Church plants and mercy ministries may be increasingly popular in inner-city contexts, but the difficulties overwhelm many well-meaning Christians. Churches with hopes of change but poverty of wisdom and experience can burn out or become disillusioned. So how can churches and mercy ministries persevere with joy and hope?
I talked with Nathan Ivey, pastor of mercy ministry at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, who have maintained a thriving ministry to the difficult neighborhood of Shelby Park for eight years. I asked Nathan to help pastors gain wisdom so they can minister with mercy and grace.
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Sojourn Community Church has a pretty developed mercy ministry now, but how did you get started? What would you say to a church who may not have the resources to fulfill all their dreams but need to get started somewhere?
N.jpgIt began with the conviction that God commands us, the gospel compels us, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to go, show, and proclaim the love of God among the poor and vulnerable.
Early on we did a lot of listening. We started prayer walking and listening to God. We joined our neighborhood association, met business leaders, and interviewed government officials. We listened, and then we loved.
We chose 30 needs we could address and commissioned our small groups into the neighborhood. We filled up hundreds of bags of trash, washed more cars and dogs than we can remember, cleaned gutters, raked leaves, and washed windows. The key was simple Word-and-deed ministry.
We didn't have a budget, but we didn't need one. What we needed and what God provided was a desire to reach our neighborhood with the gospel. We've been faithful, and we've kept at it. Today, relationships that began eight years ago have led to conversions and ministries that now address basic needs, medical care, affordable housing, economic development, and leadership training.
What kind of neighborhood do you reach? What are the challenges?
Sojourn's largest campus is located in Shelby Park, one of Louisville's historic neighborhoods. It's got a rich history and beautiful 16-acre park. In recent decades, the average household income has fallen to less than $20,000 per year. Most houses are more than 100 years old, and many need repair; some have been abandoned. Jobs are scarce, along with quality education and alternative activities for children. It's both challenging and exciting; and we thank God for locating us in this place.
What setbacks do leaders face that can cause discouragement, frustration, or the desire to quit? How do you overcome that discouragement and persevere?
BHXIt5nCMAA3-AxI've experienced most frustration when I secretly want Sojourn (or myself) to be known more than Jesus. Motivation is tricky, and I've seen leaders fall for lack of humility. The length of time it takes time to build solid relationships discourages most. Cross-cultural/class differences combine with limited resources and busy schedules; doing justice requires sacrifice for both the poor and powerful.
Early on, we emphasized projects over people. I remember we all wanted to quit because it was so overwhelming. Thank God he humbled us and shifted our focus to raising up local leaders, who are the future of the church. We also aim for community participation, which is a foundational principle for long-term sustainable neighborhood change.
I've found that true perseverance begins with remembering that God loves me. His grace is sufficient. Pleading for a fresh experience of God's grace is a regular rhythm, because I understand that those in the best position to show mercy are the ones who have received it.
How does Sojourn train leaders to serve in difficult inner-city contexts? How would you encourage churches to begin training?
We pray and work hard at providing timely, theologically rich, and contextualized training. Most training occurs as the church serves together. At our medical clinics, for example, we equip servants just one hour before they spend all day with families in medical need.
Every year we are looking for college grads that will join the URBN Experience. It's a leadership program for graduates, mercy leaders, and church planters. These leaders spend a year on the ground living in homes restored by the church. They learn to relate to the poor and powerful alike, experience urban stressors, minister through Word and deed daily, and receive aggressive, rigorous training by proven church leaders. URBN chisels leaders unlike any classroom-only curriculum.
If you are just starting out, prayer walk your neighborhood. Choose a book for study, but spend half your classroom time on the street applying what you read. We've been doing this for years and have met hundreds of people this way.
How can pastors and churches assess the needs of their neighborhood?
You don't want to guess the needs of your neighborhood; you can waste a lot of time that way. The best way is to personally go and ask. Here are five questions we asked when we first started.
How long have you lived in this community?
What do you like best about this community? (These are clues to where God is already at work.)
What changes would you like to see that could make life better in this community? (These are clues to their greatest felt needs.)
Do you have any ideas about ways a caring church could make a difference? (These are clues to discern how you can meet those needs.)
Can you share a story when people or organizations helped one another out or had a positive effect on the neighborhood? (These are clues to acceptable pathways for service.)
How can pastors identify leaders to equip and appoint? How can I know my heart is prepared for such a task and then be able to see it in others?
Above all things, I encourage pastors to restore the biblical office of deacon. Churches must pray for and train up men and women full of the Holy Spirit who will creatively address the needs of the poor in ways that deploy the various gifts of the body.
You know your heart is on the right track when you realize that only Jesus' work on the cross can save your city and ultimately meet the needs of the poor. Find others who realize this, and your mercy ministry will take off.
John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.