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Church Planting in Inner-City Contexts: 3 Tensions To Navigate

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There is a misnomer in church planting, and it’s this: inner-city church planting is just a subset of the broader church planting movement. These inner-cities are sections of major cities that have neighborhoods with pockets of people with high concentrations of poverty, violence, drug dealing/addiction, illiteracy, and single-parent homes, and they are often called marginalized. After more than a decade of planting churches in some of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in America, I have learned a valuable lesson that I could have only learned by being in close proximity to those in our inner-cities.

The lesson I learned is this: Pastoring and planting churches in inner-city contexts provides an environment of tension that can increase both discipleship and evangelism in unusual and radical ways that may otherwise seem impossible. God is indeed at work in mighty ways in our cities. The irony is that many of us have so distanced ourselves from the city that we have now come to see it as an altogether different world. In Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God, Manuel Ortiz and Harvie Conn write, “The suburbs were created to escape the evils of the city. Little did they realize in doing so, they have separated themselves from the mission of the church to seek the peace in the city.”

Take Camden, New Jersey, for example. There, I served as pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church for many years. As one author wrote, “Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped.” This is both a gross stereotype of the people of Camden and an honest assessment of the challenges those same people face. After all, the crime index of Camden is 600 times higher than the national average.

Incredibly, however, the labels that those in Camden are given—along with many in inner-cities—are the very realities that cause inner-city church planting to be one of the clearest examples of God and His people at work. With violence, poverty, and a lack of jobs and income daily struggles that many (though not all) in the inner-city face, you would think that something like COVID-19 would have been catastrophic. Indeed, the pandemic has hit inner-city communities—often home to ethnic minorities–harder than nearly any other population. 

But many of those in inner-city contexts are also resilient and have weathered many storms with steadfast faith and remarkable hope. There is indeed something incredible that happens when hope breeds in the cauldron of struggle. 

Let me share just three tensions that have allowed inner-city church planters to see God at work in remarkable ways—and what we all can learn from them.

Tension #1: Ingrown vs. Missional

The inner-city church is often poor and often has few tangible resources. For many inner-city church planters, a permanent church building is unheard of. When public meetings were banned during COVID-19, I had pastors ask me to pray for them because “preaching in an empty room is hard.” That empty room, however, cost $3 million and was outfitted with expensive cameras. What I soon realized in these types of conversations was that by serving in disadvantaged inner-city contexts, I was already familiar with sharing a sermon in a context of struggle. Violence, danger, and poverty often made the simple act of meeting a challenge. 

Church planters and pastors in the inner-city are forced to go outside their four walls. The call to be on mission is daily before them. They don’t expect people to come to them but instead have learned to become “hope hustlers”—visiting every street corner and coffee shop where life is already happening. The Church is a four-wheel-drive car, going anywhere and everywhere to take the gospel to all people, in all contexts. God doesn’t take a break for a pandemic, and neither should we.  

Inner-city life and ministry force you to go where the people are, and oftentimes, what you find leads you to a deeper reliance upon God. 

Tension #2: Spirit-led vs. Human-led

Ask any inner-city church planter, and they will say that it is impossible to serve God without a deep understanding that He, and only He, is doing the work (Psalm 127:1, Titus 2:14). The tangible struggles can be so overwhelming and the emotional pain so deep that we very quickly realize that without God’s help, the future looks bleak. This is why you will find sermons that abound with Jesus and hope as the core of inner-city church planting. Without weekly offerings that make us self-sustainable and buildings that we own, we are forced to rely more heavily on God to provide for us both tangibly and spiritually.