, there's a dynamic where it's easier to support overseas missions because of the remove and distance. You don't see the daily realities because they're not immediately before you, so it's a safe way of ministering by sending a check or going on an occasional short-term mission trip or hearing updates from the missionaries that you support as your proxies. But local metropolitan urban ministry is nearby enough to be inconveniently disturbing. You're just a few miles away from people who live in contexts far different than your own, and it's troublesome to ask why they live in such unjust conditions when you have your comfortable houses just a half-hour drive away. Better to not get involved at all so you don't have to think about those troubling realities.

I realize I'm caricaturing and overgeneralizing, but I think these are some of the subtle psychological dynamics at work behind why we selectively choose to support some missions/ministries and not others. It's hard for us to be self-critical and ask probing questions about how we prioritize different ministries, since there's almost always good reasons for this or that. So to answer your latter questions, yes, it's all of that - some churches might legitimately feel callings not to focus on local urban work (though this can be a cop-out), and others just aren't aware of the needs or issues involved and need to be better informed. It ultimately might boil down to an idea that "we are not the city, so it's not our problem."

As I've said in various ways, as the suburbs continue to urbanize and diversify, suburban ministry is becoming urban ministry. Suburban churches no longer have the luxury of assuming they can merely stay in their suburban bubbles. It's increasingly important for all churches, urban and suburban alike, to seek the welfare of the whole metropolis. It's got to be a both/and. Limited resources mean that every church needs to be discerning and selective about what they do and don't do, but we can't overlook our own metropolitan area and only deploy resources in our immediate suburban communities or overseas. It ought to be a triple both/and, that we have concentric spheres of ministry that are suburban, urban and global.


Anonymous said...

This has been something very close to my heart because at my church overseas missions is a very important part of the church, but when I went to Camden, NJ to do work for a summer, I got very little enthusiasm from the church. It is just a different kind of message. People were more concerned about my safety than about what I was going there to do.

Thanks for this answer. I think you hit on many of the major points.

Chip Gorman said...

Some of the factors you mention may be true of suburban churches, but I hope that they are not the primary factor in prioritizing "foreign missions". David Bryant pointed it out a few decades ago in In the Gap, and it's still true: "access" to the gospel in most of the world is significantly less than it is here in the U.S. Taking the gospel into unreached areas of the world should be a priority of the wealthy U.S. church, one of the few that can afford to do so in the way that we have. It's understood that there are many ways to accomplish that, but "going" is a key one.

"Leave it to the inner-city churches and don't bother me with it" is one way of looking at it, but the other way to view it is that the cultural barriers due to the racial history are real, and the church on the ground in the neighborhood can, in fact, reach out to the neighborhood more readily. How ever you look at, the gospel can usually be found on many street corners in the inner city, which is not the case in much of the world.

That said, I'd like to see more partnerships of suburban churches with urban churches to share resources and to encourage one another, and yes, to "do urban ministry" and get people to work with and minister to those who live in a different culture. I see it more as a matter of priority than of one vs. the other.

Unknown said...

Great post.I am about to speak on a panel regarding urban ministry! Do you have any more information or opinions on the topic?