I've been involved in an urban ministry for approximately 10 years now. As I've been thinking about the last decade, I've been thinking about how naive I was when my wife and I first volunteered. Although I continue to have much to learn, I thought it would be a good time to write down a few of the lessons I've learned over the last several years. These are personal observations. They may or may not reflect the findings of social scientists or the views of others with experience in urban ministry.
1. Serve the children for their sake, not in order to reach their parents. Most children will come to the church's activities and worship assemblies without their parents. They will be attracted to a safe and fun environment in which they are supervised and guided by caring adults. They will be open to biblical teaching that can serve as the foundation for lives devoted to following Christ. They deserve attention simply because they bear the image of God, not because they can be used to lure their parents to the church.
2. Teaching a man to fish is not enough. Years ago, poverty-fighting ministries discovered that providing the necessities of life to the poor accomplished little long-term good. Such aid is always necessary, especially for children and the mentally and physically disabled; but those ministries discovered that they needed to connect the poor with jobs if they ever hoped to enable them to overcome poverty.
In many cases, however, the lack of employment and necessities of life are not the causes of poverty. They are the results. More often, poverty finds its roots in:
1. Drug and alcohol abuse. Addicts can have a hard time finding and maintaining employment. Many companies require drug tests before hiring a new employee. No company can afford to keep an employee forever who fails to do an adequate job because of drunkenness and drug-induced highs.
2. Family disintegration. Fornication, adultery, and divorce lead to multiple children born to young mothers who cannot support them. Fathers--and sometimes mothers--abandon their roles and responsibilities. Familial violence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse can scar a child for life. He or she will grow up without developing healthy social and coping skills. Anger and other negative emotions can control this individual, making it difficult for him or her to get along with others. He or she will have a hard time submitting to the authority of an employer, making steady employment an elusive goal. Even worse, he or she is likely to pass down these same problems to the next generation.
Urban ministries can do a great deal of preventative good by teaching the importance of self-control and sexual integrity.
3. Friendships are crucial. Broken people cannot simply be told to get their lives together. Like every one of us, they need the emotional support and encouragement of good friends as they make positive changes and learn to follow Christ. We need to be patient with each other. We need to challenge each other. We need to enjoy time with each other. We need our Bible studies and prayer meetings. We need to be able to confess our sins and to seek help from each other. Good friends give us the support we need to become what we were intended to be.
4. Good theology is essential. An accurate view of God, oneself, and others goes a long way in prompting us to make good choices. We need to see God as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, holy, just, merciful, and sovereign. We need to see ourselves as flawed and in need of God's grace. We need to respect the completely justified wrath of God and the completely gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. We must recognize that we are in over our heads in a mess of sins--our own sins and the sins of those around us. We can't really make any progress of any lasting value without faith in the God worthy of our trust.