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Church and Empire

Church and Empire

The question: Can a church run by privileged people who have little to no firsthand knowledge of systemic oppression effectively minister to oppressed folks?

The answer: Probably not.

In a blog post provocatively entitled, “Urban Church Planting Plantations,” Christena Cleveland discusses the phenomenon of suburban, wealthy, and mostly white churches venturing into urban areas to practice ministry without due care and attention to the churches and ministries already there, often to the detriment of those churches.

One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in.

Cleveland equates this “empire” approach to church planting to the perpetuation of inequitable power dynamics that favor those already privileged.

Privilege says I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them).

Privilege says that the largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped. For far too long, suburban pastors have ignored the perspectives and gifts of urban pastors.

Cleveland has a few suggestions for suburban churches who want to make their outreach and its results look more like “the family of God.” But unless they are prepared to give up their privilege, she says, nothing will change.

The better, more honoring path requires equity – which is costly. Just ask the rich, young ruler. Jesus asked him to reject his empire approach to life, stop being so possessive about his possessions, and join the interdependent family of God.

“Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” – Mark 12:21

The rich young ruler wasn’t able to do it. It was too costly, and he was too invested in building his own empire.

“Suburban churches,” says Cleveland, “Jesus is talking to you.”

Are you involved in urban ministry? Do you recognize Cleveland’ portrait of the urban ministry landscape? Read her essay in full here.

Posted by Rosalind Hughes


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Ann Fontaine

The best thing that sticks with me from CPE- do not go anywhere thinking you are bringing Jesus to anyone- be quiet and listen – you will learn just how far God is ahead of you.

Philip Snyder


Now, I have been with people who do not know Jesus and I introduce them to him. But I didn’t “bring” Jesus there. He was already there waiting to be introduced.

George A. Bennett

I had the same experience. I know it’s not the church’s fault….but there seems to be a not so thin layer of pride attached to our ‘works’. It took some time for me…but that veil is gone now. I now see myself as someone that is in Fellowship with Believers, whether they be living at the shelter, on the street, or in a 4 million dollar home. I don’t allow myself to get hung up on the word ‘privileged’, (I disagree w/above definitions). In my opinion, if we’re privileged, that is something to be grateful to God for, not guilty of. This life is but a vapor. And Jesus is coming soon. God uses those who are available to serve, and He will work it out to His glory.

Philip Snyder

I will never forget the first time I went to prison as part of a Kairos prison ministry team. I was so proud of myself – I was going to bring Jesus into this dark place that so badly needed him.
Once I got there, my mind was turned upside down and my vision of what I was going to do was dashed to the ground by the Holy Spirit. I found out that I was not taking Jesus anywhere he didn’t already exist. Jesus was present in the Beto Maximum Security Prison and he wore the white uniform of an inmate.

Now, I go in about once a month to check on how Jesus is doing there.

Ministry to an unfamiliar place often follows this same pattern. You know of a need and are moved to meet that need with the time, talent, and treasure that God has given you. In your zeal to fulfill God’s call, you forget that God has prepared the way for you and that God is not calling you to bring His presence there, but to work with His presence there to strengthen it. The first step to ministering in any unfamiliar place is to learn about it and the people there. Be quiet and learn how God is moving already so that you can join God’s vision for that place.

Philip B. Spivey

A course in miracles for us all. Thank you, Philip Snyder.

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