#YSRealTalk: The Urban Ministry Shift

Youth Specialties
June 22nd, 2014

In this #YSRealTalk, Fred connects with Efrem Smith and Dean Borgman to chat about cultural shifts between urban and suburban ministry. 

Original photo by Andree Ludtke.

(Fred)  Is there a conversation that needs to take place in evangelical clusters concerning the harmonic relevance between urban and suburban ministry?  i.e Urban is the new mainstream

(Efrem) Well, it’s pretty obvious that we are in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic, multicultural, and metropolitan reality. To a large degree, the whole nation seems to be going urban or feeling the impact of urban issues, both good and bad. With this in mind, yes, urban is the new mainstream of ministry understanding and development. No longer can urban ministry be a side bar or marginalized track at a ministry, pastors, youth pastors, or church planting conference. This is a great time for rural and suburban churches to learn from both the successes and failures of the urban church and urban missional organizations.

(Dean) The Enemy, I believe, has enticed us into his “divide and conquer” strategy. We are all doing our own things. We try to copy the success of others, but we rarely collaborate. We try to teach others; we too rarely humble ourselves to learn from others. In both the urban and suburban setting, we are “silos” doing our own thing—often competing for members and finance. The Church of Christ must decide and then, sometimes painfully, practice becoming a learning community. I think urban Christians may need to initiate such learning and collaboration; the suburban church so easily slips into spasmodic paternalism. We need a big picture and grand strategy—one that is long term and persistent, one that is not just informed, but begins at the bottom of our social class system.

(Fred) Is there some unique goal (and if so, what is it) as it relates to serving in urban environments?  Terms like gentrification become popular in most resource proposals, which typically equate to “urban renewal.”  These transformations can lead to high culture, high finance, and high living.  As a matter of fact, 3 gang members shared with me last year in Oakland (during an interview) that rebuilding the landscape does not help them get closer to God…or even enter into the church walls.  What’s your response?

(Efrem) I heard a pastor once say that, “urban renewal is really urban remove ya’ll.” Gentrification simply lays the missional foundation for hipster churches, which are more about ministry to the upwardly mobile than the kind of empowerment of the urban poor that should really be going on in the city. I haven’t given up yet on the importance of Christian community development and holistic urban ministry. The challenge is, we need innovation, collaboration, and local urban churches committed to leadership empowerment. We also need a prophetic and liberating approach to ministry that evangelicals will promote and participate in which addresses systemic injustices.

(Dean) Jesus, in keeping with the whole of Scripture, was concerned with wealth and the poor—and humility… become like a child… wash one anothers’ feet. The love of the Father must motivate us; the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ must sustain us; the power of the Holy Spirit must enable us. Our Lord’s prayer (John 17) urges us toward reconciliation and unity—within the Church and with those outside. Urban (and often forgotten rural) poverty zones contain great strengths and assets for the Kingdom of God. Our challenge is to relate to them, as individuals and communities, so that we might find Christ in them, learn from them, and see the world and their needs in new ways.

If we are willing to notice, I think Pope Francis can encourage us. His example of humility, his concern for the poor, his willingness for collaborative ecumenical engagement, are lessons we can practice. I heard him imagine the other day that the Christ of Rev. 3: 20, was not only urging individuals and churches to open the door allowing Him to come in, but that Christ today might be banging from the inside our church doors, crying: “Let Me out!” Are we willing to get out of our pews, outside of our spiritual comfort zones to meet the world—to learn before we can serve?

Fred Oduyoye is the Director of Networking for Youth Specialties. After a successful corporate career, Fred was led into full-time ministry at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis TN, where he oversaw neighborhood gang communities as the Youth Outreach Director. 

Efrem Smith is the President and CEO of World Impact. He is also an author and a itinerant Speaker with Kingdom Building Ministries.


Dean Borgman founded and directs the Center for Youth Studies, a national and global network of those interested in research of adolescence and the youth culture. His areas of expertise include urban and cross-cultural youth ministry and the changing youth culture.

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