Chapter One: Our Story in the City

Spiritual Formation Principle #1: Spiritual formation starts with God's story of joy and brokenness in our life.


Theme: The city is an amazing place of beauty, blessing, and fulfillment for those who have ready eyes to see it that way. It is also a place that draws and forms those who are willing to explore what it means to be broken before God.


Bible Reading: Psalm 107

Pay particular attention to the phrases:

Also read Revelation 21:1-4.

Spiritual Formation and Urban Ministry—Opposites Repel

People who are drawn naturally to city ministry are usually action-oriented. They like to see a need and meet it. They like to see a problem and fix it. They often like to start doing something and figure they will learn by trial and error along the way.

People who are drawn naturally to spiritual formation tend to be reflection-oriented. They like to read great devotional writings of the past centuries. They can sit for long periods of time in prayer and meditation. They realize that, as they explore the depths of their own motives, they find new areas of their soul that they can surrender to God.

Amazingly, the best spiritual growth for both types of people occurs when they hang out with each other and learn from each other's natural wiring and direction. God has wired us differently like members of a body, but also connects us so that our strengths complement each others' weaknesses. Yet it is uncomfortable to enter into a place where someone's natural strength makes us feel inferior. It is easy to avoid those who are unlike us even though we know they will add so much to our spiritual growth.

As this book is a spiritual formation guide for urban ministers, and an urban ministry guide for spiritual formers, it may feel like too much inner work and motive-searching for action-oriented people. For reflective people, it may seem short and shallow. You may decide it is a tool that works best if you go through it with a group of people on the opposite side of your own gifts, temperament, and wiring.

City As a Place of Blessing, Not Merely the Place of Problems

There are two chapters at the very beginning of the Bible that demonstrate what our world was like with God as the absolute King. These chapters occur in a Garden called Eden. Then there are two chapters at the very end of the Bible that demonstrate what our world will be like with God as absolute King. These chapters occur in a city called the New Jerusalem. All the chapters in-between show what happens when God—though He remains the absolute King of the universe—for a period of time, purposefully loans a measure of His power to less-powerful creatures who are unholy.

God does not see cities as a curse. Psalm 107 demonstrates the city as a place where God gathers His people in order to bless them. Revelation 21:23 and 22:5 say that God will dwell in a city with us for eternity. Heaven is actually a city, brought down to earth. It is the perfect place for us to live for eternity. When every person is following the same leader, living in close quarters is a delight, not a pain. We are made by God to be city dwellers and we will have that blessing for eternity.

But in today's cities, every person is doing what is right in their own eyes. God who is holy, perfect, all powerful, and infinitely good is allowing others, for a time, to call the shots. Yet, amazingly, even in a high-density area of fallen humans all in rebellion against God, we can find a pungent taste of the garden and the New Jerusalem.

A Part of My Story in the City

In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine was in a Bible study and became convicted he was a slumlord. He decided that one way to alleviate this was to dedicate one of his houses to become a discipleship house for seminary students, staff, and faculty to live in and make a difference in the neighborhood that surrounded it. I was working at a seminary at that time. He knew that I lived and ministered in rough neighborhoods and asked me to help. I agreed to live at the house, recruit people to the house, and to watch over the project.

I remember the first time I saw the shell of the two-story house near Garrett Park in Dallas. All the windows were broken. The yard was hard-packed dirt and glass shards. The doors were smashed in and the inside looked like a barn with huge gaps in the floor, walls, and roof, shredded mattresses, and piles of trash. The house reeked of urine. Hypodermic needles lay in piles in several corners. The house was surrounded by three apartment complexes that had been used as crack-cocaine houses for years. We would be the first legal occupants of that part of the block in more than eight years.

Quickly the landlords work crews put plywood over holes in the walls and slapped down uneven linoleum over gaps in the floor. They found old gas stoves and spare sinks and bolted them to the walls. They put in glass windows only to discover them all broken the next day. So they replaced them with plastic windows that the rocks would bounce off. They ladled on thick coats of paint to cover up urine stains and before long, it was ready for us to move in.

