It’s October 2012. I’m at a local church in Detroit bouncing, dancing and singing along to Lecrae, Trip Lee and the rest of the “116 Crew” in concert. I look to my left and there is my then, 11-year old son, rocking out and bouncing alongside his dad. To my right, is a 270 pound white man, singing along and rocking out just as hard as my son and I.
“Your pastor is white?”
This was the reaction of one of my co-workers as I showed her a photo from the concert, a photo that included some friends from church, our very white worship leader and our very, very white lead pastor.
“Yeah he’s white, but he’s really like ¼ black,” I said jokingly.
“Wow that has to different,” she responded.
You see, being black, from Detroit and having a white pastor is about as rare as…..well think of something that’s rare and it’s probably rarer than that. It’s not something you come across often.
In fact, Detroit, a city known for having a church (and a liquor store) on virtually every other corner may be the poster child for Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote where he refers to 11am on Sunday morning as being the “Most segregated hour in America.” Most of the city’s churches are led by black pastors with a vast majority of those congregations being all black. You just don’t see that much diversity in churches in our city. This is not just a “Detroit issue” this is an issue in a lot of urban cities in America.
You also rarely see non-minority pastors wanting to come to cities like Detroit and others to plant churches and impact the community with the gospel. They’d much rather pray that the Lord sends someone else, someone that can “relate” to “those people.” Besides, planting a church in a suburban city where the perception is people have a better education and better jobs gives your church a better chance to thrive right?
Well, if you haven’t heard, statistics show that our country is becoming more “urban.” As our country becomes more urban, the reality is that eventually our churches will become more diverse whether we like it or not. This means that pastors and leaders will have to tackle issues like race, poverty, and social acceptance, issues they may have never addressed before.
A brother may very well walk into your church with some “baby mama drama” and you’re going to have to, first know what “baby mama drama” is and secondly how to walk him through his situation. A single mother at your church may not be able to afford food for her family because she lost her job and her EBT card just doesn’t cover all the groceries she needs. (Google EBT card if you’re not familiar)
Pastors in the urban context are faced with these challenges on a daily basis. Our church recently witnessed our pastor handle the issue of racial/social injustice head on when he commented on the George Zimmerman trial in which he was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. With a multi-cultural church family that consists of black people, many who weren’t thrilled with the verdict, he addressed the issue head on. In speaking to the entire church he didn’t try to relate to blacks and the injustices they’ve faced in America but he spoke to us as people of God who have been changed by the saving power of Jesus Christ. He spoke about the issue of racism and social injustice not as a “black or white thing” but as a “sin thing.” Whether we agreed with the verdict or not the fact is that this world is broken and both the George Zimmerman’s and Trayvon Martin’s of the world (all of us) need Jesus.
There were three things that stood out when Pastor Jon spoke that day. Three things that I think are important for the non-minority preacher/leader who either desires to minister to the urban context or who eventually will be challenged with their context becoming more urban. While these three tools won’t be all you need, they are vital in either starting or maintaining an urban ministry.
“Real recognize real.” It is a term used in the hood that basically says that people being honest about who they are can identify with others who are honest about who they are. In other words, we can spot a “faker” from a mile away. The worst thing you can do is try to identify with the urban context by being something you’re not.
Our associate pastor is a 60 something year old “polo and slacks guy.” We love and respect him for who he is. If he attended one of our community outreach events in skinny jeans and a snapback, he probably wouldn’t make it out alive. Being disingenuous is like a slap in a face to those of us who embody the urban culture. You are much better off reaching people who need Jesus in an urban setting by just being yourself. Don’t think you have to dress or even talk “hood.” Don’t call me “dog” or “homie” and NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES use the “N-Word.” This may sound ridiculous, but it has been done before. Do this and you’ll be meeting Jesus a lot sooner than you anticipated.
Being honest is also important to being real. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. Don’t just talk a good game and not follow through on your commitments and teachings. Be an example. Don’t be a hypocrite. The best example of “Keeping it 100” (another term for being real), is actually walking what you’re talking. People “talk game” in the streets all the time, it’s the people that “walk game” that earn respect. If your life is a reflection of Christian living, you’re more apt to gain a listening ear from our urban brothers and sisters. Gaining that listening ear may take a while, so be patient. But believe it when I tell you, if you’re a white person living in a black neighborhood, they are watching you! So be “on point” (living right) at all times.
At the end of the day, people need hope and love. They need to know someone cares. Be yourself and let God do the rest.
Being real is a very important component in engaging the urban context. So is being relevant. While you don’t necessarily have to dress like or even talk like the urban setting, it is important if you are going to live amongst the community to know what’s going on. Be relatable. Ask questions. Learn about the area. Likewise, if you’re suddenly faced with your context becoming more urban, get to know those people. God has placed them amongst you for a reason.
