by Roger S. Greenway
Urban missionaries must be mature, understand the city and the nature of mission, and possess practical skills.
It’s sad to see young missionaries packing to go home, but it happens too often in the city. If the world’s burgeoning cities are to be evangelized and urban churches multiplied, something better has to be done to train workers for the streets.
Take Dick and Betty, for example. They lasted just two years in one of Latin America’s largest cities. They had felt the call to overseas missions while Dick was in seminary.
They heard about the rapid growth of urban populations and the modern frontiers that lie in the cities. So during their pre-field interviews, they indicated that they felt called to urban church planting and the board assigned them accordingly.
But on the field they found that city life was more than they could take. First there was the noise, day and night, and the traffic, and the continual press of neighbors and the masses on the street. Dick felt they should mainly use public transportation, but that meant Betty was left for hours with the baby in a fifth floor apartment. They had never lived anywhere before without grass and a yard. Here there were only walls, corridors and an elevator. Their marriage began to show signs of strain. Prayer life suffered.
Worst of all for Dick were the disappointments in starting the urban ministry he felt called to perform. He thought he had what was needed to begin. A Christian radio station had supplied him with a formidable list of names and addresses. These were of people who had responded to radio offers of free literature. Day after day Dick walked streets, climbed stairways and pounded on doors in pursuit of these people. But very little came of his efforts. Most were not home when he called, or had moved to other addresses, or refused to talk to him. A few were hostile. Some were already members of churches. The few he found who seemed genuinely interested in receiving instruction lived in widely scattered parts of the city. There was not much chance of starting a church with them.
Dick and Betty began to have serious doubts about their place in the city. They visited various city churches and were impressed by the capable leaders. Many of the members were educated, successful people. Church programs were running smoothly and they could not see where their services were needed or wanted.
On the street, Dick sometimes found himself embarrassed and insecure. So little of what he had learned in seminary and in the small town church that Betty and he had attended seemed to help him now. Never had he seen so many kinds of people, languages and cultures thrown together. He rubbed shoulders with the rich and the poor, the educated and semi-literate. One moment he might be talking with an intensely devout person whose religion bordered on superstition, and a short while later he could be badgered by an aggressive communist defending ideological atheism. Challenged by their questions, Dick groped for the answers he had heard pastors use back home. But on the street the questions sounded different and the answers didn’t fit. Dicks training had not prepared him for this.
Week after week, Dick and Betty prayed and anguished, trying everything they could think of to start a church. Then, after the most frustrating 20 months of their lives, they wrote to their board and asked to be reassigned outside the city, or sent home. Urban ministry, they concluded, was not for them.
Regretably, Dick and Betty represent a large number of missionaries who find it difficult, even impossible, to initiate and develop church-planting ministries in the city. None would argue against the need for more urban evangelism. But the problem is that the city, any city, is foreign turf to most white evangelical Christians.
The majority of missionary recruits come from small towns and suburbia, and few of them understand urban life and ministry. Hence, they experience a double culture shock when they arrive in a large city overseas. The social and racial heterogeneity of metropolis leaves them limp. Religious patterns and assumptions they bring with them from rural and suburban church life in North America are soon dashed to the pavement. All the romantic images of missionary life disappear and they begin to wonder who they are and what they can do.
Urban internships are one solution to the problem. They take the seminary or Bible college graduates before they go overseas on regular assignment and expose them to urban life and ministry. Their rural or suburban experiences are challenged by what they see happening in the city. They learn what city pastors do to meet the needs of their congregations. If their overseas assignment will be church planting, they acquire and develop the skills they will need to survey neighborhoods, identify receptive groups, and get churches started. Urban internships, in brief, are city-based programs designed to take academically qualified but inexperienced candidates for the mission field and help them develop the knowledge, the skills, and the personal qualities they will need as workers in the streets, barrios and apartment buildings of cities throughout the world.
Churches and seminaries in the West are awakening to the fact that their traditional methods of training pastors and missionaries have serious deficiencies. They are not turning out enough of the kind of leaders that are needed. More attention obviously must be given to the balance between personal, spiritual development, growth in cognitive understanding, and the acquisition of the practical skills required for ministry. Ted Ward, professor of curriculum research at Michigan State University, is optimistic about this new awareness and views it as a return to a more biblical approach to worker training. He writes: During most of its history, the New Testament church has drawn its values and metaphors of education more from Aristotelian Greek thought than from the authentic background of Christian philosophy: Hebrew culture. Praxis forces us back to a Hebrew epistemology and to a biblical valuing of knowledge as that which is acted on. The Hellenistic satisfaction with static contents of the mind is deeply embedded in Christian education. But it is being challenged by a whole-person concern for truth-in-action much closer to Jesus’ own claim that truth was not defined apart from its incarnation. "I am…. the truth"" (John 14:6).
Theological education is being affected by this shift. All over the world, especially where the church is experiencing its most substantial growth, theological education is becoming more praxis-oriented and more concerned that the time-honored memorization of lists be at least balanced by applied and functional learnings ("Biblical Metaphors of Purpose," Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1982).
