4 Steps to Become an Urban Missionary

Lately the way I think of ministry has changed, expanding out of the traditional pastorate, becoming something more organic. It feels like ministry is starting to mean being a leader in the community. And by ‘leader,’ I mean someone who serves the community, cares for it and is an influence for good in their local contexts. This is new to me, and it’s still a work in progress. I am still processing what it all means and looks like, but here’s what I’ve learned so far. Ministry means being a leader in the community. Click To Tweet

Pastor to urban missionary

I enjoyed my time as pastor of a church. I think it’s a wonderful calling that we need to take seriously and respect. However, I also think that God is calling people who have a heart for and focus on God’s kingdom as it manifests in the neighborhood. This kind of leadership role is also crucial and we need to invest in those who hear God’s call to serve in their neighborhoods and see it as a place where God is at work.

This is essentially missionary work, but I don’t want to disassociate pastoring and mission here. If we are leaders in a church, we are called to join with God on his mission and if we are workers in our neighborhoods, this is also pastoral work in the sense that it means caring for and nurturing the community that we are a part of.

My journey from pastor to missionary has led me to make a few shifts in the way that I relate to God, the church and my neighborhood . I want to highlight that in this article. I think established churches may be able to learn from these shifts to become more missional in identity and methodology. If we are leaders in a church, we are called to join with God on his mission. Click To Tweet

I. Learn what God is doing in the neighborhood.

Instead of asking “What is God doing in my church?” I am now more likely to ask, “What is God doing in the neighborhood?” When I was leading a church, my questions were usually “God what are you doing in this church?” “Lord what do you want us to do next?” So my focus was ecclesio-centric and my main concern was with the way God was at work in my church.

Of course that make sense considering the role of the pastor, shepherding the congregation, listening to the Lord’s direction. I’m not saying those things are bad. It’s just that if it stops there, it can result in the leadership being focused on the church rather than what God is doing outside the church.

That can begin to shape the church towards an inward posture rather than focusing on mission. It’s not something we intend to do as pastors but we are used to paying so much attention to the church that we forget or marginalize the fact that God is active in the world. So making a shift from asking “What is God doing in the church?” to “What is God doing in my neighborhood?” can have radical consequences. A simple move like this can reorient the church. Click To Tweet

A simple move like this can reorient the church. The church can begin to shift from focusing on itself, to instead, the mission of God in the world through the church. We let go of getting caught up in the internal machinations of the church and focus on what the church can do for the community in which it is placed.

II. Working in step with God’s timing rather than “ministry” rhythms.

When I was a pastor in a church, there were established rhythms, structures, events and programs that the leadership needed to maintain, pour their energy into and develop. That meant how I did ministry, the speed at which I did ministry and the shape of ministry was predetermined in many ways.

Once a certain way of doing things becomes established and set it’s hard to change that. That’s why often, starting up new ministries or churches is easier in some ways, than changing already established churches or ministries. But being a missionary or a leader in my neighborhood has meant thinking about doing ministry in God’s timing and rhythms. It has meant thinking about a new “work ethic” that functions more in God’s timing, at God’s speed and is responsive to God’s promptings.

As leaders we plan, set goals and steer the church in the direction that we feel is right. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, but I’m wondering what room we make for God, especially when He’s moving slower than we want.

That doesn’t mean God can’t or doesn’t do things quickly. It just means that God often moves at a different pace than I do. God’s plans are quite different to mine. Over and over for the past year working in my neighborhood I have made plans and set goals. Over and over for the past year God has undone my plans, refocused, redirected and disoriented me. And it has been slow, delightful and surprising. God’s plans are quite different to mine, as is his timing. Click To Tweet

III. Consider action a sacrament.

As someone who preaches and teaches, I’m interested in thoughts and concepts. I love analyzing beliefs and doctrines. Often in churches we are focused on good teaching and making sure that our doctrine is correct. We trust that God is at work in our thinking, guiding our thoughts to see him correctly. I believe that’s important. But God is also in our actions. True, God works in our thoughts, but He also works in action. Click To Tweet

Action has a sacramental component. What I mean by that is that as we take a step of action, God is present and meets us in our act of courage. So faith in God is not only about what we believe about God, but evidencing that as we take a step and act out what we believe. That’s actually when we experience the presence of God.

This made me think about taking steps of faith to embody the gospel in my neighborhood. I not only read and think about what it means to be on God’s mission in my neighborhood, but I take action to live that out. I’m running a course in my neighborhood for people to explore spirituality and even though it’s certainly a space to explore concepts, we always commit to embodying what we have learned in the session. The first thing we ask each other when we meet up the following week is, “How did you put what we learned last week into practice?” Action has a sacramental component. Click To Tweet

IV. Infusing work with spirituality. 

Often with ministry leadership in the church, I would separate ministry and living out my life as a disciple of Jesus. That was my experience. I unintentionally compartmentalized my life as a follower of Jesus and would separate my work for God from my life in God. It often meant that ministry felt very burdensome and lacking in rest. I unintentionally compartmentalized my life as a follower of Jesus Click To Tweet

As a leader working with God’s mission in my neighborhood, I’m trying to think about what it means to live an intentional but holistic life for God rather than a compartmentalized one. That means whatever I am doing, whether it’s having a coffee at a local café with my neighbor, walking the streets in my community or planning a session for a small group meeting in my neighborhood, I keep in mind the question, “How am I joining with God on his mission today?”

And whatever I do on God’s mission must be restful rather than ultimately stressful, it must be joyful and embodying the values of the kingdom. More leaders are beginning to understand that programs are not able to replace “way of life” discipleship. Leaders are realizing that being a faithful presence in the world is what God asks of us and we are to leave the transformation up to God.

Instead of massive events and highly coordinated programs, Christians are seeing the value in simply embodying the gospel and living out the good news in their community. As we do this we find that it becomes instinctive or second nature to then invite others to join us on the story of God that we are living. Christians are seeing the value in simply embodying the gospel Click To Tweet

Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (here) says, “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible.”

It’s encouraging to see more Christians understanding the importance of practicing this faithful presence in their communities. Pastoring and missionary work are both important however, perhaps established churches can learn from missionaries in their context and can moreover empower and support them to work with God on his mission in the local neighborhood.

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