Constantly Changing Cities Require New Navigation

August 7, 2019

If there’s one thing happening rapidly today, it’s change. Change can be a driving force of creativity, or a road to destruction.

In the new Urban Ministry course, offered as part of the Youth and Social Ministry and Intercultural Youth Development programs at Crown College, students learn how to navigate ministry in an unsteady environment where change is constant. Through a hands-on learning experience in culturally-diverse church settings, students apply classroom ideas to practical, real-life scenarios.

Students in a recent class had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Sileshi Tesfaye of Eagle Christian Worship Center International, a local Christian and Missionary Alliance Ethiopian church at the downtown Minneapolis Central Library. Students also met with Alicia Thoj at the League of Minnesota Cities, and Greg and Pang Foua Rhodes of RiverLife Church, whose focus is on second-generation Hmong ministry.

From a thrilling scavenger hunt by way of public transit, to a meeting with urban ministry pastors in the Twin Cities, the class learned how to engage with the people around them and learn from their experiences.

Stephen Jones, Assistant Professor of International Studies, is a strong advocate for learning outside the classroom as a supplement to traditional classwork material.

“It is one thing to read a book about how Christians can interact with immigrants and refugees, which we do,” says Jones. “It is another thing to be taught by first-and second-generation refugees in their ministry context.”

Taking initiative and being intentional isn’t the only thing students learn in Urban Ministry. Another major point of the course is learning about culture — more specifically, seeing how deeply intersected ‘race’ and ‘place’ are to one another. The class uses the book Race and Place, by David P. Leong, which addresses how federal housing practices have restricted certain people groups from buying houses.

“Americans actually shaped our racial geographies in much more intentional ways than we realize,” says Jones. “We risk taking for granted that certain groups live in certain places without recognizing the intentional policies that had very profound and lasting effects on who lives where. This continues to have effects today due to disparate generational wealth accumulation. Redlining and deed restrictions are two such practices.”

Part of the course focuses on defining “urban ministry” in the first place. This task is harder than it sounds.

“We use Tim Keller’s concept of the city as humanity intensified,” says Jones. “Therefore, we see both the beautiful and tragic sides of humanity in higher doses in the urban context. The urban ranges from extreme wealth to extreme poverty, and both significant good to significant evil.”

Seeing urban ministry in this way helps students to have a healthier, more accurate picture of what it means to minister to and learn from the urban environment.

Jones explains that one of the key differences between the urban context and other settings is specialization. People living within the urban context have more opportunities to become experts in a specific field. With so many people living in one space and having vastly different backgrounds, change and creativity are in high abundance.

“Creativity can be used for amazingly wonderful things, as well as for incredibly terrible things,” says Jones. “One of the definitive differences in urban ministry is the need to be nimble and attentive to a constantly changing environment.”

A challenge of the Urban Ministry class is to avoid two common errors: glamorization and denigration.

“Glamorizing the city and imagining that urban ministry is really appealing or exciting is problematic,” says Jones. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The other is assuming the city is inherently evil, bad, or broken, which is also problematic.”

Avoiding broad generalizations of urban life, the coursework aims to look at the urban environment as a collection of people bearing the image of God. As Jones points out, “The more people, the more image of God is present.” Change happens through those who create. This doesn’t mean change will always be good, but it also doesn’t mean it will be bad.

Another focus of Urban Ministry is creating confident leadership in students who learn to recognize and challenge their own prejudices and biases. If students assume people within the urban context always need help fixing their problems, they are acting out of ethnocentrism and pride, rather than with hearts geared toward learning.

With fresh perspectives and new cultural awareness, Jones hopes the students enrolled in Urban Ministry will work to implement experiences and insights from the course into their daily lives.