I had an interesting conversation with a young pastor recently. His inner-city church has a long and storied history, but over the last 20 years, attendance has dropped dramatically. This pastor is doing what very few young guys desire or are willing to do—he is responding to God’s call to lead this declining-in-attendance church, which is surrounded by thousands of unchurched and unreached people. To most young preachers, the suburbs and church planting look far more attractive.
During our lunch he posed some rather pointed questions, one of which has always troubled me personally. Why are there churches full of people with gifts and talents who are unwilling to forgo the ease of sitting in church for the privilege of serving? His question hit the target squarely.
I know something about the inner city. I was privileged to shepherd a strong and vibrant church on the edge of the inner city, and I discovered rather quickly that this wasn’t the suburbs. Attracting visitors to our church did not happen by passing out fliers, having slick advertisements or television commercials. It took work and the people actively engaging friends and residents in the neighborhoods around us. We were fortunate in that we were blessed with many gifted members. The church was strong when I arrived, and we were able to grow.
These days, many inner-city churches in Tulsa and Oklahoma City are struggling for survival. Their facilities strangle them financially and atmospherically. Scores of leaders have long since fled to churches that have strong youth groups and big ministry. Please do not mistake my statements as being judgmental. I’m simply stating facts.
We must win the cities. The core of our cities, where thousands live and where neighborhoods are gentrifying, are in need of churches that are vibrant and Gospel centered. Yet many of our churches in the inner city are hanging on for dear life. They need help.
My purpose is not to offer a prescription for renewal. There is not enough space in this article. No, my objective is to challenge us to consider our service to Christ and His Church. Is it possible that some of us would be willing to leave our comfort zone to help revitalize churches in the inner core of the city for the sake of the Gospel?
Many of these churches need musicians, teachers and leaders. Are there churches that would be willing to come alongside these congregations and invest people and resources in them? Can partnerships be formed with suburban churches solely for the purpose of securing a powerful witness for the Gospel in the inner city? Are there leaders and servants who once served faithfully but are now sitting on the pew, who would be willing to invest in a place that needs them?
These inner city churches will also need to make dramatic changes. Are these churches that are surrounded by a sea of people willing to change in order to reach their neighborhoods with the Gospel? Will they surrender to the will of the Spirit of God and focus on the lost sheep around them?
As pastor of that church I mentioned, I often contemplated relocating it to the suburbs. Occasionally, a church member would suggest such a move. Each time, I would go to my knees; and the answer—always in the form of questions—invariably came back the same. Where is a church needed more than right here? Where are there more people in need while so few try to reach them than in the inner city? There are many vital churches in the ’burbs. Why abandon such a needy place?
I thank God for this young pastor, his people and the other churches just like them who are willing to face the challenges of the inner city. We as Baptists must find ways to come alongside with resources and people to help them.
Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.