I have been called to serve in an Urban Context for four decades, and while it has been very rewarding, at the same time, it has proven challenging. At the same time, I served in a large urban public school district as a high school principal. I am a person who likes challenges, and I would not be comfortable with the status quo. Those who lead in an urban context know the church must continually evolve as the community changes.
Over the last few years, we have seen a significant number of immigrants. In the 80s, for example, many Latin American families migrated to Los Angeles, particularly from El Salvador. Families fleeing the civil war needed all kinds of assistance. Our church, located in downtown Los Angeles, opened our doors to families who needed legal aid. Many became members of our local congregation, while others migrated to other parts of the country.
Through four decades, we all have seen needs change from one area to another, and this is where the church needs to stay relevant.
Our programs change. Our message remains the same.
As the 90s ushered in, we saw a burgeoning growth of gang activity throughout the city, and unfortunately, it spread to the rest of the country. We are working in one of the most difficult areas of Los Angeles. Many families are suffering from economic depression. Many live in a space that is unfit for the number of people dwelling there. For example, here, a 1500 sq ft house may have as many as 25 individuals living under one roof. Homicides, homelessness, drug abuse, and other quality-of-life issues have a negative impact on these families. Churches must be willing and ready to address these concerns so we can impact our communities for the Lord.
Most recently, COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on communities that were already suffering from a lack of resources. During the pandemic, the governor, county, and city officials asked us to help with vaccination clinics. Because of this partnership, our church was able to open 21 food distribution sites for needy families. Again, our city-centered church was at the forefront of the efforts to help people. Today, we are still working in the community to support all the efforts of elected officials to assist needy families.
Today, in 2023, we see our communities are worse off than ever before. In this post-pandemic era, people all over have been left with both physical and mental problems, not to mention spiritual problems. I have officiated so many death-by-suicide funerals I don’t care to count. Our ministry to share the Gospel is needed more than ever.
The task feels overwhelming, but where do we begin?
To begin with, the leader and the members of California’s urban area churches must develop a mutual symbiosis, both committed to success. And both must work on their spiritual and social well-being. If either part is not working in harmony, nothing will be accomplished.
Here are some suggestions for your consideration. As someone who has started 40 churches in the inner city, these starting points have worked well for me in an urban context.
Our leadership must be transformational.
Begin by building organizational trust and efficacy. Teach your congregation members to be committed in order to achieve results and allow leaders to take autonomy over specific tasks. This means once they have been trained, they have the authority to make decisions. Involving the congregation helps move the vision forward. As transformational leaders, we must model the behavior we expect from those we are leading.
Jesus inspired people. Actually, whatever the lesson, Jesus gave ownership to the potential disciple, and when we own something, we tend to take better care of it. Ask yourself, “How am I inspiring others to the join in the work of the LORD? Are we really working for the benefit and betterment of those we are trying to reach?” If not, we are just spinning our wheels.
Paul described the trust God places in us as “a sacred trust.” He said, “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thess. 2:4). The word “entrusted” communicates the truth that God believed in the people to whom God gave the Gospel. Jesus demonstrated incredible confidence in the potential of people, and He used those people for a higher purpose. May we be faithful to our calling wherever the LORD has placed us to serve HIM.