On my moving day, I dropped off a load of tools that I was going to use to install some bars over the downstairs window. When I returned with the bars, two police cars were in the yard. A plastic window was bashed in and all my tools were gone. We were what the police called a "beachhead" in the neighborhood and they had asked us to tell them the hour and day I was planning to move. They scolded me for arriving earlier than I had told them. They remained on the property as I installed the bars and moved in more things. When they left at night, I was alone in the back house.

There were yells and screeching cars all night. About 11 p.m., I heard gunfire that had that staccato sound when bullets are not aimed into the air. The police drove by, constantly flashing their lights and parking in our parking lot, but remained in their cars. A helicopter hovered overhead and shined a bright spotlight in my windows about 3 a.m. I had lived in bad places before, but this was really intense. I was very glad the next day when some other seminary students moved into units in the main house. Before long, we had a house of eight seminary students and staff. The local drug pushers called us "padres" even though we didn't wear clerical collars. We were "religious," which to them meant not cops and not rivals.

Two years earlier, I had bought a used truck that I was proud of owning. The first week, one of my windows was smashed and the stereo stolen. The broken steering column showed me that the hidden kill-switch I had installed on the truck kept it from driving off. I got used to not having a stereo in my truck. After the third attempt others made at stealing my car, I simply left duct tape where the window was supposed to be. We constantly found shell casings and the flat mushroom-shaped bullets that landed in our parking lot. One time at the nearby coin laundry, I saw three people shoot an Uzi machine gun into the air about 30 feet away. Everyone scurried into the laundry to avoid the falling bullets as if it were as normal as coming inside during a thunderstorm.

One day I came home and someone had attempted to use a hacksaw on my burglar bars but had given up halfway through their work. Another day I got home and someone had bashed in my front door, but the police had arrived and released a German Shepherd with muddy paws into my apartment. They told me they had caught the person hiding in my attic, terrified by the dog. It took me two days to clean up all the mud. I was really glad that the person had gotten into the attic ahead of the dog.

Living and Dying in the War Zone

The abandoned apartments in the lots behind us and on either side had become crack houses, which made this particular block a virtual war zone. Some community activists were able to use our beachhead to force the demolition of the three abandoned apartment complexes that surrounded us. One day I got home from work and the apartment complex behind me was a pile of rubble. Three days later it was an empty lot. The same happened to the two other apartment buildings in the next three months. Nine months after I arrived, I realized the night was amazingly quiet and the attempted break-ins suddenly stopped. I installed a new window and another stereo in my truck. Life was "normal" again.

The empty lots quickly became the social centers of our neighborhood. When resources are very limited, sometimes people place the greatest aspirations of their heart in their children and in their cars. Most Saturday mornings were taken up by a children's ministry to local children. Some fathers and mothers would often sit through the whole program, singing children's songs (but never making the silly motions). I was surprised how the urban code allowed even the toughest teenagers to soften their faces for almost an hour if they were helping a younger sibling learn how to "be good."

On Saturday afternoons, men would gather in the field behind our house, pull a car into the lot, jack it up, take off a tire, and open the hood. The rest of the day they sat drinking beer and telling stories. Occasionally a woman would yell at them from a nearby apartment balcony and they would take off the air cleaner cover to make it appear even more as if they were working on the car. When I sat with them, they were happy to have someone new to whom they could tell their well-worn stories. We eventually figured out a way to string an extension cord to a small TV that was blocked by an electrical switch box so it couldn't be seen from the balconies as we watched weekend sports.

One Saturday morning, I woke up to perhaps the strangest scene yet. In our parking lot and alongside the street were parked more than 10 sparkling BMW's, Mercedes, and Cadillacs. A group of women in brightly colored dresses with perfectly matching high heels were picking their way through our yard. The Junior League had arrived to survey the site of the big Habitat for Humanity build-out. The beachhead had been established. It was now time for the suburban teams to arrive every Saturday to build new houses on our block. Over the next several years, they would build 37 simple homes on and near our street.

For the next two years the suburban work crews came down each Saturday. For most, it was something they did as part of a missions team. Some would make comments about "the great sacrifice I was making to live 'down here.'" Some seemed nervous. Some seemed more at home than I did. Some teams arrived late and left early. Other teams arrived early and worshiped together for 30 minutes before the supplies arrived and stayed 30 minutes afterward, reflecting on how they saw Jesus in the people and events of the day.

