missionary skills for the urban frontier.

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Mark Reynolds from Redeemer City to City talk about the growing frontier of mission in North America – the urban context. For years, the focus of churches and denominations has been on a continuum between rural and suburban, ours included. Outlying urban ministries were usually the exception and tended to be mono-cultural, poor and subject to frustratingly-small investment from denominations & networks.

But the North American context has been and still is changing. Ghetto-ridden downtowns are gentrifying to allow for an influx of young professionals from the suburbs and rural areas. Families are no longer craving the safety of suburbs or rural areas to raise their children and a focus on the environment means automobile-less citizens have a much smaller range for church attendance. Add all of that to the fact that, technologically, we’re zooming forwards at 5-6x the generational speed that we used to, and you have a recipe for a new frontier in mission.

Denominations & networks that are lean and nimble are jumping to the forefront, while many larger, bulkier denominations are fumbling to try and apply methodologies that worked in rural/suburban settings to urban environments, with little success. My own denomination, the CRCNA, has been mildly innovative and marginally successful at using “clustering” movements within the few urban environments we’re in to attempt to be on this frontier, but we face an issue most denominations do – a lack of indigenous talent. That is, leaders raised in an urban world, trained with urban techniques to return and do mission in urban environments, still with the quality of theological training we’ve come to expect.

What’s very difficult to do is figure out which things are non-negotiables, both theologically and practically, for urban missionaries and which things we’ve allowed to become culturally conditioned by our rural/suburban backgrounds. This makes recruiting urban missionaries incredibly tricky.

Redeemer City to City has done some great work in this area, and here’s some traits that Mark Reynolds pointed out are needed to be an urban missionary (besides the obvious need for commitment to Christ and gifts of the Spirit):

  • Coachability
  • Cultural Flexibility (constantly-changing context)
  • Cross-cultural intuition
  • Cultural resourcefulness is far more important than brilliance (though both are nice to have)
  • Knowing about how culture is put together, Skills & Practices, Comprehensive Mindfulness about adaptation & reconfiguring – can never rest at this
  • Very agile learners
  • Urban-ready (understanding the language and cultural practices of an urbanite)
  • Humble
  • Well-trained in an urban environment
  • Inquisitive
  • Settlers can often be just as good because rooted folks use dated assumptions
  • High-agility learners who can reflect on experiences immediately and exclusively (vs. low-agility leaders will reflect on longer-term, more comprehensive things)

Some questions that he pointed out that need asking about someone who desires this role:

  • How do they deal with risk & ambiguity?
  • Do they enjoy the challenge of new things?
  • Do they cling to their strengths or try to challenge themselves in new areas?
  • Do they talk about themselves with broad statements or have acute knowledge of themselves?

My first inclination is that very few people, if any, should ever jump contexts – if you were raised & trained rural, do rural ministry – if you were raised & trained suburban, do suburban ministry – if you were raised & trained urban, do urban ministry. BUT, that would make ME a hypocrite, since I was raised in a town of 5,000 and do ministry in a urban center of nearly 2,000,000.

What I do think we need to do constantly, especially with young leaders, is give them the tools to reflect on what has formed them and where they might be most effective. We’ve created good general categories – traditional church pastor & church planter – but more categories are needed: testing for urban vs. suburban vs. rural ministry, testing for skills of church rehabilitation, testing for skills of helping churches die, etc.

Two things the future of the Church is in great need of: agility/nimbleness & indigenous leaders. Let’s get to work!