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Urban Church: A Response to Dr. Christena Cleveland’s Piece

By March 19, 2014 One Comment

Dr. Christena Cleveland is someone I met on Twitter a year ago and have been following her closely since. She writes about faith and justice in ways that are honest and call the body of Christ to more faithfully reflect on our practices. I have found her presence to be pastoral, prophetic, wise and hopeful. We have not had the pleasure of meeting in person yet, but I do hope that we will meet in the near future. We both share a common love for the Belhar Confession. If you are not aware of her, I encourage you to check out her blog, or her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

Yesterday she wrote a piece titled “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” The context of this piece is Buffalo, New York where she was last week. She was working with urban pastors who have devoted their lives to serving Buffalo. In 2013, Governor Cuomo announced the Buffalo Billion Dollar Investment Plan in which he hoped to transform the city with the desire of rescuing it from it’s shrinking population and declining business.

This has caught the eyes of many white suburban churches. Cleveland writes:

The urban pastors reported that, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s announcement, many predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches in the area have expressed renewed interest in Buffalo’s urban center. But rather than connecting with the urban pastors who have been doing ministry among the oppressed in Buffalo for years, and looking for ways to support the indigenous leaders who are already in place, they have simply begun making plans to expand their suburban ministry empires into the urban center. In other words, they’re venturing out into the world of urban church planting.

One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in. 

As she notes, this is happening all over the United States as wealthy, white church planters go into urban cities as if to conquer a land and people in the name of their understanding of the Gospel. 

I remember participating in a meeting at the 2009 RCA General Synod. Someone, quite involved in the church planting world, had used the words “Manifest Destiny” in this person’s understanding of why we plant churches. Alarmed and shocked, I looked up from my seat to glance over at my friend’s eyes who was just as alarmed as I was that those words were used as an affirmation of church plants. My friend, an African American woman, and I debriefed what those words meant to us when we heard them. How did she hear it? How did I hear it? Why did it make us uncomfortable? If this person saying those words would have been more careful at that moment, I don’t think they would have said them. In this person’s unguarded honesty, we were able to hear motivations for church planting. “Manifest Destiny” is not good news.

Cleveland continues in her piece and writes:

I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job. Last fall, I attended an urban and multicultural church planting conference that gathered national church planting leaders from over 30 denominations. As I looked out over the room, I couldn’t help but notice that the group was about 95% white (and 99% male!).

When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed as if they had never reflected on this question before.

Privilege says I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them).Privilege says that the largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped. For far too long, suburban pastors have ignored the perspectives and gifts of urban pastors. 

I find this piece by Cleveland particularly powerful. If I am honest, I have a complicated relationship with church planting. It’s complicated, in part, because as someone attracted to urban ministry I see my own imperialistic impulses and that makes me nervous and brings me to confession. I find impulses in me to overstep my reach into communities I have not been called to and this also brings me to confession as well. Dr. Tom Boogaart and I were having coffee one day and I will always remember his words of wisdom when he said that so many pastors are seduced into empire building instead of service in the reign of God. We build our own castles in the name of “the gospel” while totally forgetting partnership with our communities and fellow colleagues. I find church planting to be complicated because I so often see a particular understanding of the Gospel privileged as the only understanding of the Gospel. I am not a church planter, though I often wonder what it would look like if the Collegiate Churches planted a new church, so I listen to this piece by Cleveland carefully.

Cleveland concludes by saying:

If we truly saw ourselves as an interdependent body with a shared Head, resources, blood, and life, then suburban churches that want to love on a city wouldn’t do it by expanding their empires across city lines. They would do it by truly sharing their resources, blood and life in service to the Head.

Why build a new church building in the city when you can build one for an urban church – in desperate need of a new building– that is already there doing great work?

Why hire a new pastor to work at your new urban church plant, when you can give an urban church the resources to make their long-suffering bi-vocational pastor full-time?

Why fund a new urban service project when you can fund the urban service projects that people of color have been running tirelessly and effectively on a shoe-string budget for years?

The Belhar Confession states that “We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22); that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.” Cleveland’s piece is right in line with the heart of one of our theological confessions in what it means to be Reformed. 

In conclusion, I have three responses after reflecting on Cleveland’s piece:

  1. Confession, I love this part of our liturgical tradition and believe in confession. “God, forgive us our sins of arrogance, white privilege, and our lack of humility. I believe you are alive in the church, though we fumble along many times. Strengthen urban pastors who have devoted their lives to serving the cities they’ve lived in. May you lead your church in the work of Christ’s reconciliation and reconcile us to each other. By your mercy, may we listen and augment our methods to more faithfully love you and love our neighbor.”
  2. Reflection. I want to invite those who may be reading this who are church planters, or partnered with church planters, to reflect on the methodologies of church planting. Perhaps this may inspire you to wonder who is in your neighborhood and who has been there before you. What might it look like to honor their work first? I’m reflecting on this piece, as someone who serves a couple hundred year old church, and wondering how to more faithfully partner with other ministers in my urban area. I don’t think you need to be a church planter to see the multiple ways one can reflect on this piece.
  3. The Belhar Confession says that “We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” What does this mean in our lives? How do these words shape our ecclesiological practices? I wonder what it would look like to, as Cleveland says, “sit at the feet of these amazing male and female urban ministers” and affirm the work of God in their faithful work.

It’s hard to be the church together, so much learning and unlearning. I am growing in that realization. I am full of hope that God is very alive in our midst and that hope brings me to amplifying pieces like Dr. Cleveland’s as our guide for our future. 

Working for the marriage of mercy and justice, together. 

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.

One Comment

  • Hey Jes…..thanks for responding to this post. I was also really intrigued by the article and immediately circulated it to my CRC cluster leader friends.

    But I struggled with it quite a bit. I get the empire thing – when whites fled city centers for the burbs they did so because they were scared and it was the cool thing to do. Now the cool thing to do is to live downtown. Make up your minds already!

    I would push back on two main things:

    1. I think the dynamic she's talking about – inside the church and outside of it – is increasingly more of a class struggle than a racial struggle. Obviously race is still a huge issue, but class disparity is really what we're talking about here. While I'm still sad at the lack of multi-racial churches, I'm even more saddened by the lack of multi-class churches. Which leads me to #2…..

    2. All three of her proposed "solutions" are money-oriented and that's really unfortunate. First of all, because that's entitlement thinking and second of all, (I can say this as a poor urban church pastor) plentiful financial resources are often more of an albatross than a help in this environment. Throwing money at problems IS empire mentality – think unused tractors donated to African farmers.

    Thanks again for the post.

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