However, a few people starting hanging out during the week and evenings. One older man said his suburban neighborhood didn't have any porches anymore. He asked if he could borrow ours. He said it made him feel like the neighborhood he grew up with—everyone out on the street talking to each other. Others came over and spent a great deal of extra time adding special cabinets, planting bushes, and just fussing over the new Habitat houses. It was almost as if something had captured their heart in ways that made it impossible for them to see it as merely a weekend project. Since churches adopted individual houses, some stayed after their house was finished to help us with the local children's ministry and sit with the parents as they listened to us tell Bible stories to the children.

One night, a random drive-by shooting hit a four-year-old boy sleeping innocently in the front bedroom of a Habitat house across from our front porch. The bullet lodged just above the roof of his mouth. People in both the Garrett Park neighborhood and our sister neighborhoods in the suburbs rallied to help the family as the boy went through a difficult surgery. We had all seen so many impossible situations, but somehow this one was so unfair that all we could do was cry and express the futility of life in our neighborhood. Eventually we learned the boy would survive without brain damage. Several people remarked at how they found it amazing that we didn't have to cover up our feelings of despair.

One man sitting on the porch remarked, "This time last week year I was busy worrying about my church committees and the golf tournament at the country club. Thank you for providing a place where I can worry about caring for real people and real needs."

Another remarked, "I am so burned-out on church work and programs. This Habitat project allowed me to get off all those committees and reenter the real world of relationships. I feel more like I'm worshipping God nailing drywall here than I ever did in our beautiful sanctuary with the full orchestra and choir."

A few actually moved to the neighborhood. Some moved from very nice homes in the suburbs. They talked about how great it was to be able to walk to the grocery store with friends. They liked spending evenings on the street curbs rather than inside watching TV. The longer they lived nearby, the more they talked about how the big plastic malls made them feel dizzy and how the eight-foot-high yard fences they used to have in the suburbs were making less and less sense to them.

Home Away From Home

My own journey in this neighborhood was one from discomfort to comfort, then discomfort again. At first I was intimidated by Garrett Park. It was far more intense than the previous "bad neighborhoods" where I had lived. Later, as I started making new friends, it began to feel like home—a place where I had lived much longer than what the calendar said. People trusted me as a leader. I was able to provide resources they had not had before. Because of our Saturday children's ministry, it was hard to walk very far without being stopped by a child who wanted a hug or to share something with the excitement that only an eight-year-old can express. I don't think I've ever seen so many smiling, hopeful, beautiful children in one neighborhood before that time, or since. At the grocery store, laundry, local restaurants—everywhere I went there were friends, conversations, stories, laughter, and a chance to be the neighborhood pastor. People in the neighborhood acted like they wanted me to make decisions for them. Some were very appreciative of all the new resources and help that was pouring into our streets. My feelings changed from intimidation to a sense that this was my home.

For the most part, I experienced what the Bible says is joy. I think joy can be defined as peace in any circumstance, based on trust in God's character. Some days, I experienced happiness too. Yet there were many health, relationship, medical, and injustice tragedies that were taking place throughout our neighborhood and many days were sad and frustrating.

Much of what I did in Garrett Park came from a genuine sense of love of people and an enjoyment in serving others. Yet, I also began to experience something else—a mixed motive. In a ridiculously short amount of time, I became proud of what I did and where I lived. It made me feel significant. When I was outside of the neighborhood, it gave me a unique identity. In 1988, the seminary decided to focus on our work as the main theme of their fundraising campaign. They filmed us with the children. They filmed the trash in abandoned lots and interviewed us. They asked us to speak at banquets. What before was mostly non-eventful daily life suddenly became exciting and heroic in the sound-bite world.

Yet after the rush of publicity, I started feeling very strange about being in the neighborhood. My mentors had taught me to recruit teams of residents to interface with nonprofit agencies and governmental entities. They told me these residents knew much more about what was needed than I did and that, over time, I would become more in the way than helpful. What they didn't tell me was how addicted I would get to always having to be the hero and how empty it felt to be deadwood in meetings where I formerly was the star.

