The Common Good

Urban Legends: Rethinking Inner-City Ministry

I used to lead and organize inner-city mission trips. Churches, youth groups, non-profit organizations, and well-intentioned philanthropists would excitedly arrive within the diverse and fast-paced world of Chicago and enthusiastically dive into whatever tasks we gave them. The work they volunteered for made a huge difference in people’s lives, but more importantly, it dramatically challenged — and changed — their own way of thinking about urban ministry.

Chicago skyline,  rSnapshotPhotos /
Chicago skyline, rSnapshotPhotos /

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For years “The City” has been the pet project of Christians throughout America. Billions of mission trips have been made to homeless shelters, food pantries, and poor neighborhoods, all in an effort to “clean up,” “rehabilitate” and “evangelize” in Christ’s name. Unfortunately, the inner-city isn’t as stereotypical as we want it to be, and our missionary zeal can often cause more harm than good.

Here is the most common myth that Christians mistakenly apply to urban areas: The Inner-City is Morally Bankrupt.

Bars, strip clubs, prostitutes, homeless vagabonds, and drive-by shootings are images that many Christians associate with the “inner-city.” Unfortunately, these stereotypes of urban life — perpetuated through the media and popular culture — are not the whole truth, and it’s unfair to typecast individuals and communities simply based on where they live.

Churches and other Christian organizations support these false stigmas by being uneducated, inexperienced, and ignorant about the inner-city. They overdramatize the problems and oversimplify the solutions.

For example, many Christians will drive into poor neighborhoods and start street evangelizing and witnessing to everyone they come into contact with. But they’re assuming that these people aren’t already Christians — as if the neighborhood they are living in disqualifies them from having faith.

I once witnessed a group of Christian teenagers who eagerly approached a man and offered him a pair of new shoes and a sandwich, thinking he was a homeless man, but they were shocked and embarrassed when he revealed himself to be a pastor who was actually on his way to meet me for lunch — lesson learned.

Cities have the illusion of being hotbeds for sin, corruption, and human depravity because they are more physically exemplified and witnessed within the context of hundreds of thousands of people living within a very small geographic proximity. Thus, the sins of the city are much more obvious than the ones of the suburbs and more rural areas — but not less prevalent.

In some ways, people living in cities have a faith that is much more honest and transparent because they are open about the issues they are dealing with. Meanwhile, it’s much easier to hide struggles, fear, and sins in churches that are less used to observing and dealing with conflict. Therefore, non-urban communities sometimes live under the fantasy of having fewer problems, even though data proves that rates for divorce, drug use, alcohol use, addiction, violence and, crime are nearly identical — and sometimes even higher — than those of urban areas.

In fact, rural areas have had greater poverty rates than urban areas for years, but fighting poverty in the city is more logistically convenient because everyone is close together, near food sources, plugged into networks of preexisting organizations, and quite frankly, it’s more visible. In many ways, Christians need to refocus their energy and start looking outside of the city, where help is also needed.

We’re guilty of romanticizing the experience of “saving” the city, selling it as a missionary experience that helps people who are desperately in need of saving. Maybe it’s because we’ve read The Cross and the Switchblade too many times, or maybe we simply want to help, but Christians have somehow manipulated urban ministry to be a form of self-righteousness, a way to pat ourselves on the back for putting in a couple of weekends worth of volunteering and helping those people. We categorize various ministry opportunities according to prestige, and urban ministry is especially revered, right up there with selling all of your belonging and becoming a missionary in a third-world jungle.

The reality is that there are many people within the city that do need help. But the problems and issues aren’t as compartmentalized and simplistic as many Christians assume they are. In most cases, the change that is needed requires years of dedicated service and ministry, not a quick prayer and tract handout. But the solutions, much like the problems, aren’t necessarily unique to urban areas.

Yet we continue to ignore the numbers and pretend that people living within the city are in more danger of falling into Satan’s web of temptations than those not living in metropolitan areas. Thus, Bible colleges and seminaries continue to offer countless ‘Urban Ministry’ degrees and programs, and yet ‘Suburban Ministry’ or ‘Rural Ministry’ degrees are unheard of. So as we continue to load packs of youth group kids into church vans and whisk them away to the city, maybe it’s time we start doing this with the intention that they learn from those that are already there — and start realizing that maybe they’re the ones that need rescuing.

Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Photo: Chicago skyline,  rSnapshotPhotos /

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