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Urban Ministry: An Introduction

Urban Ministry: An Introduction

by Ronald E. Peters

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A comprehensive introduction to the particular challenges and opportunities of congregational ministry in urban settings.

Urban ministry has long been a part of seminary curricula, but a basic and definitive understanding of what students should know as they prepare for congregational ministry in the city has remained elusive. Too often it is assumed that the


A comprehensive introduction to the particular challenges and opportunities of congregational ministry in urban settings.

Urban ministry has long been a part of seminary curricula, but a basic and definitive understanding of what students should know as they prepare for congregational ministry in the city has remained elusive. Too often it is assumed that the theological resources developed for ministry in other settings are adequate for urban ministry, but these resources fail to account for the unique challenges and opportunities of the urban setting. Ronald Peters clarifies the nature of urban ministry as a theological discipline by showing how its core values of love, justice, community, and reconciliation (among others) engage the issues of economics, education, family life, public health, ethnic relations, and religious life in the urban environment. Arguing that the city has always served as an arena of God's activity, Peters articulates a theological rationale for urban ministry that is both hopeful and yet realistic, affirming that God loves the city and its people and encouraging practitioners to do the same.

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Urban Ministry

An Introduction

By Ronald E. Peters

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3702-2



If you don't know what it looks like, you won't recognize it when you see it.

—West African Proverb

In trying to define the term urbanization ... we are confronted with the fact that social scientists themselves are not entirely agreed about what it means. It is clear, however, that urbanization is not just a quantitative term. It does not refer to population size or density, to geographic extent or to a particular form of government. Admittedly some of the character of modern urban life would not be possible without giant populations concentrated on enormous contiguous land masses. But urbanization is not something that refers only to the city.

—Harvey Cox

When someone can get you to ask the wrong question, the answer you receive won't really matter because it will be irrelevant.

—Charles L. Peters, Sr.

Having met for the first time as we found our seats around the banquet table, we introduced ourselves and began making polite conversation while waiting for the meal to be served. When the young woman sitting next to me learned that I was a seminary professor who taught urban ministry, she asked me the usual questions: What is urban ministry? How does it differ from rural or suburban ministry? Her innocent queries concerning the nature of my discipline were not unlike those of students or faculty colleagues who do not live in the city, but are clear about their perceptions of urban society and, yet, are relatively vague about what it means to engage in effective and life-enhancing ministry in this arena. In an era that places so much stress on information, this lack of understanding about urban ministry represents a deep division, a chasm, in the life of the church and society that is much bigger than just an information gap. The question posed at the banquet table revealed more than an information gap about urban realities and Christian ministry; it also exposed a need to discern how this gap can be overcome and eliminated. Her questions made me wonder why there exists so little understanding about urban ministry.

Unlike urban churches, seminary education is largely oblivious to urban ministry in spite of the fact that 79 percent of the U.S. population reside in its metropolitan centers. Nearly two-thirds of all seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada offer no courses related to urban ministry. This situation helps explain the resilience of the vast gaps of information about urban ministry outside urban communities in general and within seminaries in particular, the longevity and vitality of its practice notwithstanding.

Conversations in Seminary and on City Streets: An Insight

Biblical scholars have debated whether Isaiah's mention of King Uzziah's death (Isaiah 6:1) was, in fact, a historical point of reference or perhaps something more, such as the catalytic event that clarified Isaiah's understanding of his prophetic vocation. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 prompted me to view this passage as a thorough mixture of both. During that year, Dr. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday, April 4, by an assassin. The entire decade of the 1960s was punctuated by the assassinations of famous people in the United States: first, the nation's president; then, a radical Muslim preacher from New York; Dr. King was the third; and, fourth, a presidential candidate (the late president's brother). At the time of Dr. King's death, his leadership of the civil rights movement was virtually uncontested. The difference between the response to this event on my seminary campus and on the streets of cities across the United States was startling.

The nation was in a state of turmoil. A man whose ministry was largely defined by his activities on behalf of the oppressed, Martin King had gone to Memphis in support of striking garbage workers who had taken their struggle for better wages and working conditions to the streets with public protests. Upon news of his death, urban areas large and small were engulfed in riots almost immediately. National Guard units and other military personnel and armaments of war became part of the urban landscape from Boston to Los Angeles and just about every city in between. Across the nation, religious, civic, and community groups organized impromptu memorial services and called for peace. By contrast, so far as I could see on my seminary campus, there was no mention of the incident either formally or informally. I was not a seminary student when the first two assassinations of that decade took place, so the stark contrast between the serenity of my seminary's campus with its apparent aloofness to what was happening in city streets nationwide in the wake of Dr. King's death was a surprise to me. For this reason, 1968 (the year Dr. King died) became not only a historical point of reference for me, but also a key factor that inspired within me a fresh theological insight: I saw a gaping chasm between God-talk in the seminary and God-talk in city streets.

