What is Urban Ministry?

Dr. Fred D. Smith, Professor of Urban Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, likes to ask his students the question, “what is Urban Ministry?” All of us who have taken classes with him have had to answer this question. As scholars of theology coming from various professional backgrounds, and pursuing a “professional” degree specializing in the area of urban ministry each of us tried to come up with some profound answer to the question, each of us expecting that we would give the one correct answer. None of us really adequately answered the question as I recall, though Dr. Smith was quite affirming as he let us down gently. To be honest I don’t even remember my own answer to the question of what Urban Ministry is. (Though I am certain I made my best attempt to be as profound as any of my colleagues!) I think one of the reasons we have a hard time articulating what Urban Ministry is, and why there are many different answers to the question, is because we are actually answering a different question. When we are asked the question “What is Urban Ministry”, we hear, “What does Urban Ministry look like?”

Dr. Ronald Peters, the recently installed President of Interdenominational Theological Center, in Atlanta Georgia, in his book “Urban Ministry” says:

“What is needed is a frank acknowledgement that Christian ministry, the proclamation and living out of the gospel by the inspiration and empowerment of the holy spirit, when it occurs in the city, is urban ministry. It is not psychology, social work, criminal justice, or community organizing with a veneer of the cross pasted on the front.” (pg. 21)

With this statement Dr. Peters gets to the heart of the matter, and succinctly explains why there are so many different answers to the question, “What is Urban Ministry?” We are answering not with what it is, but what does it look like. If urban ministry is merely Christian ministry that happens in the city then it would naturally follow that what that looks like will be different for each individual. We all agree that we each have our own individual walk with God. If urban ministry is simply Christian ministry happening in the city then how we proclaim and “live out” the gospel will be as individual as we are. Given Dr. Peters’ claim, what urban ministry looks like is entirely contextual. Urban ministry will depend on the individual, the community, the city, social location, life and vocational experiences of the individual, and other factors, but it will always be Christian ministry that occurs in the city.

There are several of my colleagues in urban ministry who are pastors of congregations that are situated in rural and suburban settings. We have noticed that there seem to be similarities between the ministries we have labeled urban and “rural”. Dr. Peters’ assertion gives explanation to what we have discovered. It is all Christian ministry. Similarities are to be expected. In fact, something would be amiss if there were not similarities. It is, in fact, the same “good news” that we proclaim and live out, empowered by the same spirit. Only the context of the environment, and the individual empowered have changed.

It is important, in this space to point out that what is most crucial in Dr. Peters’ claim is not the definition of urban ministry, but the definition of Christian ministry as “the proclamation and living out of the gospel by the inspiration and empowerment of the Holy Spirit“. (emphasis mine) Christian ministry is what we say and how we live. Knowing that our ministry is not just proclamation but action as well helps us to put Dr. Peters’ statement about the things we generally associate with “urban ministry” (i.e. psychology, social work, criminal justice, or community organizing) in perspective. Dr. Peters is not suggesting that as Christians proclaiming and living out the gospel in the city we would not be engaged in these activities. The point that he wants to make is that whatever we engage in is rooted in the cross. In fact, the apostle Paul would argue that our good news proclamation and action is rooted in the victorious resurrection! In either case, what we say and do is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

In essence, Dr. Peters speaks to our motivations, what moves us to practice psychology, or do social work, or reform criminal justice, or organize? When we are involved in Christian ministry it is commitment to the “reign of God” or as Dr. Smith likes to refer to it, “the beloved community” born of our faith in the risen Christ and our transformed relationship with God and our community. Dr. F. Keith Slaughter, Chair of the Masters in Pastoral Studies Program at American Baptist College in Nashville Tennessee, makes the point that “we are called to care”. Jesus talks about that caring in the language of love. In fact that love is the summation of all there is to be in perfect communion with God and our community. (Luke 10:27) To love is to care. It is because we care that we proclaim the good news; because we care we visit the sick; because we care we do social work; because we care we organize, march, sit-in, occupy, preach, and pray. Whenever and wherever Christians embody their faith in relationship with God and community, through both word and deed that is Christian ministry.

When we do it in the city, that’s Urban Ministry.


Make a difference . . . . . . . . For Life!!!!!!


2 thoughts on “What is Urban Ministry?

  1. “What is Urban Ministry? make a difference
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