Often on Saturday nights, we'd sit on the porch and laugh about what we had seen from the "weekenders" that day. There are always a few people from the suburbs who do and say funny things when they first come to a "bad neighborhood." It was easy for us to judge the motives of these "one-day urban warriors" who'd come down, paint a little, get some pictures with our friends, and then leave, smug in their generosity.

One Saturday night as we sat around laughing about things we saw that day, it suddenly dawned on me that I was the only person on the porch who had the financial means to pack up and leave if I wanted to do so. No matter how accepted I was, it still made me an outsider—just another kind of weekender. I just listened that night. It hit me like a kick in the face. As I listened to the banter, I realized in a way, they were talking about me too. While there were many good motives in my heart, I was also a "user" in good Samaritan clothing. I began to wonder, "Why do I really live here?"

Weekenders often wore their insecurities on their sleeves and acted them out in fearful or even condescending ways. I also had deep insecurities, but the longer I lived in the neighborhood, and the more I became the neighborhood leader and pastor, the easier it was for me to hide these fears from myself and others. In a way, that made me much more dangerous to the people I loved in the neighborhood than the weekenders were.

I met with some of the other seminary students in our Discipleship House and slowly began to share how I suspected my mixed motives. Unfortunately, some of them took this all too seriously and decided they would help me on my journey toward finding more of my heart motives. They told me in very astute ways that they saw my motives as far more ugly than what I had allowed myself to see. What I saw in the mirror they provided was hideous. My little venture into false humility was becoming truly humiliating.

Caution: Brokenness Ahead

We kept talking. Each of us has motives this side of heaven that are complex mixtures of good and bad. Urban community living has a way of putting a much-needed spotlight on both the good and the bad inside us. We all dared to ask the hard question of "Why are we really here?"

Some felt they were failures in the suburban social climbing wars and wanted away from the pressure. Others realized they liked the superior feeling of living among people with less money and less education, who needed them. Some of us had self-images shaped by years of legalistic shame or, in some cases, even abusive families. We found that the more ugly the place we lived and the more meanly we were treated, the more it confirmed a misfit self-image with which we were comfortable.

Some of us were facing embarrassing and public crises in our lives and were tired of the strange questions from people searching for the cause. We felt as though they wanted to comfort themselves that their legalistic behavior could keep a similar circumstance from entering their lives. Our self-exile to the ghetto kept these pain-avoiding "formula" Christians away from us. Others in our group realized they had deep pain but were cursed with "Anglo suburban emotional autism" which limited their ability to express pain. They came to the neighborhood to live vicariously through the rich emotional expressiveness of black and brown brothers and sisters—leeching off others' freedom to express their pain. Others liked the way their urban lifestyle made them look cool among suburban friends.

My day job during this period was leading the spiritual formation program at a nearby seminary. Intellectually, we understood that the antithesis of spiritual formation was attempting to make our lives work apart from God. The beginning of spiritual formation is a brokenness of heart, emotions, plans, and strategies so that we would find our only hope in dependence on God. Healthy spiritual formation is like looking through a telescope in one eye to see the character of God, and through a microscope in the other eye to see our own sinful hearts and how our sin contributes to our cynicism about God's character. Over time, our hope in God's character increases as we become less impressed with our own efforts to be godly. Brokenness is a vital part of this journey.

I had lectured on brokenness for years. I had had severe circumstances in my life that had been far more painful than living in a ghetto that I had assumed would automatically lead me to brokenness. I had shared cleanly-edited personal illustrations in the classroom and sermons. I thought I was being so authentic and deep. Yet, as I watched my own ugly and evil motives being revealed, I realized that I was clueless about brokenness.

The definition for what it means to be broken before God is still intensely confusing to me. It is something I know is real when I see it in others or feel it in myself. But it is something that is ridiculous to define and certainly impossible to call up at will.

Yet there is something about urban ministry, when done in honest community, which can help brokenness enter into our lives. And in spite of what every rational thought in us says to the contrary, brokenness is something we really, really want to be part of our daily experience as much as possible.

