By Seth Barnes, Founder of Adventures in Missions
Dori Beach used to work in a women’s rescue shelter. She tells the story of a pregnant 15 year-old named Janice. Janice is representative of so many who are caught in the whirlpool of generational habits. She’s a victim of incest who has raised many of her mother’s nine children.
While the average 15 year-old has only recently given up playing with dolls, Janice will soon have the responsibility of caring for a real baby. In an odd way, it is for her a status symbol, a signal that she has come of age. Her mother is hardly equipped to help; Janice will have to raise the child by herself. How do you reach a girl like Janice? Somewhere very early in life she learned that people just don’t care. What are the odds that her own child will learn the same message?
Through the magic of television, the hard edges of many urban areas have spilled into living rooms across America like a rolling fog. Urban lifestyles color the thoughts we ingest from programming as innocuous as Sesame Street to the hyperkinetic MTV. For a full frontal deluge of urban decay, one has only to turn to such critically acclaimed movies as “Do the Right Thing” or “Boyz ‘N the Hood.” View these movies and statistics that show that your family has a one in four chance of experiencing violent crime this year seem normal. And unfortunately, if we have this kind of fear-soaked perspective of urban life, then those of us in suburbia are missing out on something we desperately need.
When societies down through the years have been threatened, the typical response has been to retreat and fortify. The monasteries of the Middle Ages were as much a response to the threat to Christianity as the castles and moats were a response to the threat to local autonomy. From such redoubts, monks and nobility were able to turn back the occasional siege or frontal attack. The modern day equivalent of these fortresses is the suburb. In our suburban redoubts, we are safely distanced from the turbulence of the city.
Nineveh, a huge city of 120,000 in the year 780 B.C., was a mess. God’s words to Nineveh were, “I am going to destroy you, for your wickedness rises before me; it smells to highest heaven.” (Jonah 1:2) Yet God loved it enough to ask its people to repent.
There is one problem with the strategy of the suburban redoubt. It is in direct conflict with the strategy God has historically mapped out for His people. We may want to shrug our shoulders at the mess beyond our moat, but God loves the cities. A recurrent theme in both the Old and New Testaments is God’s love for Jerusalem. Isaiah 52, summarizes God’s message to its inhabitants: “Wake up, Jerusalem!” In Luke 19, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem as he sees the turmoil awaiting her. At various other times in Scripture, we see God sending messengers to urbanites to request their repentance. Jonah’s travels to Nineveh are an archetype of this theme, perhaps because of their fantastic nature.
Perhaps making a foray into a nearby urban center is similarly threatening for you. It’s not safe. It’s time-consuming. It’s unorthodox. Well, Christianity is not safe. Jesus left a road map behind for his followers. It leads us over some precarious swinging bridges spanning chasms with alligators down below. Jesus was something of a swashbuckler. He said, “I have come to bring a sword.” He demands the passion of an adventurous spirit. He says, “I wish that you were either hot or cold.”
We claim to be Christ’s followers, but are we really? Maybe in your mind’s eye you can see Him. He’s up ahead beckoning us to follow him into the city while we’re off with our groups at Six Flags or some retreat. Retreat?! Jesus says, “Take the battle to the enemy!” Put on those infra-red goggles and have a good look at the fortifications the enemy has built less than an hour’s drive from your church. You’ve been given your marching orders and equipment list in Ephesians 6; are your troops dressed for the battle?
Jonah probably felt very under-dressed for his role as an urban guerilla. Many of us probably feel the same way. No matter – God requires only our willingness to take the fight to the enemy.
Some have latched onto the Bible’s evident concern for the needy whom we find in such abundance in our cities and have used it to fashion a theology of works. A theology of works is a hollow religious shell – furious activity without any specific end. Jesus defines a theology of love which finds a constant production of fruit as its natural outcome. Many of us have either embraced works or else embraced a fundamentally academic interest in love. Love is by definition active and practical. It does not exist in the abstract and only flourishes in adversity – the kind of adversity you find running amuck in our inner cities.
Even a partial chronicle of the pathologies affecting urban America underscores the complexity of the challenge facing any church group that takes seriously its charge to be salt and light. How can one address the problems of homelessness, inadequate education, crack cocaine, poverty, guns, broken homes, AIDS, and teenage pregnancies? Where does a youth group seeking to be obedient begin?
Many organizations have made a long-term commitment to coping with the fallout of a self-consumptive society. A good place to begin reaching out in love is to commission a survey of those organizations already at work in the city nearest you. What needs do they address? How could your group help them meet those needs?
Bible study and prayer is of course the foundation of discipleship. But study without action produces a dualistic world view. Your students segregate their activities into those that are Christian and those that are “normal.” Jesus says that every aspect of our lives should be colored by our faith. When we engage in study without action, we unwittingly promote a dualistic world view. A whole generation of teenagers with this poisonous perspective is growing up right under our feet. Consider the possibility that you may have already fed your students more than they’re able to digest. Maybe they’ve heard so much they’ve got heartburn. Help them with the digestion process by designing activities which get them in the battle. The enemy is encamped in our urban areas, we’ve got to take the fight to him.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Find a program which can serve as your gangplank to the rocking boat of inner city life. Many programs would be delighted to have the help of youth groups. They would be happy to help you ease parental concerns. Some are designed specifically with ministry to youth in mind.
The Center for Student Missions in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. is such an organization. CityTeam is an organization using students to reach out to downtown San Jose. Inner City Impact is a comparable organization in Chicago. The STEP Program is an agency which serves as a bridge between rich white suburban churches and poor ethnic urban churches. Rescue missions and soup kitchens have an ongoing ministry to the urban down-and-out. Habitat for Humanity has affiliates in most major cities which can provide you with worthy work projects. Your own church may have outreaches to prisons, nursing homes, and hospitals which would be perfect for your group.
Another good source of help is the many federal and municipal agencies which serve as the tattered center of our society’s “safety net.” Consider talking to welfare offices, schools, hospitals, and the courts for good ideas on how to lead your platoon into battle.
Before committing your group members’ time, you must answer some of the following key questions: What are your students equipped to do? Just about everyone can do the kind of basic cleaning or repair work that many organizations need. But perhaps you’d like to push your students further. Could they share their faith if asked? Do they have the maturity to organize a back yard Bible club?
Have you and your leaders really prayed about
urban outreach? God wants you and your group, but He wants you under His umbrella. Listen to His voice before stepping out in faith.
Seth is the executive director of Adventures In Missions — an organization that sends people on short-term mission trips around the world. He lives in Gainesville, GA with his wife Karen. You can visit his blog “Radical Living in a Comfortable World” at sethbarnes.com.