Across the years, I have watched many churches leave the inner city or declining neighborhoods for the suburbs. This was usually predicated on the reality of flight by members of the church to churches in newer and more prestigious areas of the city.
The church I pastored in Oklahoma City was on the edge of the inner city, and I remember well families leaving for the suburbs because their children were being mixed with “those kids.” Before you take me wrong, please understand that I do not fault people for making those decisions. Each person has to make his own decision and determine the leadership of the Lord.
I have seen churches determine to stay in the difficult areas of their city and try to impact the areas—I applaud those who do so. This decision cost these churches membership, and the challenge is great. I believe our churches need to be salt and light, and not abandon tough areas.
I have rarely seen churches willing to purposely move into the tough communities and into areas of great need. I have great admiration for pastors who lead their churches to take on communities that are infested with broken lives and broken families.
During our state mission emphasis, we featured a church planted in one of the most difficult neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. This church committed to impact the school and community with the love of Christ. For them, no neighborhood should be abandoned. In fact, they intentionally moved to the tough neighborhood! The sentimentality and warm feelings birthed by a warm heart toward those in need wears off quickly. Ministry in this kind of place is just hard work. There will be many failures with two steps forward and three steps back. But there are victories—a marriage saved or put back together, a child redeemed from drugs or an alcoholic given a chance to change. Oh, how sweet it is!
Recently, I had the privilege of worshipping and preaching in a similar kind of church. The pastor started this church with the intention of moving into one of the toughest areas of Lawton; an area with prostitution, drugs and every manner of evil. Poverty is everywhere, but the church decided to plant itself where the needs were the greatest.
Pastors of churches in the inner cities and tough neighborhoods have to be strong and dependent on the Lord in ways pastors of other churches do not. There is never enough leadership to meet all the needs. There is rarely enough money because the members come from broken lives and poverty. But my pastor friend has not let that stop him. He is pastor of a multi-ethnic church, and everybody is welcome regardless of their situation or how bad their background. Teens who would be rejected by some groups find friendship and the love of Christ.
This church in a tough community opens its doors to hurting families and provides emergency shelter and food. But in the midst of all the efforts to raise people out of the mire, the Gospel is proclaimed and believed. And while these churches meet the physical needs of people, be assured they are Gospel-centered churches and lives are being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is at work in and through these great churches.
When we measure a church and call it great, we often do so by its size, wealth and influence. I would suggest churches who plow into the tough spots, serve the community with the love of Christ and preach the Gospel to the brokenhearted and downtrodden should be called great.
Hats off to the churches who stay in the tough spots. And double appreciation for those who intentionally and strategically plant their lives in the inner cities and tough neighborhoods to become the hands, feet and voice of Christ.
Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.