During this time, for me there was a convergence of many circumstances, good and evil people, good and bad advice, and mostly accidental choices that felt like a 2-by-4 across my face to drive me to the ground in abject surrender before God. I felt like I had two coils of thick, scratchy rope wound tightly around me. The rope that was a result of my own motives and choices was scary. Yet, amazingly, the other rope that felt it was put there by the hand of God was very comforting. I wanted my ropes off, and God's ropes to remain. Surprisingly, I found myself wanting God to limit my freedom, limit my options, limit my rights, limit my success. For the first time, I really trusted the limits He placed in my life. I needed brokenness to get my own fat head out of the way so I could see the delight of God's eyes in me as His creature, who did absolutely nothing in my own strength to earn His gleam of delight.

The Book of Job, some of the laments of David in the Psalms, and much of the prophetic books in the Old Testament describe in rich detail the work of God to bring us to the reality of true brokenness through tough circumstances, honest friends, and severe futility. I was thankful that I had some really severe circumstances combined with some really honest friends to push my face into the realities I was scrambling to avoid.

Yet even severe circumstances, both before and since that time, have never been a sure thing to create authentic brokenness in my heart. In most cases, the more severe the circumstances, the more frantically I scramble to "turn lemons into lemonade"; "to find the pony hidden in the manure pile"; or to "hunker down and outwork the pain." I can always find a very confident group of religious friends who will help me disassociate into an unreal world of spiritual language, false positives, or publicly approved addictive behaviors such as workaholism—all designed to keep the brokenness at bay.

In part, I moved to the urban setting to be where I could be the hero; people would need me and appreciate me and I could make a life that would work for me apart from God. In part I moved to the neighborhood because somewhere deep inside I knew I needed to be broken and surrendered before God. My theory was that I would be most able to be dependent upon God if I were the most unable to control the circumstances surrounding me. It wasn't a bad theory. It might be written in a formula like this:

bad circumstances = brokenness → leads to → spiritual formation

No, it is not a bad formula. But it is not a complete formula. I learned that the formula also needs honest relationships somewhere in the mix. And honest relationships are much harder to find than bad circumstances.

Green Light: Honest Thoughts and Emotions

For most of us, deep honesty rarely comes from individual reflection, intense spiritual discipline, or even massive amounts of religious activity. I am skeptical of deep, honest, one-way communication because it is so controlled by the speaker, and so easy to wrap up by the end of the sermon. And I know how often I use one-way communication of my "deep" brokenness to distract myself and others so I don't have to experience real brokenness. My rule of thumb for myself is that if I am in control of the deep sharing of my heart, then it probably isn't real. In my life, people who have well-developed Crap-O-Meters and aren't afraid to use them in a loving way on me are worth their weight in gold.

The spiritual formation program I was leading at the seminary involved almost 600 students. The best part was that we had to be in an honest group in order to lead an honest group. I had many people speaking hard, truthful things into my life. Since the leaders were both men and women, one of my personal groups was a mixed-gender group. There I learned that women could lead many of us emotionally autistic men past our elaborate intellectual explanations to a deeper emotional place where we had to cry "Uncle!" before each other and God.

But most of our groups were single-gender groups only. So I found a four-page list of "emotion words" from a counselor and copied it for all the men-only groups. It was like we had discovered a lost civilization. We were amazed at how many words the English language has for emotions. We had to look up most of the words in the dictionary because we had heard our mothers, sisters, girlfriends, or wives use them, but we had never bothered to figure out what these words actually meant. As ridiculous as this scene would have looked if we had ever allowed a women to see it (and we did not), as we shared with each other, we pulled out our list of emotion words and coaxed each other to go through the list to find a word that stated most accurately what we felt. It was a formulaic and weird method, but it did actually work.

We found the emotion-word pages actually helped us talk more honestly about the hidden forces inside that could unlock the mysteries of brokenness before God. It changed the depth of our prayers, how we understood the same words in Scripture, and how we preached. And not surprisingly, I had wife after wife of men in these groups who approached me telling me how our groups were making their husbands more expressive. We never told our secret of our emotion-word cheat sheets, but I know a few friends who, to this day, carry them and use them daily like a foreign language pocket translator.

So I had to update my "formula for spiritual growth" to something like:

Bad circumstance + honest friends = brokenness → leads to → greater dependence upon God → which is the key to → spiritual formation

Of course I live as a Christian in a subculture obsessed with finding the formula to control God to make our lives work well, so about the time this formula for spiritual formation makes sense, it would be wise to trash it. God is fairly serious about not letting us control Himself, and He is ultimately the One to form us spiritually. However, the formula helped me capture my learning at that point in my life.

