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Making The Urban Church Work

by Thomas Scarborough

Thirteen years ago, I was called from middle-class suburbia to a historical Protestant Church in urban Cape Town. The years since then mark a period in which there have been significant shifts in urban Churches the world over — shifts which have not passed our own Church by. Yet where I sought advice for the growing chaos and pressures of our situation, there was almost none to be found. This was clearly pioneering territory. A U.S. pastor in a similar situation wrote to me recently: “You’re right that there is little in the way of precedence for advising churches like these, but I think it is the wave of the future — especially in urban areas. The American church has yet to wake up to this as we continue to retreat to the suburbs.”

Thirteen years ago, South Africa stood just before its first fully democratic elections. Our seaside suburb had previously been classified White. It was one of Africa’s wealthiest suburbs — well-ordered and generally staid. Today, the area has become a haven for thousands of African refugees. The pavements are cluttered with kiosks, and mini-van taxis race up and down, their boom-boxes rattling the Church’s windows. While the suburb retains much of its upmarket gloss, it now also has much of the life and colour of an African township.

In fact, Churches the world over have suddenly found themselves surrounded with new cultures: Hispanic, Chinese, Armenian, Malawian, and many more. Yet I have visited several Churches which, strangely, seemed unable to integrate such cultures at all. I would think this is a litmus test of spiritual health.

Thirteen years ago, our Church was an estimated 80% English-speaking by birth. Today, this applies to less than 40%. This is just one indicator of radical cultural shifts. Further, where our Church previously held serene and well-ordered services, we now experience, on some Sundays, a high degree of good-natured “disruptive chaos”. Not only this, but our office is like a bazaar, Church leaders have found it difficult to cope with increased disorder, and the minister would seem to be virtually under siege.

While our challenges continue, I believe that our Church has solved core problems of the urban Church. The purpose of this article is to outline both the problems and the solutions that our own Church has found in a fast changing situation — in the hope that this might serve as a stimulus to others who are wrestling with such issues.

Here are some of the things I believe we have done right — more or less in order of priority or prominence:

1. CHRIST FOCUSED. I believe the best thing that our Church possesses is devotion to Jesus Christ. This undergirds its capacity to be open to change at all. Christ is pre-eminent, and everything else takes second place. This means that issues which might have ruffled us thirteen years ago have largely become non-issues. We are flexible. A few lights smashed by the Church Youth, revolutionary emblems on T-shirts, breastfeeding in the pews, and so on, are not of concern — not to speak of trifles such as how the flowers are arranged, or whether items were correctly announced in Church. It is about the worship and service of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything is referenced to Christ — and the congregation understands that.

2. SCRIPTURE “NEAT”. We have developed a strong emphasis on letting the Bible speak for itself. We seek to present central biblical themes as far as possible without dilution or rationalisation. In fact, the African city is frequently a place of severe trauma and turmoil, so that people have little interest in platitudes or pleasant anecdotes or vain talk about human solutions where human agency is clearly powerless. They want the Word of God “neat”. Not only this, but the message may need to be presented simply (though not superficially), to accommodate various cultures and classes. When the Church suffered huge losses to the Barbarian invasions in Europe around 600 A.D., it decided on a plan, which turned out to be very successful: “The essential weapon was preaching.” Not only that, but the preachers were instructed “above all to refrain from ‘bombastic pathos’.” (Daniel-Rops 1950:258).

3. SPEED IT UP. Ours used to be a society that turned over about once every generation. Now one needs to think in terms of months instead. About a third of our congregation turns over each year, and in some neighbouring Churches this is higher. This requires a significant mind-shift if one has previously ministered in suburbia, where every new family is an event, and every loss of members a trauma. Perhaps the biggest change we have made is to speed up all our processes. This includes the membership process (without lowering requirements), and prompt invitations to newcomers to give their testimonies or to lead prayers in Church, to give a few examples. This enriches the Church, it speeds up reception of Christians into the Body, it speeds up the assimilation of societal changes by the Church, and it serves to mature Christians.

4. INDIGENOUS HELP. Inner city Churches are likely to expand among the “labouring classes”. Today, nearly half of our congregation falls in the lowest income category, whereas previously it was a wealthy Church. Such dynamics may present a special challenge if there is growth in numbers, since the common solution of hiring extra staff may not be an option. Wilmer Villacorta, Adjunct Professor of Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, advises that one should mentor persons “indigenous to the communities of change”. Such “mentoring”, in our case, mostly means throwing them in at the deep end! I believe God does not send a crisis of numbers without providing the necessary solution. Again, this may require much faster movement than one has been accustomed to in the past. A colleague in a similar situation gave me the advice: “Just move, move. And trust God for the rest.” We have found a solution in this.

