Guest commentary by Nile Harper (What are the hallmarks of healthy churches in your region? Submit a blog or a “what’s right” piece to the Outlook! More information here.)
Yes, God is doing new things in and through Presbyterian congregations in urban areas today!
In my work with urban congregations, I’ve witnessed the creative life and ministries of urban churches. Despite declining membership and decreasing financial resources in some congregations, significant numbers of urban churches (including Presbyterian churches) currently are growing in spirit and witness and in vitality. What are some of the signs of this vitality?
The most dynamic sign of vitality is the creative worship taking place in many urban congregations. Music is alive and spiritually powerful. Preaching is engaging and vigorous. Liturgy is culturally sensitive and directly related to mission. Renewed worship is being designed to speak to the mind as well as to the heart and soul. There is often more involvement of the laity in worship leadership and greater participation of children and youth. The creative use of electronic technology is widespread. Joyful celebration of the good news of the gospel is in the air and it is moving people into faithful life and witness. God is doing a new thing.
People are forming personal caring relationships in small groups and in larger groups in neighborhoods. Urban churches are places where people of all ages can experience acceptance, affirmation, and encouragement rooted in the unconditional love of God. There is a flourishing of faith-based groups of many different types. They generate social cohesiveness, bring a sense of stability, deepen friendships and build up meaningful identity. This often creates a vision and energy for action that goes out into the wider civic community.
Christian education that nurtures life and faith across age groups is powerful and growing. The old-school model that segregated people into strict age-level classes is fading. This is especially helpful for smaller churches. Learning activities that bring adults, children and youth together strengthens the sense of belonging, builds cohesiveness and strengthens the body of Christ. This model helps people learn to listen to one another, learn how to do things together cooperatively, pay attention to different styles of communication and form bonds across generations. It can involve the use of music, art, drama, singing, teamwork, group projects, video, computers, walking tours, food and biblical storytelling. I’m seeing this happen in various sizes of congregations.
Many urban churches have learned that authentic spirituality by its very nature includes doing the work of social justice. This is taking place in all sizes of urban congregations. Believers become involved in moving beyond individual deeds of compassion into the larger structures of society. Deep needs for health care, public education, affordable housing, widespread hunger, homelessness, racial and gender discrimination, refugee resettlement and citizen advocacy to make democracy work are calling people of faith to be engaged. There is more and more evidence that people from urban congregations are actively engaging the powers and principalities for positive change.
Churches have become more aware of the many secular organizations that are at work to meet human needs in urban communities. Through experience, congregations are learning that to be successful in organizing effective social justice work they need to reach out and seek active cooperation with a variety of other organizations. A key element in wider organization is going beyond bonding into bridging. Bonding is “birds of a feather flock together,” which is comfortable and relatively easy, but has limited effectiveness. Bridging is reaching out to other organizations that may have very different cultures, languages, styles of leadership and forms of action. It requires going beyond one’s comfort zone, doing more in-depth listening, exercising patience, learning new patterns of leadership and making a long-term commitment. The outcome is a much broader base of participation and support as well as accomplishing larger outcomes that create long-term benefits for the public common good. The good news is that this is happening more frequently among urban churches.
New human resources
As urban congregations have opened up to working with people of significantly different backgrounds, they have discovered that new friends can bring very useful human resources. These assets include languages beyond English, practical construction skills, connections to different funding sources, connections to political leadership, deeper understanding of diverse cultures, the embodiment of human struggle and suffering, earthy wisdom about family life and experience in getting things done. It often results in a diversity of new members coming into congregations
New sources of funding
One of the common challenges for urban churches is a lack of financial resources. The good news is that through collaboration, congregations are learning how to discover new sources of financial investment. They have discovered that financial resources must come from the whole metropolitan region, not just from member giving. It involves envisioning what can be done with vacant land, old buildings, jobs for people and the creation of community development corporations. It involves reaching out to other more affluent congregations to seek grants and loans for projects that benefit the public good. The creation pf 501(c)3 nonprofit corporations enables utilizing funding from foundations, businesses, government agencies and individual donors who will not give directly to churches. New income is being generated by churches hosting daycare and pre-schools, renting space to nonprofit groups, operating restaurants and bakeries, brokering home repair services, managing real estate and operating catering services. The three common themes in all of these enterprises are:
- They strengthen local communities;
- They put people to work; and
- They produce usable income.
At the forefront of all this activity is a rising new generation of pastors and congregational leaders. They are skilled in organizing, forming partnerships, creating religious community, generating financial and human resources from beyond the congregation and involving racial, ethnic and gender minorities in leadership roles. They tend to have a deeper level of intuitive, empathic and creative understanding about making decisions that involve risk, ambiguity and the use of various forms of power. These gifts are intangible, but crucial, gifts of the spirit. These gifts are not necessarily gained through formal education. Often they arise from the “school of hard knocks,” practical life experiences and deep and abiding faith. This generation of pastors and lay leaders is more politically sophisticated, more independent and less denominationally oriented. They are less fearful and more hopeful. Their motto is, “Keep hope alive.”
God is at work doing new things right now! That is the good news in many urban churches.
NILE HARPER is a Presbyterian minister, sociologist, former seminary professor of church and society and director of Urban Church Research. He is the author of “Urban Churches, Vital Signs: Beyond Charity Toward Justice” and “Journeys into Justice.”