URBAN MINISTRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Rev. Dr. Noulezhalie Ricky Medom
With the turn of the century there has been a drastic change in the worldview of people vis-à-vis religion. In the west they have a largely post-Christian, post-Constantinian society. To call oneself an evangelical Bible-believing Christian is passé and church attendance and participation is no longer seen as of central importance. In a sense society no longer sees the Church as relevant.
This was not the case for many years. The Church saw herself as the “Big Brother” of society. The one that controls the direction of society and which society cannot do without. This came about starting from Emperor Constantine whose influence turned the Roman Empire into becoming a “Christian State.” In the Naga case it was the Missionaries whose influence turned the State into a “Christian State.” For many years since, the Church has played the role of Chaplain to the State, sometimes even influencing or using rather strong-arm tactics, forcing the State into legislating certain laws which had no hope of seeing success.
Today the tides have turned and, sadly detrimental to the Church, we are seeing its role and influence especially in urban society gradually diminishing. Unless the Church can wake up to this downward trend, it may not be too long before our own society goes the way of the west.
Jesus reminds his disciples in the Bible that they are “in” the world but not “of” the world. It is not in the interest of the Church to get too imbedded in the affairs of the world and project herself as championing the cause of worldly issues. For then to extricate herself from the world and do ministry again becomes highly improbable. And ministry is the calling of the Church. We should not run after the world but be salt and light to the world. But how do we do this?
To Be “In” the World and Not “Of” the World: The Incarnational Model
It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the exact nature of the incarnation (becoming man) of Christ. However the incarnation involved Christ, who is God, becoming fully human, yet without compromising his full divinity (John 1:14, Phil. 2:6f.). This being the case, let us examine some implications of Christ’s example for ministry in the 21st Century.
Our aim must be to understand, imbibe and function within the system of the world, integrating and identifying with people, while still remaining as followers of Jesus and distinctive in our value systems and standards. We cannot be what we are not. The level to which we can identify with people will be determined by the specific situation we find ourselves in, but the fact remains that we must identify without losing our distinctiveness as mature Christians.
The central fact of the incarnation is that while we were still sinners, Christ came to save us (Rom. 5:8). He did not wait for us to find Him. He did not wait for us to ask Him to save us. He took the initiative to come to us. So, too, we must make the initiative to go to where people are, and make the effort to understand them and the world within which they function. This is the essence of doing urban ministry in the 21st century.
Understand How People Think
We must make every effort to understand how the people we are trying to reach actually think. C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity laments the fact that Christians often use words in a very casual manner. We get so used to certain Christian vocabularies that we assume everyone understands what we are talking about. Because of this many people rightly accuse Christians of having a very simplistic, sometimes even naïve, understanding of things.
Due to many influences, post-modern people today process thoughts and information in a very different way then they did before. They do not process information logically and sequentially, but rather, through a complex matrix. This outlook influences how people grasp new ideas.
In order to effectively communicate with them, we must learn to think the way they do and structure our message in such a way that they can actually understand it. This is a great challenge one who is involved in urban ministry must face and overcome to succeed. Jesus throughout his interaction with the people of his day used language and idiom that reflect an understanding of the people around him. No wonder people flocked to listen to him wherever he went!
Hate the Sin and Love the Sinner
The command to love is repeated over fifty times in the New Testament. It is so easy to be judgmental and condemn others. We live in a world today where value systems are undergoing a sea change. Lifestyles considered deviant are now not only accepted but flaunted and encouraged by those who practice it. Laws are being enacted to protect the rights of such people and their lifestyles. Indeed love must be the underlying motive of urban ministry for without that one cannot go on.
1 Corinthians 13 is a model of the ministry Jesus had on earth, and it is our model as well. Part of it says, “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:7-8). This does not mean that we condone everything that others might do, but following the example of Jesus we must accept them without approving of their lifestyle. Just as Jesus accepted the intrinsic worth of individuals so also must we and love unconditionally.
Communications technology has taken a quantum leap in the 21st century. While acknowledging that there are many communication methods available today, teaching and preaching remain a central part in Christian ministry. We must therefore make optimum use of it by being well informed, skillful and disciplined in our approach.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus took the teaching method very seriously. He followed the biblical principles laid out in the Old Testament (ref. Deuteronomy 6) by making teaching a part of His everyday life. Wherever He went, He made use of teachable moments, using a style that was practical, simple, and aimed at the listener’s level of need. He realized and made use of the fact that the deepest kind of teaching is that which makes a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.
In particular, Jesus’ example is His use of the technique of story. In fact, the whole of Scripture is dominated by the use of story – it is God’s chosen vehicle for revealing Himself and His ways. A story that is both told and lived, is a powerful witness to the world. We need to work hard at making our teaching practical and relevant to the young people we want to reach. Our desire should be to be like Jesus, who “amazed” (Matt. 7:28), “astonished” (Matt. 22:33), and “delighted” (Mark 12:37) with His teaching.
Humour and Fun
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone!” This is so of any society but more so in today’s world. With the tension and stress of the modern rat race and highly competitive lifestyle, people do not want another dreary and doomsday type of approach. Christians have been rightly accused of being spoilsports and boring people. Whereas there should be joy, fun and laughter wherever there are Christians.
Jesus had fun. He came “that we might have life to the full” (John 10:10). Somebody juxtaposed John Chapters 1 and 2 and brought out the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, … and the Word went to a party in Cana.”
People like fun and life. We must show them how to have fun and enjoy life to the fullest. Many of the episodes in the Bible as well as Jesus’ parables include more than a hint of a smile. We are often guilty of reading the Bible with too much seriousness.
A Radical Lifestyle
Whatever else may be said of people in the 21st century, one thing strikes out and that is they are risk takers. Nike's slogan, “Just Do It” sums up the attitude of many “Generation Xers”. All we have to do is look at the most popular sports today and it gives an idea of the mindset of people: extreme sports like paragliding, bungee jumping, mountain climbing, and the like, is an indication of this generation’s need to be “on the edge” as well as extreme attitudes and thinking.
The Christianity we present to the world today is too tame and does not reflect the true Jesus. Jesus was a risk taker in the sense that he broke rules of propriety in his culture and tradition. His teachings particularly the Sermon on the Mount is radical which challenged society’s norms and standards not only of his times but ours as well. As Jesus did we must also go out and live the radical life and “Just Do It!”