Urban Mission: What’s a Suburban Church to Do?

Wednesday, I shared a post I wrote a while back that sums up urban missions in one sentence. Nowadays, urban ministry and mission is an increasingly important topic. In fact, ministry “for the city” is becoming a buzzword in Christian conversations. Just like we know we need to care about the lost in Africa, we need to concern ourselves with our own nation’s cities. They are burgeoning mission fields. Yet, the average evangelical lives in the suburbs and most of our churches are suburban or rural. Many of these churches see the needs for ministry in our growing cities, and the ones in suburbs are within arms reach of their centers. But what is a suburban church supposed to do?

In the previous post, I laid out two very common but unhelpful approaches taken in urban ministry: relying on parachurch ministries or parachute strategies. While good parachurch ministries can provide helpful support to the church, they are not the church and relying on them exclusively is basically outsourcing the church’s mission. Furthermore, unless they are working in concert with local churches in the city, then they cannot provide all that Christ’s church provides. The city needs more than specialized ministries. However, parachute strategies run into their own unique problems. While parachute ministry may be done by an actual church, like a suburban church, it is really flyby ministry. A church that is at a distance from the urban community can only do ministry periodically, and cannot truly serve as a full gospel witness to that community. Furthermore, we cannot forget that people are saved into community. Without church presence in the city, parachute ministry provides little other than temporary relief.

Neither of these strategies are bad as a piece of a whole, but the vital link is missing in both. Suburban churches cannot think that popping into the city once a week with a van-load of kids from the youth group will reach an impoverished neighborhood. We also cannot think that merely throwing money at a non-profit is the same as doing the Great Commission. What is that suburban church to do?

Get some churches in there.

Step one for that suburban church is creating a church-focused strategy. If good urban mission and ministry requires local churches in the city made up of residents of the city, then our first ambition in urban ministry must be getting churches established in those urban centers. When we think of urban ministry, our first thought should most likely be church planting. The needs in cities are often bewildering, and it is easy for us to turn our eyes toward those issues as ends in the themselves. We must avoid the temptation. Healthy ministry needs a long term presence by a gospel ministry, and if we want our work to be lasting, then we need churches to grow roots in that soil.

This does not mean that we overlook other needs while we are working toward the planting of churches. That is myopic at best, and sub-Christian at worst. Mercy ministry should always accompany gospel proclamation. We should love on schools. We should meet pressing human needs. We should stand for the oppressed and marginalized. However, any work a suburban church does from the outside needs to be focused toward the establishment or strengthening of local churches in the city. This should be the long-term aim of any ministry. Churches located on the inside are the first beachhead for urban ministry. Every decision made by a church should filter through this goal. With that in mind here are two specific ways for a suburban church to get involved.

Partner

Suburban churches on the outside of urban centers, even large or well-resourced churches, should most likely partner with others inside the city. Otherwise, the work will fall into the parachute trap. Healthy ministry needs a local presence. While some church growth conversations over the last decade or two talked about making your church a “regional church” that pulls people in from 45 minutes in every direction, this has never truly been regional. No single church can reach a city. Even if people drive 45 minutes to your suburban church, there are many more in that area who do not. Nowadays, a number of them do not speak English. They need their own, local expression. A church that is laboring for its own kingdom will see other churches as competition; a church laboring for God’s glory will see them as reinforcements.

If your church is outside the city, but sees the need for Great Commission ministry there, seek out like-minded churches inside the city as partners for the gospel. Often, these churches welcome the help. There are many ways to support the work of existing churches in the city. Sometimes it is financial, often it is with human resources as they attempt to do broad gospel seed-sowing or tackle some kind of mercy ministry. This allows suburban churches to have real, sustained impact on these urban centers without succumbing to the parachute mentality. Find a local church partner, get to know them, and work together for the glory of God in that city.

In addition, certain parachurch organizations make great partners for urban mission. Yes, I did warn you against parachurch ministry a few paragraphs ago. Parachurch organizations are not intrinsically evil. The seminary where I work is, in fact, a parachurch organization. The right parachurch makes an excellent partner in the Great Commission. That said, the church must not outsource its responsibility and these organizations must remember they are servants of Christ’s church. The right parachurch organization is a great partner precisely because of their specializations. Be picky when selecting parachurch partners. They are not there to do the church’s mission for the church. Find organizations that understand this relationship and who also want to see local churches in the city.

Plant

Finally, your suburban church can plant a church in that urban center. If there are no healthy churches with which to partner, then your church knows the first need. This may sound like a daunting task, but it is the necessary work of every church. If making disciples is the central commission of the church, and this task happens best in local assemblies in the city, then we must rise to the challenge. Our ultimate goal should be to leave a sustained gospel presence in the city. We need churches planting churches in the city.

There are many ways to go about this work. Train up planters from your church. Partner with some of those parachurch organizations above as a means of investing in the city for the purpose of planting a church. This, of course, would require gospel proclamation and more than mercy ministry. Work with your association or a network to partner with other churches to plant more churches.

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