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