by Zach Payne  |  21 September 2018  |

The lights were dimmed and the room was packed—standing room only—as I sneaked into the auditorium of the Howard Performing Arts Center. It was the first night of the Urban Mission and Ministries Congress and Elder Dan Jackson was fielding questions. I heard a voice from somewhere in the crowd, something to the effect of, “Isn’t it just as important to minister to rural areas as it is to urban ones?” Before Elder Jackson could answer, I was already rolling my eyes and shaking my head. Is this really how this weekend is going to go? I asked myself. Can we please not spend the whole weekend fighting over whether or not urban ministry is valid? After all, shouldn’t belief and participation in urban ministry be a prerequisite to even attending a conference like this?

Before my brain completely shut down, Elder Jackson replied that a majority of the world’s population now lives in urban centers and that if we want to be effective in gospel work we’d better figure out how to minister to them. The room burst into applause and I breathed a sigh of relief. This was going to be a productive weekend after all.

While there were a few more occasions where presenters felt the need to redundantly justify the need for ministry to the cities, by day two everyone seemed to more or less be on the same page that cities have people in them and that people need Jesus. Initially I feared—especially in an academic setting like Andrews University—that there may be an overabundance of information presented from books about the philosophies behind urban ministry, or by distant bureaucrats who administered over large swaths of ministerial territory that happened to have cities in it. While there was a bit of this, I was pleasantly surprised that a good number of the presenters were actually currently working in the cities themselves and could give practical examples of things that had worked in their own recent experience doing urban ministry.

Location and Social Justice

The tone was set on Friday morning by a devotional talk, in which Pastor Todd Stout from Church of the Advent Hope in Manhattan charged the congregation to live where they do ministry. This, I thought, was what I was hoping for. Every time ministry to the cities is brought up in an Adventist context, the well-meaning saints come out of the woodwork with this or that Ellen White quote to the effect that yes, we can minister to the cities, but we’d better not live in them. Pastor Stout asserted that we should take this quote in its historical context and realize that we don’t live in a world where rural places are necessarily less dangerous or sinful than urban ones. Drugs, crime, and godlessness all exist in the country just the same as in the city. Living outside of urban communities where we do ministry, he said, also meant being cut off from community concerns. Only when we live in a community can we feel its needs and properly address them. As someone who made an intentional decision to buy a house in the urban community many of my churches are in, I really resonated with this short devotional.

However, the conference doesn’t seem to have resonated with everyone in the same way. A case in point was the Social Justice workshop I attended on Friday afternoon, hosted by Michael T. Nixon, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion on the Andrews University campus. While Nixon, a young black man, was presenting on the importance of our churches getting involved in tackling social justice issues, an older white man who was attending the workshop kept trying to embarrass him. “You keep talking about social justice, but you never explained what it is,” the man said—even though the first part of the workshop was a group poll, aimed at helping define what social justice is from a number of perspectives. Multiple times throughout the workshop, the man made his frustration with the young presenter publicly known, in a way that I’m sure he would not have done if the presenter were more to his liking: Older, whiter, and more politically conservative. While most of the conference attendees seemed fairly open-minded and willing to learn, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that the closed-minded and prejudiced also were in attendance. Nixon, nevertheless, conducted himself with grace and tried not to spend too much time engaging the heckler.

One of the great tragedies that I learned about over the course of the weekend was actually from a historical account written by Dr. David Trim in which it was explained why Seventh-day Adventists historically fell away from missions in the cities. Apparently one of the pioneers of Adventist urban ministry was none other than John Harvey Kellogg himself. However, because his theology was a pantheistic one and this seems to be something he forwarded in his ministry to the cities, we somehow threw out the proverbial baby with the bath water—which is something I think we can all agree Adventists have had a tendency to do, historically. In the same way that we get squeamish about having too obvious of a rhythm during praise time, due to Ellen White’s denouncement of holiness fervor in early 20th century Adventist churches, we are uncomfortable with city ministry because it reminds us that the most effective we’ve ever been at urban mission was when we were espousing pantheism.

Uncomfortably, I’m sure, many Adventists at the congress sat through an outstanding presentation by Khepera Kearse (a stand-in for Erica Ford, CEO of Life Camp, Inc., who could not be present) where she gave many practical examples of urban ministry work her organization does, and then followed it with the statement: “I’m not really as much of a religious person as I used to be, I’m more of a spiritual being.” After a story about how she brought in Deepak Chopra and his yogi to teach kids to be yoga instructors in their inner-city communities, and about her views on Christ-consciousness, I got the sense that the room was quiet and perhaps dwelling on her latter philosophical statements rather than the genuinely helpful and practical testimonies and advice she gave. So it’s not just a historical issue we have: I think it’s still hard for us to hear people with different theology than us when they give us (helpful) advice on how to do practical ministry.