Because of this, for me, the story of urban ministry is also a story of deep, honest, confusing, and often painful relationships that I could not control. Ministry and relationships have to go together. In the urban setting among people of different cultures, I learned that my attempts to make my life work apart from God appeared very foolish to those who were not caught up in my particular style of the same rat race. As far as those of us in the Discipleship House, we realized that every one of us had come to the neighborhood largely for selfish motives, masquerading them as something selfless. But somehow the urban landscape, the added conflicts of being in close proximity to each other, the frank questions of the locals who could smell our attitudes of superiority, and the extra time spent on the porches had made us all the more human. We were less impressed with ourselves, and on a few particularly good days, more in love with this place and the people that had saved us from living the plastic, hidden lives that money and privilege offered as an option.

We realized that most of us originally saw the city as a place of so many problems that we were unable to see it as a place of so many blessings. It was a place to visit and fix. It was a place to use to validate our personal sense of significance. We thought we had come to this ugly, broken place to be soundbite heroes. Instead, we met heroes who already lived there and they became a blessing to us. It is the great irony of life in the city.

Red Lights: Stop to See the Substance

By the early 1990s, they tore down our house on the corner because it didn't meet the standards of a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood and replaced it with a Habitat home. I moved to plant and pastor a church in another "bad neighborhood" nearby, even closer to downtown. Today, the Garrett Park neighborhood has stylish urban condos right next to our Habitat homes. Not too far away are brand-new buildings built to look like old warehouses. They are full of expensive lofts—built to look old but with the latest commercial kitchens and electrical gadgets. There are upscale markets and food shops nearby; stylish restaurants mixed in with the original pool hall dives; and old bars that look the same as they always did. The city is being regentrified. My former neighbors are being forced to move to the first ring of suburbs just outside the first freeway loop that encircles our city. Their bus rides to work are now at least 30 minutes longer. They are in broken-down apartment complexes built in the 1970s rather than the 1940s. They have to work much harder to find the natural community spaces they left behind.

Urban has now become chic. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood communicated idealism through suburban-based sitcoms such as The Brady Bunch and Happy Days. A dominant style of dress was the suburban inspired "preppie." Today, the sitcoms and feature movies that spotlight people with "exciting lives" are largely set in urban settings. In contrast, movies such as American Beauty, The Stepford Wives, and sitcoms, including Desperate Housewives, and others set in suburban settings often portray that life as boring and severely dysfunctional. At an urban clothing store you can buy ultra-chic clothes copying designs birthed in the 'hood. Suburban school students mimic the walk, dress, speech, and music styles of inner-city gangs. What used to be slums are now ultra-chic urban-styled malls.

It doesn't mean that poverty, prejudice, injustice, inequality, pain, crime, disease, drugs, violence, and alienation have been solved. All it means is that, in some cases, these have been dispersed from former urban pockets to new ones in different locations. In most cases, it means these same old problems are hidden better behind a new community center, an urban strip mall, or an economic zone that distracts attention from the massive problems a few streets beyond them.

For those of us in urban ministry, we realize that the world has suddenly learned of the beauty of the city. People are attracted to the diversity, community, and texture of the city. Yet, while they may have found the beauty, in most cases they are missing the substance of what makes the city truly beautiful. Brokenness before God is the true treasure that the city can bring if a person is pursuing it. But the same people who in the first generation moved to the suburbs to escape the pain of being too close to their neighbor are now moving back to the city in the second generation to escape the pain of isolation. Escaping pain is rarely in any formula for genuine brokenness. And as I look at the pristine condos with warehouse-like exteriors, it seems like we are attempting to re-make a new city with false promises of only green lights. But it is the red lights—where we must stop and experience our and others' need of the King—that create the great strength of the city.

Personal Reflection

Most of us go to the city at first simply to help people, make some new friends, and maybe make a small difference in someone's life. Just getting involved and seeing what happens is the best way to open our hearts to what God wants to teach us.

Yet not long into our urban ministry journey, we experience both intense joy and frustration. These intense experiences in the midst of reflection and relationships can facilitate a parallel spiritual formation journey that opens up whole new ways to reflect on God and His work in our lives.

