I was amused last week when I read a note from one of our church's summer interns. He is a college student spending his summer learning about urban ministry. On his first Sunday with us, he was assigned to teach the third through fifth grade boys' Sunday school class.
I'm not sure, but I suspect that he came into urban ministry with a few naive ideas. If he was like me, he probably thought that the main problem confronting the urban poor had to do with a lack of money. He probably thought that the boys would be grateful for his willingness to give up his summer in order to teach them a little about Christ.
However, it did not take him long to be relieved of some of his naivete. He took a van to pick up people in the low-income apartment complexes when he discovered that 99% of parents would send their children to church services alone. They were not really interested in Bible classes and worship assemblies themselves, but they did not mind letting their kids leave for a few hours every week.
Then, as he tried to teach the Bible class, he discovered that most of the boys were not interested in the Bible study either. They were more interested in showing the other boys how cool they were by refusing to pay attention or obey simple requests like, "Please sit down and join the group." Finally, as the class ended, four of the black boys piled on a white boy and tried to beat him up.
He discovered that while poverty was one problem faced by the urban poor, it was not the only problem (and very possibly not the worst problem). Our new intern learned that he may not be appreciated for his compassion toward the poor and that our full-time urban ministers cannot be paid enough for their often difficult work.
It reminded me of my most difficult Bible class.
A few years ago, our congregation started the morning with a worship assembly, followed by Sunday school, and a meal. One of our ministers realized that many of our smoking members were neglecting the Sunday school classes so that they could smoke a cigarette or two before the meal. He tried in vain to persuade them to go to a Bible class every week. After a few weeks, he grabbed about a dozen chairs, set them up outside the front door where everyone was smoking, and started a Bible class on the Bible's wisdom literature for them.
Although I didn't smoke, I joined the class too. As summer was nearing an end, our minister needed to be gone for a few weeks of vacation and travelling to other congregations to raise support for his work. He asked me to take over the class for those weeks.
The first few minutes were uneventful. The class members helped me to set up the circle of chairs.
However, as we sat down to start the Bible class, a young teenager rushed through the front door and ran to his mother who was sitting in our class just outside the front door. A few seconds later, our youth minister came through the door. He grabbed the young man by the shoulder and said, "I know you're new here, but we don't punch other kids in the face and run out of class." After a little more admonition, our youth minister returned to his class, but the teen boy remained with his mother.
Thinking that things were calming down, I opened my Bible to Psalm 15 and asked the class to follow along as I read it. Since my eyes were focused on the Scriptures, I did not know what was happening around me. But I saw a blur run past me to the other end of the church building.
As I finished reading the passage, I saw that the teen boy had left the group. His mother got up and went to him. A few seconds later, the woman was screaming every profanity and obscenity imaginable at her son. Naturally, we could not focus on the Bible study with this scene going on. Of course, I'm sure that the neighbors were not appreciating the profanity-screaming woman on our property.
Our recovery minister (who worked with our members who had drug and alcohol addictions) was present in the class, so I asked him to take over the teaching while I tried to talk to the upset mother. Regrettably, I was not making any progress, and our recovery minister dismissed the class early so that he could join me in the conversation.
The screaming mother was angry because during the part of the class when I was reading from the Psalms, two visiting homosexual young men were kissing each other. Her son was disgusted and ran to the other end of the building. She began yelling at our recovery minister and me, "I didn't think that this was that kind of church!!!" Our recovery minister replied, "We're not that kind of church...but we're also not the kind of church that lets parents scream obscenities at their children."
Eventually, she calmed down.
As one of our ministers says, "Urban ministry is messy."
Does this mean that urban ministry makes no difference? Does it mean that everything is hopeless? No. It just means that the problems involved in urban ministry run far deeper than the lack of money or employment. It means that urban ministry requires patience, perseverance, and love for people who struggle. Within a year, the obscenity-screaming mother turned to Christ in faith and repentance, seeking God's forgiveness, and submitting to baptism. While the two homosexual young men have not become Christians yet, they have continued to study privately and in public with our Bible teachers and ministers. They have also stopped kissing each other in church services. Progress comes slowly and with difficulty at times, but it's worth it.