5. CULTURE. Inner-city Churches are frequently cosmopolitan. One finds various approaches to culture and language in a multi-cultural Church. In our situation, it might be true to say that we minimise the emphasis on culture — that is, it is “just there”, it is a given. In fact, any talk about ethnicity or culture is mostly frowned upon by the congregation, and I have wondered whether an accent on culture might be counter-productive to such a Church. With there being a strong mix of languages in the Church, we encourage people to use a little of their own languages in public worship — a Xhosa song here, a Portuguese prayer there — however, the congregation should be able to gain a “rolling impression” of all events in English. For example, an Afrikaans item might have an English introduction. Our light display in the street also uses various languages.

6. GOD’S OPPORTUNITIES. Planning in the inner city may be a hit and miss affair — in our case, a major reason is that one-third of workers in the Church have no fixed weekly schedule. We have shifted rather to a sensitivity to God’s opportunities. One encounters “God’s surprising interventions” in the inner city (Bakke 1997:104). I witnessed an extraordinary example of this on Skid Row in Los Angeles, where a large children’s ministry was born after Grady Martine, of Central City Community Outreach, found a young girl alone on a staircase. It all began with a conversation with one child. Our Church’s own burgeoning Youth group was born when three youngsters inexplicably turned up at the Church gate, insistent that they were there for Youth. After three weeks, we let them in. It was God-given.

7. FIRMNESS. The inner city can be a vicious place. I was completely unprepared for this when I came from suburbia. In suburbia, congregants may be more interested in children and dogs and cabbage patches. In the inner city, malice and power plays may be the order of the day — sometimes by rich and influential people. This may profoundly influence the Church as a whole. Marcus Aurelius said: “What is good for the hive is good for the bee.” One cannot afford to let a good hive suffer because of a few malicious bees. The Church needs to be a haven of goodness in the midst of the world. If a compassionate approach does not work with troublesome people, then one needs to be direct, decisive, and resolute — and if necessary, deal with them directly in public. This is vital for the happiness of the Body, and it is a clear emphasis of the New Testament.

8. LIE LOW. The inner city can be a truly dangerous place. I myself have been professionally framed, and found myself for a time on the inside of a nightmarish plot. Andrew Davey writes: “Issues of justice and human rights must be tackled.” (Davey 2002:4). However, I believe that this assumes a “background” of justice, which is often lacking. In many situations, one may need to adopt the attitude of the prophet Amos: “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:13). Christ said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). A minister needs to “live to play another day” — and besides, evil may have become an all-encompassing flood. The calling is a spiritual one. One needs to walk and witness gently, wisely, and patiently. This does not mean the abdication of responsibility. One can be a strong support to those who decide to tackle issues of justice themselves — and of course one should keep open the possibility of a call to be prophetic.

One of the largest unsolved challenges of our own Church lies in the large number of refugees or displaced persons entering our area, and this is likely to be the case in many parts of the world. Our government puts refugees at about 2% of the national population. However, I have read an unofficial statistic of 18%. Many refugees seek out the Church. They have just arrived in a strange land, sometimes having lost everything. They may be hedged in by corruption and violence, and don’t know where to turn. How is a Church, which itself has meagre resources, to minister to such a situation?

It also remains to be seen what long-term effects the significant shifts in our congregation are to have. In particular, I am mindful that our “old-timers” have witnessed a great deal of change, which could hardly have been imagined a generation ago. Perhaps I would say that I am surprised at their good will.

While the above is by far not a complete account of how we have dealt with various challenges — I have hardly touched on finances, or missions, or crime and violence, and more — it does highlight features which I believe to have been central to a viable and vibrant urban Church. Our Church can claim a fair measure of “success”. While adapting to sweeping changes over the past thirteen years, it has increased about one-third in size, if not more — while many Churches in the area (called the Atlantic Area) have either declined or closed.


– Bakke, Ray. A Theology As Big As The City. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
– Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Church In The Dark Ages. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1959.
– Davey, Andrew. Urban Christianity and Global Order: Theological Resources for an Urban Future. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.


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