From Asia and Latin America new approaches to leadership training are appearing which mission executives and Western educators need to examine. While they tend to treat lightly the area of intellectual development, they are strong, in areas where Western education generally is weak, namely, personal development and practical skills.
For example, I have learned a great deal about training for urban ministry from my son-in-law, Francisco Dominguez. He is a pastor-evangelist in an indigenous Latin American church. It took him six years to arrive at his present position as the pastor of a church, and the route he had to follow does much to explain the rapid growth of his congregation. Before he could be ordained as a pastor he had to prove himself qualified in six areas, "the six competencies" they called them. They might have said seven, because during the period of internship Francisco had to demonstrate his leadership ability as the head of a family, which meant that he must be married, and that made our daughter very happy.
The six competencies are as follows:
1. Street evangelism. For about a year, he and others conducted street meetings, distributed literature, and engaged in one-on-one evangelism among all classes of people on the streets. This was always done in conjunction with local churches whose pastors expected the fruits of the street work to appear in their churches.
2. Jail ministries. After street work came assignments in Mexican jails where he and others on the team visited prisoners, conducted Bible studies in cell blocks, and ministered to the prisoners’ families on the outside. All during this time the workers maintained themselves financially through full or part-time employment.
3. Church -planting. The third competency was a very hard one; many candidates fall by the wayside at this stage. He was sent to a barrio where there was no church and he was told to start one. He could move no further up the ladder toward ordination until he had established a viable congregation from scratch. It took him two years to do it, and he was still self-supporting, though married, during this time.
4. Assistantship. After having proved himself competent on the first three levels, he was appointed as an assistant to an older, experienced pastor. Here he learned the inside workings of an established, growing congregation and the day-to-day responsibilities of a pastor. He was also tutored by the pastor in doctrine, Bible interpretation and preaching.
5. Scripture and doctrine. The fifth competency involved the mastery of a number of assigned books and a thorough knowledge of the Bible. He passed this level by successfully sustaining a two-day examination before a group of pastors and by preaching acceptably on several assigned texts.
6. Trial pastorate. With all this behind him, Francisco was assigned for one year to a small church that needed a pastor. After one year the church was asked if it wanted him as its regular minister. When this was affirmed, he was ordained. He now received a salary and a house.
A number of things strike me favorably about this Latin American model. The first is that workers are trained in evangelism and church-planting from the ground up. By the time a man becomes a pastor he has learned just about everything he needs to know about winning souls and building churches. He is never led to think that pastors don’t have to evangelize or that ministers only look after the sheep. It is no wonder, then, that the denomination is growing and churches are multiplying. The essential ingredients for growth are built right into the system of leadership training.
Second, it strikes me that the model is pedagogically strong. The following elements of a good praxis approach to worker training are woven throughout the six-year program:
1. Cognitive input. Though not the first of the competencies to be achieved, the intern does have to qualify before a battery of older church leaders in the vital areas of Bible knowledge, doctrine, and Scripture interpretation. Weaknesses in the area of cognitive preparation are offset by week-long pastors" retreats that are held every six months. Attendance at these retreats is more or less obligatory and they provide a kind of continuing education program for pastors who might otherwise run dry.
2. Observation of mentor’s actions, and discussion of his performance. One of the great strengths of the system is the way in which younger men are taught the ropes of pastoral and evangelistic ministry through personal observation, apprenticeship, and feedback. Where there is no formal seminary, the pastors become the mentors and the more advanced interns help train those who are just beginning.
3. Intern practices with the mentor observing. From the very beginning on the street, the workers are observed and assessed by those who must recommend them for advancement.
4. Discussion of intern’s performance. Just as the mentor"s ministry is observed and discussed, the intern’s work is continually reviewed and evaluated. Measurable growth is expected in terms of new converts and additional preaching centers. If there is an absence of visible fruit, it is not taken lightly.
5. Intern carries on with the mentor absent. At two points the minister-in-the-making is left largely on his own: first, at the third level when he is sent out to start a church in an unevangelized area, and finally at the end when he is a trial pastor for one year. If he fails in either area he is regarded as incompetent for full leadership.
6. Discussion of intern’s performance. More lengthy and comprehensive than any faculty room discussion of a student’s performance is the discussion carried out by a whole congregation that must decide whether it wants to call and support the trial pastor who has served them for twelve months. This comes at the end of a long process, at each stage of which the trainee is openly examined.
7. Mentor occasionally attends and critiques, while the intern begins to teach another person to carry on after he leaves.
From the start, the men in this training program are called "obreros" (workers). The word. underscores the dignity of their ministry even at its earliest stages and reminds them of the nature of the office to which they aspire. Book knowledge, what there is of it, is acquired in lockstep with action, reflection, and further steps in ministry. It may not be the European and North American way, but I predict that it will be the approach most of ten followed, out of choice or necessity, in the 21st century. In China the evidence of its effectiveness under adverse conditions has already been demonstrated.