The best place to start on this second parallel journey is exploring God's presence in your own story. There is an art and a unique love in telling your story in a way that releases someone else's deeper story. Your story is given to you by God. In building relationships in the city, your story is a treasure more valuable than any expertise, time, or money you bring.

The high points of your story (your successes) may impress people, but the hard times (your failures) are what inspire their trust in you. It takes much practice to share the pain of your life authentically without hiding behind stoicism or over-dramatization. There is much about spiritual formation that seems contrary to logic. There is much about urban ministry that empowers the poor, rather than just meets a need, that also seems contrary to logic. An often repeated saying among urban ministry veterans is, "If you are going to start with need, start with your own." I'll explain that in more detail later, but at this point it is important to start by learning to share the part of your story that shows you have needs too.

Urban ministry that leads to spiritual growth always involves ever-deepening relationships with people like you, not like you, and even people who don't like you. So, as you prepare to move deeper into urban ministry—and hopefully toward brokenness before God—the best starting place is your own story. As you tell your story, include:

Your passion:

Each of us has a story of how we've become drawn to the city. What has made you consider urban ministry as part of your personal call?




What has caused the city to be a place that you increasingly call home in spite of all the things you experience there that are painful and frustrating?




Why do you find your energy increase and your senses sharpen the more you live, develop relationships, and minister in the city?




Your pain:

What have been the hardest times in your life?




Where have you failed or found yourself just confused?




What is one time of your life that you wish you could have fast-forwarded through or avoided?




As you think about your life right now, what do you find as something you fear?




Something you wish would change?




Something that you worry about and perhaps even cry about?




Your heart:

Why are you involved in urban ministry?


Look at the following reasons why people minister in the city—both the good reasons and the not-so-good. Which two or three ring most true to you?

  1. I grew up in the city. This is my home; these are my family and friends. Urban ministry is what God gave me as my life.
  2. I grew up in many kinds of poverty, but God graciously delivered me. Now I am back among the poor because I know their hearts. I want them to experience the hope I have found.
  3. I didn't grow up in the heart of the city, but now urban ministry is where I feel at home. I fit here. It is where I most experience true worship of God.
  4. When I minister in the city, I feel needed. My ideas are respected. I enjoy the sense of being important and useful.
  5. Urban ministry gives me a style, a unique story, and a way to be set apart from everyone else.
  6. I minister in the city because that is what God commands. It is often not enjoyable or comfortable, but it is my calling.
  7. In urban ministry, my work has concrete and immediate results in peoples lives. I like the practicality of helping people overcome obstacles in measurable ways.
  8. Urban ministry is a fascinating learning experience. I love meeting and knowing many diverse people. I minister in the city because it is interesting and full of new experiences.
  9. I minister in the city because I am selfish and God is using this work to open up my heart to love in deeper ways. My spirit is impoverished and I find my relationships with people who are financially impoverished bring riches to my heart.
  10. I minister in the city, but to the powerful. My call is to change systems of injustice. God has given me a position of influence that I want to use to benefit the vulnerable. I also have a calling to my peers. I am in the city to give true hope to those who are addicted to the false gods of power, fame, and wealth.
  11. I don't know why the city is such a magnet for me. I hope to learn more through this study.
  12. I'm not really involved in the city but am curious about it. I hope to see through this study if this is something that piques my interest.

Recognizing we all have mixed motives this side of heaven, how would you answer your reasons for focusing on city ministry? Take a moment to write a paragraph or two about your reasons for being involved in the city using a few of the 12 reasons above as a beginning place for your thoughts. It is hoped that over the course of this study, you will be able to answer this question with new clarity and understanding of your call.

Bible Reflection

Read Psalm 107.

When have you experienced times of wilderness, chains, rebellion, or tempest?




When have you experienced times of being safe, settled, and fruitful?




How did you experience God during both times of trouble and times of blessing?




How has the city or cross-cultural experiences/relationships contributed to both pain and joy in your life?




How do you hope this study will help you experience:




Brokenness: "cry out to the Lord in your trouble,"




Gratitude: "thank God for his unfailing love and wonderful deeds," and




Worship: "consider the great love of the Lord" (Psalm 107)?




How do you hope this study will help you see a bigger God than you now know?