Defining Seventh-day Adventist Urban Ministry
How do we define a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) urban ministry? Beyond a definition, is there a strategy for an SDA Urban Ministry? When I started this blog a year ago (here), my initial series of articles defined the five circles of Christian compassion (here). This article is the first of a short series of musings on the topic of urban ministry from my perspective as a manager of a large SDA community service center.
In early September 2018, I attended the Seventh-day Adventist Urban Mission & Ministry Congress hosted at Andrews University. The remnants of the conference, including some videos, are archived on the conference Facebook page (here). The publication Adventist Today wrote several articles in summary of the event (here, here, and here). At the conference, I made some great connections with other ministry leaders, heard some great workshops, but overall, I was a bit disappointed by the randomness of the conference. I was hoping to hear about a coherent Seventh-day Adventist urban ministry strategy, but there was the scant discussion of theology and no strategic framework presented. Following the conference, I began pondering what an urban ministry strategy might look like. This exploration starts by asking two questions that shape the dimensions of urban ministries for the Adventist Church.
1) What is our theology? The first question is about the theology that we bring to ministry in general. If we define that theology as a closed set of doctrinal truths (e.g., 28 fundamental beliefs enforced by five compliance committees), it will lend itself to one type of urban ministry. If our theology is more permeable, allowing for more diversity of beliefs, it will bring a more dynamic expression to the work associated with an urban ministry.
2) What is our orientation? A related question that further defines urban ministry is a question about the theological endpoint. Where along the continuum of church membership to an open community do we anchor our work? If membership in the Seventh-day Adventist church is the goal, then it defines one model of urban ministry and if the endpoint is community-building, then it represents a different intention.
Visualize a matrix where we place theology and orientation on two axes. Theology is situated on a vertical axis, with a closed theology at one end and an open theology at the other end. Orientation is on the horizontal axis with membership at one end, and a community is the other end. When portrayed in this fashion, the resulting two-by-two matrix forms a framework for urban ministry comprising four models.
Evangelism – In the quadrant where the theology orients towards the closed or fixed adherence to the 28 fundamental beliefs of Seventh-day Adventism, the goal is to help people become compliant members of the church. The urban ministry of this box is focused on the traditional “big tent” evangelism. Often framed as Daniel and Revelation seminars with descriptors like, “An eye-opening series about the end-times that will strengthen your faith and give you hope for your future.” Success or failure of this type of ministry is measured by the number of individuals baptized or brought into the church. Often to be successful, it relies on activating churches already in the ministry area and depends on local churches successfully integrating new converts.
Community Service – In this quadrant, the theology orients towards a closed or fixed theology, but the outreach is intended to reach the community through services that are defined by the theology of the SDA church. Specifically, such outreach includes meeting basic needs like food and clothing or offering health evangelism (e.g., cooking classes, smoking cessation workshops). The intent of providing services is to be an entering wedge for spiritual conversations about the uniqueness of Adventism. Some might argue that this box represents the precursor ministry of traditional evangelism. Success might be defined by food boxes or clothing distributed, cooking school attendance, and the number of resulting Bible study interest cards filled out. The focus is still on moving community members into a fixed doctrinal position. This type of urban ministry is typically an outreach of existing churches.
Church Planting – The third quadrant of the matrix is where a more open theology combines with a membership focus. Unlike “big tent” evangelism, the theology of this box supports a broader understanding of the 28 fundamental beliefs and more tolerance of diversity in one’s theological orientation. While there is more flexibility in thinking, helping people to become members of the church is still the goal. The opportunity of this quadrant is strategic church planting. The urban ministry of a church plant gives autonomy to a smaller community of like-minded believers who minister to the needs of urban geography. It also offers the ability to actively foster a culture of flexible thinking, tolerance, and acceptance.
Community Support – The fourth quadrant of the matrix has universal aims. It combines a clear focus on community coupled with an open theology. The urban ministry represented by this box can be called community support. It is not merely concerned with “delivering” community service but engaging in multifaceted support that builds the community. Rather than a model of a church, the model of community support is more like a less threatening church foyer that provides an ongoing and open invitation to spiritual dialogue. Universal acceptance of the worth of all people is more important than an irrefutable theology. Of the four models of urban ministry providing community support has the potential of being threatening to a compliance-driven vision of a Church structure. This model is more concerned with creating a community of safety and acceptance instead of doctrinal purity. However, this is the quadrant where the Church can potentially demonstrate the most relevance to the community. (1)
In this article, while I may have a strong personal bias, I am not advocating for any one model. Each model has strengths and weaknesses and must be considered in context. Further, in no way am I representing this as a fully defined urban ministry framework. It is meant to provoke thought and conversation. Future articles in this series will continue to unpack the concepts underlying this model. I invite you to help clarify and deepen the dimension of this model. After all, together, we are a community of service.
I welcome your thoughts.
(1) Christ came to this world to show that by receiving power from on high, man can live an unsullied life. With unwearying patience and sympathetic helpfulness, He met men in their necessities. By the gentle touch of grace, He banished from the soul unrest and doubt, changing enmity to love, and unbelief to confidence. —Ellen White, The Ministry of Healing