Probably one of the most impactful stories from the whole weekend came from Pastor Daniel Xisto, who was working in Charlottesville, Virginia during the tumultuous events last year. “What happened in Charlottesville last year graphically reveals how white supremacy is built into the fabric of the United States,” he stated provocatively, before less-than-subtly connecting the recent spike of race-related violence to our current American leadership and rhetoric. “Hate has awakened hate [and] as a result Heather Heyer was murdered just a mile down the road from our church.” Heather Heyer was protesting a white nationalist group when a car plowed through her group, killing her in the act of standing up for what she believed in.

Pastor Xisto and his church responded to the event by marching through the city, singing “this little light of mine,” and eventually ending up at the place where Heyer was killed, intent to leave a prayer chain and two dozen roses there in her memory. But when they showed up, they were surprised to find her mother standing in that exact spot. She looked to them and said “I need you right now.” They prayed with her, wept with her, hugged her, and then as a group sang a reprise of “this little light of mine,” inserting the words “just like Heather Heyer did, I’m gonna let it shine.” Without planning on it, the church held a public memorial service for a local non-Adventist woman in a time of tragedy. “I learned that if we take the time to simply show up, God can do beautiful things through us,” Pastor Xisto said.

Real Stories vs. Broad Strokes

There were many other exciting aspects of this conference. Big ticket speakers like Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, anti-racism news commentator Tim Wise, and noteworthy Adventist pastors such as Carlton Byrd and Ty Gibson definitely helped create an exciting atmosphere. There were plenty of opportunities, outside of sermons and lectures, for further analysis of complex topics by way of discussion panels, intimate workshops, and Q&A sessions with plenary speakers in the cafeteria during lunchtimes. But I think what I will remember from this weekend, years later, are the deeply personal and raw stories of pastors who were are in the thick of urban mission and ministry.

When Todd Stout said that he moved away from his family and that he and his wife currently live in and have raised their kids in Manhattan, where their church is located, that sounded to me like real urban mission and ministry. When Daniel Xisto said the Spirit moved and he and his church showed up at just the right time to be a source for comfort in a tragedy that we heard around the nation…that sounds like real urban mission and ministry. When Matt Stockdale said he quit his job as an attorney making six figures and now he is planting churches in the city…that sounds like real urban mission and ministry. And I’m not saying that everyone else didn’t have important and interesting—even helpful—things to say, but it was these kinds of local stories that meant the most to me and seemed the most relevant to our gathering together for the weekend.

The Urban Mission and Ministry Congress was mostly a success. Even if the speakers who got the most time to present were not always the most significant to me personally, I still was excited to hear what they had to say and was able to learn from them. To see speakers like Tim Wise and Emanuel Cleaver at a Seventh-day Adventist gathering? It’s pretty significant, in my mind, and I think it sends a positive message. However, the format—in case of a future iteration of this conference—would do well to focus more heavily on the local talent—and perhaps more specifically, the local Adventist talent. Tim Wise can come in and drop bombs of truth and wisdom, but he’s Tim Wise: He can do that. But he’s not going to understand the intricacies of race relations as they exist in our particular church structure. I thought he and Noel Castellanos seemed particularly “out of the loop,” as it were, when it came to the panel discussions where most of the panelists were Adventists.

And even top-notch Adventist speakers like Ty Gibson painted with broad strokes in their messages. I liked his message, and I like that he landed on a conclusion that social and mental health are some things to focus on as we minister to people in the future. But, again, it was broad and philosophical.

The local pastor, just doing his or her everyday ministry in the city—right now in today’s climate—and doing it well? That is who I want to hear from. That is more relevant to me than anything else. No pomp and circumstance. No big budget. No philosophizing about the reasons cities need Jesus. Just local, practical urban ministry. And as much as I found the weekend generally entertaining and enjoyable, the lessons I’ll bring back to my congregations are the ones I learned from humble individuals: Simply giving their testimony about how God called, they answered, and the city was blessed.

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Zachary Payne is the pastor of three small, urban churches (Emmanuel, Kenosha, and Racine), and one rural church (Raymond) in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. Zachary lives in the city of Racine with his wife Allison, son Arthur, and daughter Eleanor. His interests include music, exploring the outdoors, and studying American and church history.

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