I recently watched rapper Lecrae speak to a group of pastors and leaders at the Resurgence conference where he spoke fondly of a guy named Joe. Joe was very instrumental in Lecrae’s discipleship as a new believer. Surprising to myself and the crowd, Joe was a white guy from Kentucky who loved kayaking. Lecrae is a black guy from Houston who said that upon meeting Joe he couldn’t even spell kayaking. Joe did something that showed Lecrae he was genuine and really cared about him, he engaged him. He wanted to know about Lecrae’s life, his family, his likes and dislikes. He sought to know Lecrae “the person” before witnessing to him.
Joe’s approach in reaching out to Lecrae is a great example of how non-minority pastors and leaders should reach out to those in an urban setting. Don’t treat people like “projects” or “lab rats.” Yes, we want them to know and love Jesus but you’ll never get to that point if you don’t know and love them for who they are first. The approach shouldn’t be to try and assimilate people but to engage them and become familiar with them. This more often than not will mean that you, as a pastor and leader will have to step out of your comfort zone. Lecrae mentioned that Joe watched the movie “Boyz in the Hood” with him. Why? Because at the time it was Lecrae’s favorite movie. Now this movie would horrify the average white person. The language and images from the movie were way out of Joe’s comfort zone, but it helped Joe understand where Lecrae came from and who he was.
People want to be treated like…people, not “conversion notches.” People in urban areas are VERY skeptical of the non-minority who wants to come into their neighborhood and help make a difference. There are many reasons for the skepticism. Besides racial skepticism, there have been non-minorities who have come into urban neighborhoods with good intentions to start, but when things don’t go their way or they don’t see the change they anticipated, they leave. Those people become possibly another person who’s come into the life of an urban dweller and abandoned them.
Relevance can break down those barriers that will ultimately allow you to engage people with the gospel. You have to be in it for the long haul though. You have to be patient. You may have to watch “Boyz in the Hood” 20 times before you can talk about Jesus but in the end know that heaven rejoices when that one “lost sheep” has been found.
At the end of the day, it’s all about Jesus. Your mission, your purpose, your reason for engaging the urban context is to share the gospel and make Jesus known. Jesus was compassionate, loving and giving. Likewise, as a representative of Jesus Christ, you should be the same. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that the righteous receive the inheritance of the kingdom of God because we fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he thirsted, cared for him when he was sick, welcomed him into our home, clothed him when he was naked and visited him in prison. Of course we don’t physically do this for Jesus but because we’ve done these things for the least of the brethren, we’ve done it for him.
Sadly, in the urban context many are hungry, thirty, sick, homeless, naked and locked up both physically and spiritually. The love of Christ will meet both needs. Food drives, clothing pantries, prison ministries and health seminars are all tangible things that can immediately make a difference in our urban neighborhoods. Feed people with physical food, give them physical water and you then open the door to introduce them to the “The Bread of Life” and the “Living Water.”
Let people see the change and then you can be the change. Remember God is using you. Ultimately it is not you who saves but God through the gospel. If you are a non-minority and God has called you to the hood, don’t be afraid. Step out on faith. I truly believe that if you come to the hood with a heart for God and a heart to help and people see that you are real, relevant and a true follower of Jesus Christ, they no longer see color. They see the content of your character and the glory of God.
Be Encouraged. Be a Light. Grace and Peace,
“People need the Lord.” I’ve heard that since I was a kid but what they meant by “People need Jesus” is “People we know or like or are like us need Jesus.” We send missionaries around the world and make a huge deal about, meanwhile poor communities in our own backyard are overlooked, looked down on and are forgotten.
The hood is a great place with great people who just need Jesus. It is different than suburbia but not really. The hood has families, people, kids…they all need Jesus. Lots of cultural differences but still a need for Jesus. Don’t see them any differently than where you live, rather see it as a place that has been forgotten by the Christian church and is suffering from poverty, drugs, crime and a lack of love from Christians.
The hood has churches, but not enough of em. The hood has missions, but no where near enough of em. I have been asked more times than I can count “but Jon, why Detroit?” Let me tell you my new response, people didn’t ask Paul “why Ephesus?” or David Livingston “why Africa?” or Peter “why Rome?” There where people there and God gave a burden and bam…the gospel is there!
I’ve had pastors accuse me of trying to be black…first thats insulting to me and to the black community. I am not trying to be black, I am trying to be Jesus in a different culture. If you are living in Georgia, have some twang and a guitar. If you are living in the hood, wear some Jordan’s and put on a hoodie. The clothing is different, the music is bouncing, but the need is still Jesus.
To be effective in the hood, here are some points that are a must:
-Go where the need is not where it looks good.
-Be a lighthouse, not a greenhouse.
-Stop trying to do church how you like it and do church how it will be effective.
-Listen to your people, learn from your people and then start preaching.
-Every hood is different, so don’t stereotype.