More than thirty-five years since that theological insight, I now teach in a seminary surrounded by city streets. The city is not Memphis, but Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and there have been no mass riots in some time. No president, presidential contender, famous cleric, or other dignitaries have been killed by assassins in Pittsburgh. Indeed, unlike that transformational year in my life, the killings on this city's streets nowadays are caused not by the notoriety of the victims, but by their lack thereof. These are ordinary people: a teenage girl walking home with her friends after school, a father and his eight-year-old daughter sharing a meal while sitting in a fast-food restaurant, a postal worker delivering mail, a woman riding in the car with her sister, a man in front of his home. The deaths of people like these on city streets in Pittsburgh and thousands of others like them in cities across America are overshadowed by cataclysmic events such as the notorious September 11 attacks on New York City's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the spiral of national and international events that have followed. And, for the most part, the chasm between the nature of the God-talk in seminary and that of its surrounding city streets has remained remarkably similar to my experience back in 1968. Generally, on campus, little attention is given to these deaths. The young lady's banquet-table question, therefore, did not surprise me, but it reminded me that the deep informational and conversational gaps between seminaries and city streets that existed years ago when I was a seminary student still remain.

Conversational and Cognitive Chasms

The conversations on city streets (and their God-talk), whether about drive-by shootings, child abuse, finding and sustaining mutually fulfilling relationships in a culture of distrust, gangs, the latest in hip-hop, the growing prevalence of AIDS or diabetes, or other issues of survival, do not sound like the conversations of the seminary. Even when talk on the city streets is clearly rooted in ethical concerns about right or wrong, evil, suffering, redemption, or where God is in all of this or if there is a God, these conversations still differ fundamentally in substance, subject matter, and style from that of the seminary and its God-talk. The concerns found in city streets today—such as day-to-day lived-in realities about the cost of food and rent, redlining, police brutality among poor and Black or Hispanic communities, domestic violence, or health-care challenges—are different from concerns typically discussed in seminary classrooms. Overcrowded prisons and probation systems, racial profiling, unemployment, or troubled public schools are matters that rarely interrupt the major focus of God-talk in seminaries, which tends toward preoccupation with esoteric beliefs and reinforces the perception that such discussion makes for holiness and points toward ultimate truths. The chasm persists.

The seminary's propensity to cloister inside itself for the purposes of withdrawal from "the world," so as to better hear from God in quiet prayer, study, research, and meditation, is not altogether unlike similar responses of local congregations inside and outside the urban arena. While many urban practitioners criticize seminaries for being "ivory towers" of academic self-absorption far removed from the "real world" of the streets, the fact is that many urban congregations are just as out of touch with "the streets" as are the seminaries they lambaste. In reality, churches and seminaries frequently fail to recognize that they are each merely extensions of the other. Problems experienced in one sphere only mirror realities of the other. Both tend toward different types of conversations found on the other side of the divide that still seems to remain between such institutions and many urban streets.

Thus, seminaries are not alone in distancing themselves from the urban community. Many churches outside core-city neighborhoods and even congregations within metropolitan areas do not perceive urban realities as relevant to their own ministries, theological outlook, or any other aspect of their Christian witness. Indeed, there is much in society at large that reveals a reticence to acknowledge the overtly urbanized character of our world today in spite of its obvious effect on our lives. Andrew Davey, in his book entitled Urban Christianity and Global Order, posed several penetrating questions based on his observation of this phenomenon in the culture of the UK:

As long ago as 1970 a sociologist wrote "Britain is physically as urbanized as any nation in the world, yet as a society we seem to be extraordinarily reluctant to accept this fact" (Pahl 1970, 1). Despite the many social changes of the past thirty years, that reluctance is as evident today as it was in 1970. What is it that makes people so disinclined to acknowledge the urbanization they witness around them? Is it an inadequate vocabulary to express the processes they are a part of? Is it a nostalgic fear of all things urban? What do cities and urban areas represent in the popular imagination that makes people so reluctant to understand themselves as part of an urban society?

Growing Global Urbanization

Without question, the world is growing more populous and more urban every day. It is estimated that in 1800, the world's population stood at about one billion people, and by 1900, that figure had nearly doubled to about 1.7 billion. By 2000, however, the earth's human population had jumped to over six billion, and by 2025, it is projected that this figure will increase to more than eight billion (see chart 1 below). Prior to the twentieth century, the proportion of the global population that lived in cities was relatively small, but since then the picture has changed drastically. Between 1800 and 2000, the proportion of United States citizens who lived in urban areas went from a mere 6 percent to 79 percent (see chart 2 on page 8). By 2000, nearly half of the world's population lived in cities, and it is projected that by 2050, as many as 79 percent of all people on the globe will live in urban centers. In the United States, projections are that by 2025, nearly 85 percent of the nation will be urban.