The training of urban missionaries requires growth in personal Christian maturity (being), understanding of the city and the nature of the Christian mission (knowing), and practical skills for the work (doing).
Those who come must be teachable. They must recognize that while they already possess a great deal of knowledge about theology and the church, they still need additional preparation before they can expect to become effective, especially in an urban and cross-cultural environment. Unless there is a positive attitude toward the training program, little good will come out of it.
In the area of personal development, interns need to be helped and assessed in at least seven areas:
1. Servanthood. They come like the Lord to serve and not to control. This is especially important in relation to the national churches and their leaders.
2. Teammanship. Lone Rangers have made their mark in mission history, but today’s situation generally calls for team workers. Urban interns must learn the give-andtake of mutual accountability, recognition of individual gifts and roles, and flexibility.
3. Cross-cultural skills. Many good people fail in the city because they neither possess nor acquire the needed skills for cross-cultural ministry. Unlike the churches from which most missionaries come, the city is culturally heterogeneous and urban workers minister daily across ethnic and cultural lines.
4. Interpersonal relations. Most of the difficulties on the field are due to interpersonal problems between workers. Any worker worth employing ought to take very seriously his or her own growth in interpersonal relationships, beginning with the home and family.
5. Spiritual life. As Dick and Betty learned, city life can strain heart, mind, and spirit. Can you pray and worship joyfully amid the noise and bustle of the city?
6. Mission policy and administration. During an internship the rules and policies of a church or agency come to be understood in practical ways. Both the strengths and weaknesses come to light and the intern decides whether he can live within the official guidelines.
7. Simply coping. Many of the frustrating features of urban life and ministry cannot be easily described. But they must be coped with. In a well-planned internship, the missionary candidate learns to develop realistic expectations as to what his urban ministry might be. He learns to keep going despite dashed hopes and disappointing relationships. He discovers whether he can work happily in a less-than-perfect situation and be creative when existing conditions appear hopeless. Or, to state it simply, he learns to cope.
The curriculum of an urban training program should blend the cognitive and the practical. There is knowledge to be acquired and competency to be attained. My checklist includes the following.
1. Understanding urban populations, along with the ability to conduct research, assess neighborhoods, find the "hidden" unevangelized people, and devise strategies to reach them.
2. Cross-cultural studies, tying together assigned readings, classroom lectures and discussions with the experience of worship in churches of various cultures, awareness of codes of etiquette, male-female relations, points of contact for gospel communication, and ways to avoid or resolve cross-cultural conflicts.
3. Evangelistic methods, where case studies from various cultures are examined, the best of the church growth literature is read and discussed, and on the street the intern practices such skills as how to make initial contacts with people, how to conduct small group Bible studies in non-Christian homes or other locations, how to lead another person to commitment to Christ and get him started in a discipleship program.
In addition to these basic evangelistic skills the missionary candidate should have a firm grasp on the ecclesiology of the church or mission he serves and the steps required to develop small groups into fully organized churches. The importance of this may seem obvious, but in many cases the requirements for church organization are not spelled out and workers are uncertain of what they should do. As a result many groups remain unorganized and spiritually underdeveloped.
The growth stages of the church should be spelled out clearly and be understood by all new workers, from initial analysis and strategy for church planting, to the formation and development of the group, to the preparation of local leaders, denominational affiliation, the ministries of the church within and outside the membership, and the role of the missionary at each stage in this development.
Help in all these areas is essential to the training of urban workers.
In an essay which is both helpful and disturbing, anthropologist Harry F. Wolcott observes that the most painful problem facing urban missionaries is one of identity and role expectation. He says:
Urban life can be a very unhappy setting for missionaries who suffer from status insecurity. Living in the bush, for all its hardships, may still be easier than carving out a role as missionary in a setting too familiar in terms of personal experience and totally unfamiliar in terms of professional expectation…. The problem of identifying whether as an urban missionary, he is a missionary at all (except for the cross-cultural setting in which he works) may well be the critical professional question of the time ("Too True to be Good: The Subculture of American Missionaries in Urban Africa," in Readings in Missionary Anthropology II, edited by William A. Smalley, Wm. Carey Library, 1978).
Urban missionaries know that the folks back home are used to hearing about battling the insects and boiling away the amoeba. So they are reluctant to report the true picture of their problems in the city, problems ranging from car theft to the rising cost of housing. To make it worse, they arrive in the city ill-equipped for the task of evangelizing and planting churches, and few people, if any, are available to show them what to do. Health care and education, which traditionally provide bush missionaries with work and identity, are provided in the city by public institutions. So what is the urban missionary to do? What is he equipped to do? Some begin wondering why they came and when they can go home.
These problems need not continue. In cities like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Amsterdam a new breed of urban workers is being developed. Their training is a blend of classroom study and street experience. When they arrive on location they will know what to do. And they won’t feel the need for pith helmet or dugout canoe to know they are missionaries.
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