On a warm spring day, I sat outside the main entrance of the urban church where I serve as a pastor to soak in the sunshine and also soak in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. I have been serving this vulnerable urban neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh for more than a decade now, and it feels like I am still learning so many new things about this place. There are many challenges facing the neighborhood. There are many assets here as well. I’ve come to learn to love this place and the people who inhabit it.
As I looked around the area directly surrounding the church ministry center, I noticed many signs of need. I saw people selling and using drugs. I saw women who were walking the streets, potentially victims of human trafficking. I saw boarded up row homes. I saw a homeless camp in a vacant lot off in the distance. I heard the sirens of police, fire, and paramedics in the area. I saw and heard other signs of poverty and brokenness.
When I looked around, though, I also saw many signs of hope in what looked like such a hard place. I saw people looking out for each other, telling jokes, stories, and, in general, having a good time enjoying such a nice day. I heard people laughing and encouraging one another. I saw busses traveling up and down the main street through the neighborhood, carrying residents to and from work and other places around town. I saw dump trucks going to and from the new home construction sites that are being built for, and with, residents of the neighborhood. I saw residents from the local seniors apartment complex strolling around the outside of the building, hoping to take in some of the neighborhood. I saw resilience in the midst of difficult circumstances.
I started to walk around the block with one of the other pastors of the church, and we had a fun time praying with people, encouraging people, and inviting everyone to join us at the church for worship services, outreach events, and Bible studies. Our church throws block parties where everyone is invited to come, just as they are. Most days we meet people right where they are at—right in the middle of a marginalized urban neighborhood that residents in the other parts of the city have written off as dangerous and troublesome.
Yes, violence and struggles are heightened in the neighborhood, but those things don’t define this place. God’s presence is strong in this little church and in this little neighborhood. The Holy Spirit’s presence was in the neighborhood long before our church arrived, and the Holy Spirit will be here long after we are gone. God is on a constant mission to redeem every person and place in the neighborhood, just like everywhere else in the world.
This church does have an important purpose in this neighborhood, though. We are here strategically. This is the place to be. It’s the place we want to be. Why would it be such a priority for us to locate our church right smack in the middle of a vulnerable urban neighborhood? Surely there are easier places to plant and grow churches. What is it about this particular place?
The leaders at our church know that the world is rapidly urbanizing. More people now live in cities than in any other places around the world. Within the next 20 or 30 years, nearly 75% of the world’s population will be urban. This shift from rural to urban represents the largest migration of human beings in the history of the world. That means that the cities of the world represent a huge opportunity for Christians to reach people who are increasingly more densely congregating together. Rapid urbanization has brought many challenges with it, though, as nearly 1 in 6 people on this planet now lives in urban poverty. Most cities around the world have not been ready for urban expansion at such an explosive pace. Billions of people around the world live in urban poverty as a result.
In response, Christians must engage cities with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that, but Christians must be willing to engage urban residents living in poverty with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing could be more important for modern Christians. We must learn to participate in God’s mission in hard places; especially in urban places with people living on the margins of society. These places will be the key to the spread of Christianity throughout the remainder of the 21st century and beyond.
Furthermore, God’s mission with marginalized urban people should lead to a process of transformation that takes place over the course of time. Too often in Christian circles, calls to engage in urban mission lead to transactional, short-sighted approaches that can cause more harm than good. I believe that God is calling Hs Church to build long-term, meaningful relationships that are mutually transformational in complex urban environments.
The urban church where I serve as a pastor definitely does not have it all figured out. I have seen God do remarkable works of transformation in people’s lives and in the streets where people live. I have also witnessed painful failures while experiencing the brokenness of people’s lives and the brokenness of the city’s systems first-hand. Regardless of the signs of need and the signs of hope in the great cities of today’s modern world, God is empowering his people to engage cities in creative and meaningful ways amongst people who desperately need the hope that Jesus Christ has to offer. There is no better place to participate in God’s redemptive mission than with people on the margins of the cities of the world.
Register for the Imagine Conference
Dr. Bryan McCabe, Pastor of Transformational Urban Leadership, North Way Christian Community