Globally, 37 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas in 1975, but by 2000, the figure was 47 percent. The United Nations has projected that by 2025, more than half of all people in Asia and in Africa (54 and 53 percent respectively) will live in cities; 74 percent of the people in Oceania (including the regions of Australia and New Zealand), 84 percent of South America, 83 percent of Europe, and nearly 85 percent of all North American residents will live in urban areas, for a total of more than 60 percent of worldwide population located in cities. In light of these population shifts, it is apparent that ours is an increasingly more urbanized world.

The urbanization of our world and the closely related issue of Christian ministry in this urbanized context, however, are much more involved than mere statistics about population shifts or other demographic profiles. It is a subject essentially concerned with human relationships and divine realities as these are experienced in the ecology of the social, spatial, and spiritual context we refer to as the urban environment and what the urban arena reveals to us about God. As such, urban ministry is a way of understanding God based upon the dynamics of the city and involves a theological praxis that seeks to enhance the quality of life for all creation. Still, the questions arise: What about suburbia, edge cities, or rural areas? Aren't these also viable resources for seeking to enhance the quality of life for all creation? Cannot insights gleaned from these areas, along with information from the urban setting, also give us a clearer picture of divinely inspired life-enhancing realities?

There is no attempt here to suggest that revelation is limited to or enhanced by one particular frame of reference, such as an urban context, over another. Such a strategy would only lead to deepening already-existing chasms. Scripture is replete with teachings informing us that divine revelation certainly can and does occur anywhere (Genesis 3:8-9; Isaiah 6:1; Jonah 2:1-10; Psalm 139:7-12; Mark 9:2-8; Acts 9:3-7; Revelation 1:9). The point here is simply that, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of resources aimed at developing Christian leaders is drawn from or directed toward contexts other than the urban setting. By contrast, it is the urban setting that is underrepresented in a ubiquitous array of Christian resources that are suburban or rural in outlook, ethos, and theological orientation, displaying little attention to nagging justice issues so prevalent in the city or to the ethnic or cultural pluralism that characterizes city life. Yet, these resources are generally presented as being universally applicable. In order to obtain a clearer picture of divinely inspired strategies for realizing goals that affirm life and reduce strife, injustice, and want, Christian focus on the urban context needs to be bolstered. Harvey Conn and Manuel Ortiz have stated the problem well:

Most Christians know of books and materials written to help local church leaders who serve in a suburban or rural setting.... They often focus only on the local church and fail to address sociological and missiological implications.... Matters of style and methods that reflect contextualization are universalized without the provision of any caution.... If the context is mentioned, it is only for the reader to know its geographical location.... Therefore, even though a book is geared toward Christian leadership in the context of a nonurban environment, there is no mention of this uniqueness. In reality the content of the book is geared for leadership in a suburban/rural community. The assumption is that all Christian leaders come from a non-urban context and are serving outside of the urban reality. There is also an assumption that since scriptural principles are universal they fit anywhere without contextualization. These assumptions are invalid and need redirection.

Addressing the Issues

The gap in clarity in theological schools concerning urban ministry poses several other problems, three of which warrant attention if this situation is to be resolved. First, lack of clarity in seminary curricula regarding urban ministry encourages confusion because practitioners and teachers of the discipline tend to define it in different ways, usually rooted in their own venue of ministry. While there is certainly overlap among various definitions that have emerged, the sheer variety of definitions and approaches inhibits concentration on core values in urban ministry. More focus on these core values would not only clarify understanding among those rooted in urban churches or other areas of urban ministry, but also would make more visible the nexus between urban ministry and other theological disciplines for those outside the field. Also, there has been a tendency to define urban ministry by citing best-practice examples. This method of approach to urban ministry definition, although extremely helpful in prompting ideas, essentially leaves it to the learner to discover applicable insights on one's own rather than concentrating on core values that inform all contexts of urban ministry.

Second, vagueness concerning the precise nature of urban ministry as a discipline taught in a theological school frequently leaves people engaged in this type of ministry isolated in theological discussions and forums on practical theology (pastoral care, ethics, homiletics, and so on) that appear more concretely defined. Integration of theological study suffers as the interrelatedness of various disciplines as reflected in the urban arena is overlooked in the curriculum design and course offerings. The urban-ministry practitioner, then, is left to adapt the central focus of other disciplines to the particular needs of the urban context. Given the relatively wide variety of interpretations concerning the nature of urban ministry, this adaptation can be a rather daunting task, especially for the newcomer to the field.


Excerpted from Urban Ministry by Ronald E. Peters. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ronald E. Peters is Henry L. Hillman Associate Professor of Urban Ministry and Director of the Metro-Urban Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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