Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: The Paradoxes of Urban Ministry
I was called straight from the seminary to apprentice among the Hot Springs of Central Arkansas. The goal was to prepare me for the work of that divine miracle of creating something from nothing - also known as church planting. Without a doubt, it's a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit for a church to be created from prayer, fasting, visioning, and God's means of grace. If you've ever planted a church, then you know it's nothing short of God speaking life into the daily laments of anxiety, despair, and uncertainty. In short, church planting is an exercise in utter self-conscious dependency.
Not Glamorous - A Grind
There are many who miscommunicate the challenge of starting something new by jumping straight to their relative success - typically rooted in attendance and offering rates, the ability to out-do competing outreach opportunities, and to promote the latest livestream technology. This is particularly true when churches are planted in urban centers and especially evident when pitted against the landscape of rural calls. I was trained to epitomize the urban church planter. Admittedly, I’ve got a beard, curly mustache, and roast my own coffee. However, I quickly learned that the pursuit of reconciliation is a commitment to a long-term struggle for survival. Urban ministry is not sexy or glamorous—it's a grind.
No Substitute for Raw Experience
Aside from a firm foundation of orthodox theology, I was somewhat orphaned by the seminary regarding inner-city, multi-ethnic ministry. Even the methodological training in Hot Springs left me with little meat on the bone to sustain the early days of our church, Bridge City Community. I had to scrape, scrap, and search for insight and resources to help translate Lutheran theology into urban practice. Pastoral Ministry 101 never prepared me to get cussed out by students in our youth group. Pastor as Counselor never facilitated a role play of relationship counseling for the mother of different children from different fathers. Theology of Missions never touched on the strong similarity between global mission work and urban mission efforts. Systematics I-IV taught me much, but did not address the systematic injustice in communities of color typically perpetuated by predominately white church bodies.
"That Part of Town"
If it hadn't been for growing up in the Bay Area of northern California, immersed in the diversity of a global melting pot, I would have been blind to the perpetuation of Chattanooga’s segregation and ill-prepared to address her systemic challenges. Chattanooga is the buckle of the Bible Belt. The sea of churches didn’t need another congregation, particularly another hipster church suffocating with skinny jeans, myriad candles, and craft coffee. Drowning in waves of indecision, I struggled to understand why God brought me to Chattanooga until I divinely ended up in the segregated Southside, known by many as “that part of town.”
Rescue vs. Struggling Together
“That part of town” has become my home—not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. When I lay out statistical data or share the demography of south Chattanooga with church leaders, the Christian light bulb illuminates an immediate understanding of the need for our church’s presence. What remains hidden in the dark is an underpinning of privilege that sinfully seeks to “save” those in the urban centers. I am not here to save anyone. My church barely survives and is in no position to deliver the community from the chains of racial, socioeconomic, and educational bondage. Lila Watson, an aboriginal elder in Australia’s outback, responded to a white, European missionary in this way: “If you’ve come here to help me you’re wasting your time. But, if your liberation is bound with mine then let us struggle together.” I first heard that in the Ugandan bush. It has now become a cornerstone of our philosophy of ministry.
Moving from Stranger to Neighbor
I could share countless accounts of cultural oddities and sketchy situations. From dope dealers serving food to hungry children alongside me, to my introduction by way of funerals to southern black spirituality, to walking the streets in my sandals as strangers joked over my cracked heels... I never define my call by the dangers I face, the challenges that appear insurmountable, or the scrutiny I have received. The joys of moving from stranger to neighbor, from white man to Mr. to Pastor, is something I thank God for everyday. Every ministry context is unique and valuable, but how many LCMS pastors have the privilege of watching spontaneous, seemingly choreographed, dance performances bust out of nowhere in a rec center gym? How many trained theologians are privy to the suffering of the black community and embraced as a partner in the struggle? How many men have the privilege of preaching to a handful of single moms while their children receive instruction from Luther’s Seal tatted Ms. Nancy?
Putting the Hand to the Plow
The challenges that exist in urban communities are vastly different from those in suburban or rural settings, yet the similarities lie in mutual dependence between pastor and community. In strong Lutheran paradox, it is not either/or but both/and. The pragmatic disparities are clear, but the needs of broken people suffering under the weight of sin and surrounded by the corruption of creation are synonymous. The challenges specific to south Chatt are mistrust rooted in systemic oppression, fiscal viability, and the necessity of long term commitment and consistency. Almost four years in I am still white—shocking, I know. Some of my whiteness has been rubbed off by the scouring pads of community scrutiny. But my heritage remains. I must continue to tirelessly undermine cultural assumptions of white privilege and historic authority. My PIF and SET won’t communicate the reality that I am bi-vocational: part time pastor and part time fundraiser. Literal widow’s mites are dropped in our teal and white offering basket each week, which increases pressure for alternative funding models necessary for our sustainability. If I were to accept a call in the next few years, the hard soil of the projects will not have been tilled long enough to see any fruit flower through asphalt cracks. The ROI out here isn’t evident after 3-5 years, but rather born out of a lifetime of ministry.
What Lies Ahead
A lifetime of ministry in the hood is a legacy I earnestly desire. Honestly, I couldn’t cut it in sprawling suburbs or lost in the maze of corn and soybean fields of rural America—that’s not condescension but confession. What lies ahead is a future of racial reconciliation where the unity of the Kingdom of God is put on stark display against the harsh background of segregation. Trap houses and dope corners are being fertilized so that neighbors might one day no longer live in fear but in the freedom of the Gospel. Single moms who resigned themselves and their children to a hopeless future are being empowered to escape the generational bondage of poverty and reinvest into their community. Survival in light of a bleak forecast is something that can be overcome in our urban centers by the grace of God if we truly offer ourselves as living sacrifices focused on caring for the widow, welcoming the orphan, and advocating on behalf of the oppressed. Apart from evening headlines and daily front pages, the harvest is ridiculously white. May we be counted among the prophets who decried injustice, the generous and merciful ministries of the early church, and the humility of Christ who sacrificed himself for the benefit of our eternity.
Rev. Josh Woodrow - Bridge City Community - Chattanooga, TN